Interview: The Team Behind Paper Mario: Sticker Star

We speak to the team behind the biggest 3DS title this Christmas

The dust has barely settled on our Paper Mario: Stick Star review, but we're far from finished with Mario's latest handheld outing. Prior to launch we were lucky enough to speak with director Mr Naohiko Aoyama (Intelligent Systems), director and scenario writer Mr Taro Kudo (Vanpool) and producer Mr Kensuke Tanabe (Nintendo Co., Ltd) about the 3DS RPG.

Nintendo Life: The Paper Mario series has featured three games before now on Nintendo 64, GameCube and Wii. For those that haven’t experienced the series so far, can you summarise its approach to Mario as a character, and broadly outline the experience that Nintendo aims to provide with the franchise?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: We decided to go with this paper look that we use now when we were creating the Nintendo 64 version. We wanted to clearly differentiate the game from the Mario platform games which Mr Miyamoto is in charge of. We also wanted to offer users a different kind of experience, something that isn't an action game.

Paper Mario is a series that gives a greater voice and personality to the Mario universe, with the titles often praised for their comedic and light-hearted qualities. Can you share your views on this, and whether it’s a priority to imbue these games with that character against the backdrop of the big-selling platform Mario titles?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: The Paper Mario series started when we introduced RPG elements as a means of differentiating the game from the platformer series. Through the inclusion of this story and the characters we wrote to fit that story, we ended up giving the game a unique character. However, for Sticker Star, Mr Miyamoto asked us to create a game using only characters already found in the Mario world rather and not any of our own. So instead of focusing our attention on the story
or characters we focused instead on paper. We tried to add as many creative uses of paper as we could to the game. The theme of the game is stickers and we also put a lot of effort into this (including paperisation). Creating a world and story using only Mario characters meant for example we had to give each Toad a distinctive character even if they looked the same. So it was quite a challenge but I feel that we succeeded in overcoming it.

Mr Naohiko Aoyama: There are no original characters in this title like the ones which appeared in previous games in the Paper Mario series. However, we have all the Mario characters everyone knows and loves and I think we've managed to pack the game with a wealth of ideas like what we are doing with paper and the entertaining dialogue. In doing so I think we have created a Paper Mario world which the player will feel part of and enjoy.

Mr Taro Kudo: I think that we have created another humorous, bright and light-hearted game with Paper Mario Sticker Star. The story this time follows only Mario and the other characters from Mario’s world, but we have given each of the characters a distinct personality that the player will sense right away. Even Bowser and the other enemies. I believe that the “little guy” (Kersti calls Wiggler “little guy” in the game), in particular, has a more active role than Wigglers have in the past. In fact, I wouldn't be going too far if I said that Wiggler was as much as four times more active here than in previous games.

Still, the game’s certainly not aimed at children even with the comical aspects; we have also included cynical jokes that adults will understand, so I think that people of any age will be able to enjoy the game on many different levels. And we have included heaps of “paper jokes” which could only be done in Paper Mario. Together with the advancements in graphics recent games have tended to have a more realistic or serious tone. I think it’s important to have games like this with a cheerful and fun style.

Given that this is the first portable instalment of the Paper Mario series, what, if anything, did the team approach differently compared to the console versions?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: Personally speaking, I am always thinking of ways in which we could make the best use of the actual hardware, rather than just focusing on whether it is a handheld or a home console. We went for the handheld this time because the visual style of the Paper Mario series is especially well-suited to the 3D effect made possible by the Nintendo 3DS system.

While Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door adhered to fairly traditional RPG tropes, with Super Paper Mario on Wii perhaps being more of a platformer with RPG elements, what direction or style do you feel is most representative of Paper Mario: Sticker Star?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: When you think of RPGs, you think of the traditional game style where the user gains experience points and levels up. In Sticker Star we did our very best to create an adventure game filled with battles completely unrelated to experience points and level ups. We are calling the genre “Sticker Battle Adventure”.

When making this game were you primarily inspired by previous Paper Mario games, or did you also draw particular ideas from the Mario & Luigi handheld games?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: We tried to move away from the old Paper Mario series and establish a game with its own unique battle system instead. Although we tried to keep the part of the Mario & Luigi battle system which emphasises well-timed button presses, we didn't really draw any ideas or inspiration from those games.

Mr Taro Kudo: This is the first time I've been fully involved on a Paper Mario game and seeing as none of the characters from those games will appear in this title I specifically decided not to bring in elements from previous Paper Mario games. However, I did work on the SNES Super Mario RPG and I wrote a lot of Toad dialogue for it, so I think that some of the essence of that project must have found its way naturally into Sticker Star.

With this title adopting a goal-orientated style with fixed levels, rather than an open-world structure, can you share the reasoning behind that design choice? Also, is this the same throughout the game or is there a large open-world map akin to Rogueport in The Thousand Year Door?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: My personal reason for choosing the fixed level style was to make it easy for you to stop playing at any time. This way if you haven’t played for a while and have forgotten where you were you can have a quick look at the map and see straight away how far you got through the game. It also makes it easier to remember what was where. The simple fact that it is a Mario game also makes this kind of fixed level style a possibility. And although there is no large open-world map as such, I believe that the player will feel like there is an open-world structure to the game since actions in one level become the key to solving puzzles in others.

Mr Naohiko Aoyama: Since this is a handheld game, I wanted to create a game where the structure would allow the user to pick up or put down the game whenever they wanted without any worries. We ended up using the same world-map structure used in the Mario series, in which paths connect each of the courses to each other. However, after the start of the game you are free to choose the course you want. You don’t have to play through the game in order starting with World 1 and then moving to World 2, etc.

If the levels are perhaps tailored to accommodate shorter levels for a handheld experience, can you clarify the potential length of the campaign for an average player? Will it still be a lengthy adventure, or is it catered for an audience perhaps seeking a shorter overall play time?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: Each course isn't that long by itself, but I would imagine that it would take 30 to 40 hours to clear the whole game. So I wouldn't say it’s a particularly short game.

Previous Mario RPG titles featured partners or sidekicks that teamed up with Mario throughout his adventure, yet this game doesn't seem to follow that approach in the same way. How did the development team come to that decision? Were partners removed to focus more on the sticker aspect of the game?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: That’s right. As we were working on using stickers in battles and in puzzles the things you could do often seemed to conflict with the use of partners. For Sticker Star we decided to prioritise the sticker theme and so remove the partners.

Can you talk more about how stickers are used to grow Mario’s statistics and abilities in place of the experience points system from previous titles? Will players be able to choose certain stickers to tailor Mario’s abilities to their playing style?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: You can increase your maximum HP by completing events, but there is no real change to Mario’s abilities throughout the game. You will need to get more powerful stickers in order to fight stronger enemies. You will also need to understand the effects of each sticker and learn to use them against the right enemies so they are most effective. It’s hard to win boss battles in particular just by using up your stickers. You need to look for weak points and wait for the right time to use your most powerful stickers.

Mr Naohiko Aoyama: You can combine stickers to devise strategies for each battle. You will be able to carry more stickers the further you get in the game, which will help you to find lots of different stickers, learn how they work and find your own favourite combinations to win your battles.

Can you tell us more about stickers? Are they a one-time use item, or can some of them be used over and over?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: They can only be used once. However, if you press the button at the right time during a battle you can use the sticker to perform multiple attacks until it peels off from the screen.

With power-ups such as the Frog Suit and Kuribo’s Shoe, how many of the stickers are heavily influenced from Mario games of the past? Also, did the development team have any particular stickers that they were anxious to include from previous Mario games, perhaps to keep iconic power-ups alive?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: We started by deciding to create stickers for the most well-known things: jumps, hammers, mushrooms, flowers, POW blocks. It wouldn't have felt like a Mario game if these hadn't been included. We also worked hard with the “Thing Stickers”, the idea of turning objects into stickers. When we were choosing objects we had to think not only about what would look good visually when it was made into a sticker, but also how it could work in battles and as part of puzzles.

We've seen entertaining footage of some of the more powerful stickers in action, such as an enormous fan or a super-sized and hungry goat. Clearly humour is a big part of the series, and if possible can you each describe your favourite sticker from the game, or the one that makes you laugh the most?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: My favourite is the fan. It’s over the top and awe-inspiring. I think the artists have done a good job of making it feel ridiculous.

Mr Naohiko Aoyama: It’s hard to pick just one, but the baseball bat is definitely one of my favourites. The “Thing Stickers” have really fun animations. Some “Things” are hidden in some tricky places, but I hope you will be able to find them all and decide on your own favourite.

Mr Taro Kudo: The Turkey Thing Sticker plays this '80s old-school hip hop music that both me and the designer in charge of it love. If you have the same kind of tastes as me, then I'm sure you’ll find it hilarious. We were cracking up as we were working on it.

Will players have the opportunity to create or customise their own stickers?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: You can create stickers out of objects found in the game, but unfortunately we were not able to include any more freedom than that in terms of sticker creation.

If you could create a brand new sticker that’s not already in the game, what would it be?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: I think it would have been fun if users had been able to create stickers from the photos they have on their Nintendo 3DS.

Other than the use of stereoscopic 3D and it visual capabilities, can you explain the other ways that Paper Mario: Sticker Star is taking advantage of Nintendo 3DS technology?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: We really prioritised the stereoscopic 3D and wanted to make full use of it.

Will there be a way for players to swap stickers with local or online friends?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: Unfortunately we don’t have such a feature.

Will the Sticker Star story or characters be linked in any way to the previous Paper Mario RPGs, such as cameo appearances or references for fans to enjoy?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: As I mentioned earlier, none of our original characters from earlier games in the series will be making an appearance. Of course Luigi will be there since he is from Mario’s world. See if you can find him.

Mr Taro Kudo: The main story in Sticker Star doesn't have any links like this. However, there is a rumour that there is a letter hidden somewhere in the game that was written by one of the characters from an older game. Maybe you’ll be able to find it.

From what we've seen so far, Sticker Star appears to adhere to the tried and tested method of text delivery for dialogue. Considering the success of Kid Icarus: Uprising’s voice acting — and as it’s a major topic with Nintendo franchises in general — can you explain the reason for text-based dialogue, in terms of design principles and challenges?

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: For the development of Nintendo games we are often working right up to the last minute possible. Not only text, but lots of other things are often changed late into a project. But if we used voice acting then we wouldn't be able to make these changes to the text so flexibly at such a late stage. When we have to choose to prioritise either the voice acting or this flexibility, Nintendo will often choose the flexibility.

Are there any current plans or ideas in the team for the future of the Paper Mario series, either on 3DS again or perhaps on Wii U? We’re sure fans would love an example or two of concepts under consideration, or even ideas that you’d personally like to see come to fruition.

Mr Kensuke Tanabe: I am personally interested in making a new game in the series. However, I can’t give you any more details than that at this time.

We'd like to thank Mr Aoyama, Mr Kudo and Mr Tanabe for taking the time to speak with us.

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