Intelligent Systems’ unintelligent systems

Paper Mario Sticker Star header

Paper Mario: Sticker Star (3DS)
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Publisher: Nintendo
MSRP: $39.99

One poorly designed system can taint an entire product. Remember in the Playstation Store’s infancy when you had to withdraw money from your debut card to add to your virtual wallet because you were only allowed to purchase content from your wallet funds? This process transformed a simple action – buying something – into an inconvenience. I dreaded purchasing anything from the store, but the hassle didn’t outweigh the return. In Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the opposite rings true.

Sticker Star is one half platformer and another half a role-playing game. You control a paper-ized version of Mario around a cardboard Mushroom Kingdom, jumping around like you’d expect to. That stuff, while simple, is where the game shines. Once you smash a goomba with a mallet, bounce on a koopa, or run into a bob-bomb, the halfhearted role-playing elements, and more specifically the reward for beating these baddies, illuminate how unsuccessfully all of the mechanics interconnect.

Previous Paper Mario titles, minus the oddball Super Paper Mario, featured fairly complex customization options. Experience points were attained after defeating enemies in combat, leading to requisite level ups that let you permanently increase one of three stats for Mario: health, flower points, and badge points. Badge points were essential because the more Mario had, the more badges you could equip him with, imbuing him with extra abilities. Many badge abilities would use up flower points, and having more health in battle meant you had better odds surviving. All of these options, plus choosing a teammate, culminated in a highly rewarding experience.

Stripped of these systems, Sticker Star fails to reward your actions. After defeating your enemies, compensation is in the form of coins. If you’re already familiar with how Paper Mario plays, you’ll rack up hundreds upon hundreds of coins after the introductory world. They are primarily used for activating a slot machine at the beginning of battle. The more images you match, the more attacks you can use on your turn. So you spend coins to make combat easier and then you’re rewarded with coins, leaving an encounter with roughly the same amount of change you came in with. Where’s the incentive if there’s no reward?

The situation gets worse. Mario’s attacks are dictated by using disposable stickers. Once used, they disappear. Thematically, this concept is absolutely brilliant as you constantly manage your charming scrapbook full of a wide variety of stickers, saving your sparkly (therefore better) stickers for bigger threats. In execution, these one-time-use stickers, coupled with a combat system that doesn’t reward you, destroys every ounce of personal progress this game could have; you always come out with less than what you started with. You’ll occasionally be rewarded with a unique sticker that you can’t purchase, but the infrequency at which this occurs offsets the potential benefit of engaging in battle. The game is aware of this too, as it tries to counteract the issue by placing stickers everywhere. A “quick-fix” like that only serves to perpetuate the problem.

One small change is all it would have taken to turn it all around – another use for coins that makes you want to have as many as possible. I kept waiting for this feature to emerge because it seemed like the natural extension of the systems in place. That one seemingly inconsequential design oversight taints the entire experience.

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