Paper Mario Sticker Star screenshot 1
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. On the 10th anniversary of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Kate throws a very grumpy birthday party for a 3DS game she found pretty disappointing...

There is a good game hidden inside Paper Mario: Sticker Star. Unfortunately, it's not what you'll end up playing when you boot up this 2D misstep on your 3DS, but if there's one thing that us Paper Mario fans have learned over the years, it's to try and find the positives. Even when those positives are hidden deep, deep down under a pile of stickers.

The Paper Mario games are always beautiful. Let's start with that. Sticker Star is beautiful, too, with some fantastic shader work on the holographic stickers that you find in-game, which reflect the light as you tilt your 3DS around. The colours are bright and vibrant, and the paper effects are novel, creative, and animated beautifully. Buildings unfold like pop-up books, Mario peels Toads from walls with a fair bit of gusto, and the Super Mario-like overworld map reveals new areas by tearing out paths, like one of those perforated bits of card that you can remove to open a package. It's all gorgeous stuff.

The Paper Mario games are always funny, too. The witty writing that propelled the series to fame in the first place has never gone away, even if it has wavered at times, and Sticker Star has it in spades. It's always a pleasure to find that Paper Bowser is much more of a stooge than his 3D counterpart, and although there are tooooooo many Toads — a common problem in recent Mario games — they do have some of the best one-off jokes.

Plus, the main mechanic of this game — which was stickers, in case you didn't already know — was a neat idea. There are only so many things that paper can do, and by now, Intelligent Systems must have tried them all, from paper airplanes and boats to colouring books and origami, so it's impressive that they are still finding new ideas and building entire games around them.

As a result, just the concept of "Paper Mario, with stickers" is enough to get die-hard Paper Mario fans frothing at the mouth. Think of all the interesting game mechanics that stickers could provide! Customisable Mario outfits, building your own loadout by sticking things onto a trading card-style interface, solving puzzles by sticking props in the right place... but, of course, none of that happened.

Instead, we got Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

Paper Mario Sticker Star screenshot 3
Image: Nintendo

The problem with Sticker Star is, sadly, the stickers. In theory, the sticker-based combat system was alright — find or buy attack stickers in the world, then use them against enemies. That's pretty good! But the enemies were too weak, and stickers too limited, hard-to-find, or expensive, so combat ended up feeling massively repetitive, because it made more sense to buy up all the basic Jump and Hammer stickers and just get fights over with.

But to make it worse, Intelligent Systems came up with a frankly baffling idea: Things. Things were big stickers that took up most of a page in Paper Mario's small sticker book, and each one could be used in battle, or saved for specific circumstances. They're hard to find, expensive to buy, and unwieldy to carry around, but the fun part is that some of them are required to progress, and you have no idea which one!

Every boss battle and some overworld map progress requires one of these Thing stickers, and the game seems to think it's cute to leave very few clues about which one you'll need, or where to find it. It's like playing a game of Pin The Tail On The Donkey, except it's possible to accidentally pick up a potato or a handful of live bees instead of the pin, and also the potato and the bees cost you a lot of money and you don't want to waste them, and also if you want to get them back (because the next game is called Pin The Live Bees On The Potato), you have to find where you got them from originally, and pay more money. And you still haven't figured out where the original Tail for the Donkey is.

The fact that you can use these stupid Thing stickers in any old random Goomba battle is absurd. You don't even know how valuable and rare these things are at first, so if you ever think that you can't be bothered with yet another Goomba fight, you might decide to use the Scissors Sticker to end it in a flash... only to find out later that the Scissors are very important for a later boss battle that's impossible to win without them. Imagine if Zelda let you throw Bottles and Door Keys at enemies, or use the Master Sword to clean your toenails. That's what this is like.

But why does a game that's pretty, smart, and creative get so much hate just for its combat? Well, if our hopes weren't so high for the Paper Mario series, Sticker Star might just be another not-so-great 3DS game, and lord knows there were plenty of those. But Paper Mario has had such brilliant, exemplary heights that it's impossible not to see how far it's fallen, and it's confusing to see the studio that pioneered those heights in the first place continue to miss.

It's not even fun to make fun of Sticker Star. It just feels sad, like laughing at a kid who just dropped their ice cream. Now I'm sad.