Gameology 12 - Case Study: Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Show Notes:

Attila tears into Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

Paper Mario: Sticker Star

Extended Thoughts

As much as I loved the first two Paper Mario games (the original and The Thousand Year Door) I feel as though I was at odds with the very principle of Paper Mario: Sticker Star. I believe however, that this was beyond a matter of personal preference, that there are some fundamentally broken (even paradoxical) mechanics in this game. I believe that it might be helpful to analyze exactly what went wrong, seeing how the various mechanics involved in the game's combat system operate in opposition to one another, instead of coalescing. Throughout the game, you collect 3D items that you can flatten into Stickers and then use as special items in Combat. Even your basic jump and hammer attacks appear in the environment as ready-to-use Stickers. And here's the crux of the issue; all your basic and special attacks are competing for space in the limited number of pages that make up your Sticker Book. Let's walk through the specifics:

  1. You can't use the powerful 3D items you find until make your way back to a specific place in Toad Town where you perform the Sticker conversion (get ready for a lot of back-tracking).
  2. Converted Stickers are tailor made to deal crazy amounts of damage to specific boss enemies, and it would be a complete waste to use them against anything less. They also require no input from the player to use them, no execution challenge or "Action Command" as the game calls it.
  3. Converted Stickers take up a huge amount of space in your inventory so there's no way you can convert them all and still have enough space to take on regular enemies.
  4. The specific items you need in boss encounters only become obvious when the fight starts.

So there's the critical flaw. You basically have to resign yourself to death the first time you encounter a boss, then go all the way back to Toad Town, then all the way back through the Boss's level, and then use the one item without which you are in for an unfairly difficult fight.

I'm not entirely sure if there's much to be done in making the inventory-based combat as it is presented in the game any better. There are a number of overlapping systems which make the game so fundamentally flawed that I would rather start from scratch if I wanted to make a combat system that was as engaging and fun as the traditional action-RPG battle system the series adhered to in its first two iterations. The most simple surface-level solution would simply be to give the player no limit on their inventory space, but at best this just cuts the difficulty of the game as every instant-win item is just somewhere in that list and all you need to do is pick it. I came up with a few other fixes, but as I said, none of these really make the game great, perhaps just a little better:

  1. Make it so that no single item is a must-have, instant-kill for any boss. Perhaps late-game items can instant-kill early-to-mid-game enemies at best.
  2. Have a number of different items which have varying degrees of effectiveness against your enemy, but exactly how much the item lives up to its potential damage is determined by an execution challenge, like your basic attacks in Paper Mario. The more damage a potential item is going to deal, the more difficult it is to pull off.
  3. Couple this with an ability like Tattle from previous Paper Mario games to highlight what an enemy is weak against, and make the player responsible for retaining that information. Maybe this ability itself is an item, one which the player can naturally carry less of as they memorize the weaknesses of enemies.

As if this weren't bad enough, I even discovered a "First-Order-Optimal Strategy" which I used to blaze through the majority of the game. Simply put, a "F.O.O. Strategy" is one which requires a minimal amount of input with a high return for the player. In practical terms, I found a sticker which I could use to win every fight in the game with on my first turn, bypassing all combat; the Koopa Shell (and later the Red Koopa Shell). By using the Shell on the first turn, I could pretty well instant-kill every enemy in a given encounter. Between the Coin Bonus I received from winning the battle in one turn and the coins dropped by the defeated enemy, I was earning more than enough coins to buy all the Koopa Shells I needed to coast through every encounter. I'll admit that using this exploit would detract from any fun the game might have had to offer, but I already wasn't having fun, so rather than give up on the game entirely, I used this F.O.O. strategy to get to the end at least once.