NOTE: This is an opinion article. Thanks to Soma and SmashChu for edits.
The Nintendo brand carries incredible power. Its titles are often a captivating mix of gameplay and aesthetics, which has resulted in a strong loyalty from its fans. These people do recognize that the company is not flawless; they accept that Nintendo has released games that were mediocre, unimaginative, or even cheap. But there are times when a game will strain even this unyielding loyalty, for any number of reasons. It can come from mechanics or story; regardless of what it is, some specific works just send fans into a rage. Alternatively, many games simply fall through the cracks and fail to capture players’ imaginations.
I find these reactions fascinating, which is why I’m starting a new series here at Source Gaming: “the Forgotten, the Maligned.” It’ll take a critical look at a few of Nintendo’s more notorious or obscure games. Hopefully, understanding them better can give us an idea of why fans responded in a negative way, as well as the odd intersection of work, player, and publisher. If it continues, we may look also at certain third party titles on or exclusive to Nintendo systems, or those from series included in Super Smash Bros.
Paper Mario: Sticker Star quickly became one of these games; it touched a nerve right when it was released in 2012. Since 2000’s Paper Mario – a charming role-playing Mario game based around a visual motif where its inhabitants are constructed from paper – came out on the Nintendo 64, it and its sequel, Paper Mario: the Thousand-Year Door, have garnered respect and love for both the iconic plumber and the game’s developer, Fire Emblem creator Intelligent Systems. But the fourth game in the series, the Nintendo 3DS entry Sticker Star, remains noticeably controversial.
It is important to remember that this opinion of the game is not definitive. The title received a respectable 36/40 score in Famitsu, has a Metacritic score of 75, and at 2.2 million copies sold was certainly no flop. Critics were positive, complimenting its aesthetics while criticizing its story. Reviews were more negative than prior Paper Mario games, but not by much. By contrast, the user score is markedly lower, with a number of vitriolic, 0-score reviews. This isn’t surprising; reviews that run in extremes are a hallmark of fan reaction. But there’s a noticeable sense of betrayal in the tone of the reviews there and among fans in general, that Nintendo’s game was less bad as art and entertainment than it was offensive to series fans.
The story in Sticker Star is a generic mishmash of all the old chestnuts of Mario games: a royal kidnapping, the Mushroom Kingdom falling into pieces, and a set of magical objects pleading to be found. But the story around Sticker Star is what became notorious. Development started in 2009, two years after the release of Super Paper Mario. The third game, released for the Wii, was divisive among fans and critics, with much of the focus on a plot that could tactfully be described as “overwritten.” In a survey exclusive to Japanese players through the loyalty program Club Nintendo, “not even 1%” found the story interesting. Mario creator and gaming guru Shigeru Miyamoto advised Intelligent Systems to jettison all but the most bereft of narrative – along with any original characters or enemies – instead emphasizing gameplay and digestible levels à la traditional Mario games. The result was what some fans uncharitably (though not inaccurately) dubbed “New Super Mario Bros.: the RPG,” after Nintendo’s conservative side-scrolling Mario sequels.
Now, Super Paper Mario was by no means perfect. Its dialogue was sharp, but in service to a woefully overwritten plot. It often reused mechanics in a way that was rote instead of expansive, and its core gameplay, a mixture of platforming and RPG tropes, never managed to hit the highs of either genre. While Sticker Star’s response may not have been necessary, the next Paper Mario would have to curtail these excesses. And there’s nothing wrong with making a radically different sequel. So long as it compensates, a Paper Mario games doesn’t necessarily need fun partners based on longtime enemies or eccentric, loony villains…right?
However, many fans found fault with Miyamoto’s approach. They were upset that Japanese fans’ attitudes held so much sway over development (especially since the series has sold better overseas; Sticker Star was even released in the U.S. a month ahead). They were frustrated he discouraged a strong story for a genre that has a strong focus on storytelling. While Miyamoto’s instincts have kept Mario from falling into the myriad of poor decisions that have characterized former rival Sonic the Hedgehog (a fetish for overwrought sagas among them), his minimalist narratives are less effective in a game that’s more methodical. Certainly the levels – stock forms of “grass world,” “ice world,” and “desert world” – aren’t so radical as to be gripping on their own. It’s vexing since Paper Mario is one of the most respected of the many Mario spinoff series, with brilliant writing (aided by top-tier localization) and characters; axing them for the benefit of quick gameplay sessions is antithetical to its appeal.
While I’m not going to discuss the story (it hardly bears mentioning, with only a single major character to facilitate the new gameplay mechanic), the nadir of this approach comes from how it uses Bowser. Over the previous games, Paper Mario had evolved Mario’s archenemy into a boisterous figure of comedy and even pathos, complete with some truly inspired dialogue. In a way, he was an extension of how the series treated common Mario enemies like Goombas and Koopas, who were presented as more than cannon fodder. In Sticker Star, by contrast, the only NPCs are just nameless Toads, while the Koopa King barely appears and lacks dialogue or personality. The game’s version of Bowser could be seen, to an extent, as representative of how much it excised the series’ best qualities. While the other Paper and unaffiliated RPG games played with and deconstructed his role in the franchise, this took that role as-is. Bowser is the bad guy at the end of Mario adventures, therefore here he is the bad guy and nothing else.
Thankfully, Sticker Star fares better and more interesting in its gameplay, and it’s most unique in how it uses its stickers. The game treats them like ammunition in a shooter, where Mario can only perform actions from a limited inventory. Fortunately, the Mushroom Kingdom has so many stickers on random surfaces, in blocks, and sold in shops that the biggest restriction comes from your “book” of stickers filling up before you find what you need. While fans felt the mechanic unwieldy or cumbersome, during my playthrough I found it to often add an enjoyable twist of difficulty; it gave the combat a juice it otherwise lacked. Outside of battle, stickers are regularly used to solve puzzles or just get small bonuses (which often consist simply of rarer, stronger versions). In theory, it’s an appealing way to mix up RPG combat, devalue hoarding, and justify exploration.
In stark contrast to most Role-Playing Games, Sticker Star has no system to measure experience of any kind. The only demarcations that Mario has for becoming stronger come from three areas: the inventory which increases for each boss defeated, health which improves via hearts found in hidden areas, and the stickers themselves – stronger ones are easier to get later. The only thing you get from battles is money, and the only possible use for money is to buy stickers (which, again, can be found in levels). So battles mostly exist to keep this circular system going, not recognizing that players are less invested in throwing themselves into fights without an assumed reward. Combat is treated as a chore, and players inevitably responded in kind.
It’s the kind of game that lends itself to guides, not because it’s a complex world filled with diverse experiences, but because it is extremely poor at guiding the player. Some items can be fashioned into the rarest and most expensive of stickers, used for solving puzzles, destroying enemies en masse, and crippling otherwise all but impossible bosses. But while some puzzles work logically or allow multiple solutions, many are confusing, and the game gives no clues before the level starts. And since required stickers take up a lot of space, the game demands an irritating amount of trial, error, and backtracking as you keep returning to slap each one on the screen for the result. It also saves the worst for last; the final fight with Bowser has so many phases, each with a unique weakness that isn’t hinted at beforehand, that quitting feels almost heroic. It’s actively off-putting, even to people invested in Paper Mario.
Levels generally follow the Mario standard, based around a single major gimmick or set piece that is played with for the duration. Many of them are visually dynamic, getting a ton out of the series’ most satisfying use of its arts and crafts style to date. While each world is disappointingly typical for the franchise – no photo negative forests or M.C. Escher landscapes here – a few levels, particularly in the forest and snow worlds, do play with their tropes in imaginative ways. An onerous haunted mansion in the latter, for instance, is a rare mixture of environment types which are infrequently seen together.
Mario games often thrive on details and Sticker Star doesn’t skimp on them, which gives its levels a strong tangibility. Most levels have secret doors (accessible with a sticker, natch), and a myriad of interactable objects. Along with contemporaries Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon and Pikmin 3, it makes great use out of this lived-in feel used by many Nintendo works from the early GameCube period. A couple levels in particular bring back the sense of delightful anarchy from prior Paper Mario games, most memorably one in which Mario is pressed into a Whack-a-Mole style game show by a gang of Snifits. And its soundtrack is an absolute delight, with an exuberant, jazzy kick. Had it been designed as a sort of puzzle/adventure hybrid instead of a straight RPG, its strengths would greatly outshine its deficits. Fans would likely have still disliked its differences, but it’d feel more fully-formed.
What’s most interesting about Sticker Star to me is how thoroughly it became this symbol of betrayal. Though it’s weaker in many respects, I think the negativity it accrued has less to do with the game itself and more because of the elephants in the room: Paper Mario and Thousand-Year Door. The first two games are remarkable for how well they “got” the style’s premise; the first told a classic Mario narrative expanded in a satisfying way, and the second played with the tropes of the franchise to remarkable effect. Their gameplay was accessible yet deep; their worlds felt satisfyingly contiguous. That quality may have inadvertently hurt the series in the long run; regardless of any narrative or gameplay tics, they were so well made as to have little area to really improve. How do you follow up something that doesn’t need it?
That concern – a neuroses over aping earlier successes – led to Super and Sticker Star. Most fans would have no problem with a sequel that was like Thousand-Year Door, but that’s not what Paper Mario needed; the charming zaniness it pushed would have been stifled. That’s what’s frustrating about Sticker Star; its differences from its predecessors aren’t radical but tired. Had it tried to be just a sequel, it would have been unimaginative but potentially better. Had it tried to be more focused in its changes, it would have still been divisive but potentially better. As it is, though, it’s unsure of what it needs – or even wants – to be.
Despite the game’s commercial success, the lack of confidence that characterized Sticker Star still shines through. Mario & Luigi: Paper Jam, released less than a week ago in the U.S. at time of publication, is a crossover between the plumber’s two RPG subseries: Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi. The latter has no games as notorious as Sticker Star (though, neither has it hit Paper’s highs in iconography). It has also become steadily less compelling since it debuted, replaying tired jokes and mechanics ad nauseum. Early reviews give the sense that developer (and Mario & Luigi creator) AlphaDream is struggling to interrogate what makes these games work without really understanding them. It’s dispiriting that both series, which happily sent Mario to unique territories, seem less confident, innovative, or cohesive than ever.
I suspect fans were upset over Sticker Star less because of its issues and more from a resignation that the series is losing its spark. In 2004, when Thousand-Year Door came out, Mario games were in a weird place; most were sports spinoffs, and the era’s defining platformer was the divisive Super Mario Sunshine. Players responded to the RPG because it was good, but especially because it was confident, biting, and imaginative at a time when Mario seemed unsure of himself. Since then, though, the RPGs themselves have fallen into the same kind of rut the mainline Mario games were in then, fitfully experimental but mostly unimaginative. The vitriol to Sticker Star might inadvertently stem from a fear that the series has lost its way, and a hope that it might be able to get its energy back. I suspect that’s true for many games like it.