It’s about time there was a new Paper Mario game! This is the first one on a handheld, and fans will be pleased to know that it retains the cartoonish art style and the quirky sense of humour of the rest of the games. So it should. It wouldn’t be Paper Mario without it.
The game plays out with 2D characters in 3D landscapes, everything staying flat unlike Super Paper Mario where you could rotate the levels. I don’t miss that feature, but playing without it does make finding secret areas a bit of a pain, and often the result of an accidental push of the gamepad in the wrong direction. The biggest point of this game though is the stickers – they are the be all and end all. The first city is called Decalburg, there’s a Sticker Star festival that Bowser ruins in typical style, your helpful assistant is called Kersti and you’ve got to run around retrieving the six Royal Stickers that Bowser’s interference scattered to the wind… Yes, the plot is rather paper-thin.
The important thing is the stickers. Stickers, stickers, and more stickers are everywhere. Literally everywhere – on walls, in blocks, in the background, on the floor, behind things, in front of things, created from things, in frames in a museum… Stickers are everything in this game because you cannot do anything without them. They change the environment, allowing you to progress and they are also your attacks. At the beginning of each turn (the game keeps the turn-based battle system), you can choose a sticker to use, whether that’s a shell, a hammer or a classic jump attack. Time your button-presses well, as we’ve come to expect from Paper Mario, and you’re rewarded with a stronger attack that might make all the difference.
You need to learn very quickly how to manage your sticker supplies before you waste the good ‘shinies’ on some crappy goomba. It’s a little frustrating in this way at first, only increased when you see that they’ve taken out the levelling-up system. Mario has no powers of his own, so he doesn’t really need to ‘level up’ in a way. It’s a shame because you really feel the absence of those RPG elements if you’re a Paper Mario fan; they were one of the most satisfying aspects of the series’ gameplay. Replacing these elements with sticker upgrades isn’t quite the same because Mario himself doesn’t feel like Mario, he just feels like a collector endless admiring his stickers. At the beginning of a turn, he’ll stand there staring obsessively at his album while you decide which sticker to use.
Even so, Intelligent Systems have gained something creatively. The idea of a world made entirely of paper is taken further – you can ‘paperize’ the environment, as in turn it flat so you can stick stickers onto it, meaning that you can create bridges in certain areas. You can also turn objects into stickers, the earliest example being a fan which you can use in battle, or use in the environment to get a windmill turning. It’s clever, creative and often hilarious, especially when you see what a giant goat can do for the first time. Such overpowered attacks however are one-time use and you’ll need to backtrack to other areas to grab the items again. You’ll probably be doing that a lot, and then effing and blinding because there’s no room in your album to keep the good stuff.
There’s a lack of signposting in the game which I think is a good thing because it really makes you think about how the game world works, but younger players may get easily frustrated because it’s not always clear what to do next. It sounds silly, but it’s not always immediately apparent that you need to bash a paper tree with your hammer to turn it into a bridge, or that you can go behind that batch of crates to get to a hidden area. Solving these puzzles and nailing this crazy kind of logic (something in the way? Well peel it off!) is really fun and satisfying. In this way, the world map system works well, allowing you to easily return to places because you’ll be obsessively collecting stickers like a primary school child to fill up the museum in town. Got, got, got, got, need, got, got.
I can’t help but feel like something’s missing from this game, like it needs one more page to make it complete. It has all the elements of a Paper Mario game, but it’s not as satisfying as the previous ones. The story isn’t as entertaining and it doesn’t have quite the same flashes of brilliance – it’s hard to come close to the moment in The Thousand Year Door where you first took control of a kidnapped Princess Peach, though. It’s still shiny, still funny, still fun but it doesn’t have the same kind of magic to it. At least it still looks and plays like Paper Mario, even if it does feel a bit flat.