Played Sticker Star

Posted by JoshDreamland on Nov. 22, 2015, 10:03 a.m.

I haven't made a game in years, and what's sadder is that until recently, I hadn't played one in years, either. I do play some Terraria from time to time, but since it's more of a multi-player game, and coordinating with people becomes harder as you become older, I just haven't played much. A long flight to California last month, however, finally prompted me to open my 3DS and start playing Paper Mario: Sticker Star.

I actually had three games at my disposal, including Sticker Star. It happens, though, that playing on this tiny fucking 3DS is actually a really huge barrier to my enjoyment of a game, and so I typically don't play for very long, if I can bring myself to start playing at all. Last year, I brought Kirby Mass Attack along for the flight. It was another one of those DS games that tries to involve the touch screen—mankind's most awkward control interface—simply because it's available.

Make no mistake: I LOVED Canvas Curse. The game was new, engaging, and just plain fun. It wasn't a conventional Kirby game, by any means, but it stuck to Kirby closely enough to be a Kirby game, and it had all the makings of a great game. Contrast this with, say, Epic Yarn. I don't know what went wrong at Nintendo HQ. It wasn't originally a Kirby game, and it never became one. The graphics were beautiful; the animation was stellar, and at 60fps, it was a sight to behold. But the gameplay was lame. The challenge was missing. You can't die; the worst that happens is you get the bronze medal of shame at the end of the level, which bugs me just enough to make me replay it until I'm sick of the game. I never completed either game, actually (Mass Attack or Epic Yarn). I may eventually complete Yarn, but only because it's on the big screen….

Mario games, similar offenses. Theme after theme of lame "twist" on what is otherwise the same old shit. New Super Mario Bros U was okay… New Super Mario Bros was okay, except it was on the little screen. The mini mushroom was cool, the mega mushroom was cool (one of my favorite parts of The Thousand Year Door / Super Paper Mario)… both games had their points. I can't remember ONE thing about Mario 3D land that was new. Oh, except the 3D. The forced perspective bullshit that makes you turn on the 3D display or guess. That was new. Problem is, that shit fucks with my eyes; thanks for making it mandatory. I already hated your 240p fucking display, and then you did THAT shit. God.

Anyway, getting on the plane this time, I decided I should go with Sticker Star, because at very least, an RPG should be a little engaging. Keep me interested throughout the flight. Right? If you've played Sticker Star, you're either crying right now, or you're twelve.

As far as RPG makings go… well, the game had text in it. The first problem was that the text it did include was all painfully "hip" garbage that could be ignored without losing anything. I don't think there was a single paragraph of text in the entire game that added ANYTHING to the story, in way of plot or depth of story. Okay, so there was this one house in Decalburg in which you could unlock painting + message combinations that had some kind of emotion in them. That was it, though. Apart from that, I may as well have played the Japanese version. I'd have enjoyed it more, because my mind would have invented something of substance that was happening elsewhere in the game. Or at least I'd have assumed there was something charming or endearing about the story. But no… like every recent Nintendo title, the plot was deep to the extent that I could roll in a puddle of it without getting wet.

So, we're missing a plot; let's talk about gameplay.

The first thing you'll notice playing this game is that everything requires stickers. Mario is unable to defend himself in any way, short of a half-ass block that cuts damage in half, without using a sticker. Stickers can only be used once, and with rare exception, their effects last one turn. We'll get into exceptions in a minute, because this game's mechanics are actually fueled by odd, quirky exceptions that feel like taped-on afterthoughts. But right now, we're talking about the basic game mechanics, and that means you need a sticker to do anything at all.

Stickers replace badges in this installment of the series. Super Paper Mario had no badges or turn-based fighting, and it was still more of a Paper Mario game than this, so I'm not going to really rail on that fact… except, as I started to mention, stickers also replace your basic ability to jump on an enemy or swing your fucking hammer on your own. You need "sticker power" to do anything at all in a battle but run. It's a good thing wiping your ass isn't part of the typical Mario mechanic, because it'd probably require a stupid-rare sticker to do so, and consequently you'd frequently find yourself walking around with your ass hopelessly encrusted in shit. Rest assured, this would only marginally reduce the overall pleasantness of walking in this game, which may be the slowest that Mario has ever walked in any game when not in water or outer space. Any slower and he'd be moonwalking, essentially, and there's no spin or any other speedy transport in this game.

The button that would logically have been for spin instead summons one of the most aggravating video game characters of all time to provide minimal useless "advice" about your current level or situation. These include "boy, it's hot in here" or "this would be a lovely view, if not for the poison." The rest of it is snappy Nintendo-hip drivel I didn't bother committing to memory. Some of it's downright insulting. None of it is remotely useful.

So, mechanic-wise, not the best start. So we're lacking in plot and we're lacking in basic mechanics. But hey, as I learned from that Halloween competition last year, global game mechanics are less than half the battle. The important part is what you do to make each level unique. So, what does Sticker Star do, there?

Let's start with the places it does really well. Each level has it's own thing that you must do or problem you must address to make the level beatable. Some of these are literally "things"—3D objects placed randomly in the game that are specifically called "things," which can be redeemed for stickers called "thing stickers." These include household shit they found models for, such as vacuum cleaners, faucets, fans, …a fucking cat statue that ostensibly once held cashews. It's gimmicky, but it's fine. I believe it adds to the game.

Anyway, beating levels. Usually the trick to a level is peeling off bowser tape stickers in a few locations, or tracking down and placing either "thing stickers" or pieces of the level's scenery that have been ripped out, crumpled up, and hidden somewhere. The difficulty of this varies enormously, but it's a decent game dynamic, apart from how annoying it is to place stickers and level scraps. The sticking process is a little childish and drawn out for my liking, is all. The upshot is, each level has a lot of variety. Now, let's talk about how quickly that goes bad, and then about how generally shitty all the other unique components of this game are.

I mentioned that beating some levels require placing thing stickers. I also mentioned that the task of tracking these down varies in scale. Let's look at the start of the game. You find yourself in Decalburg, the main town in the game. After making your way out of the city to the map, you are faced with a choice of four levels. Three of these are impassable, with only one visibly requiring something you don't have (ostensibly a thing sticker). It's not clear immediately what that something is, but it's clear you don't have it. This imparts a false sense of nonlinearity (the idea that you can beat these levels in the order of your choosing), when in fact, the game's about as sequenced as they come. It's only slightly more strongly sequenced than, say, Super Mario Sunshine. Imagine Sunshine only you have to beat Shadow Mario (ie, course 7 of 8) before unlocking the next stage, and you need to clear all eight objectives in every world before Corona Mountain unlocks. Yeah, it's pretty linear, but gives a false sense of nonlinearity that causes major confusion early in the game. I wasn't sure what levels I was able to beat, because finding a way to get the stupid bridge piece in 1-1 seemed just as inconceivable as finding the fucking stickers I needed in 2-1 or 3-1.

Fast forward a couple levels. The confusion hasn't cleared. What could be needed to get past 3-1? It's a big sticker spot. Maybe I need to blow my problem away with the fan from that gusty meadow? Maybe I need to vacuum it up like the garbage it is? No, nothing like that. If you play through the entire first world, you'll understand… otherwise, you'll be as lost as ever. And if you stick the wrong sticker in that spot, it will gray out and fall into oblivion, which is a horrendous waste of a special sticker. Toward the beginning of the game, thing stickers seem precious. Why? Because the game offers no kind of tutorial to explain that they're relatively easy to replace.

In fact, this game has no tutorial at all. It employs the most complicated action commands of any game in the franchise, and the way you can learn the action commands is nearly impossible to discover. Perhaps this was covered in the manual that no one reads. It took me quite a while to figure out that "things" come back, only after you use or sell their sticker, and it took me even longer to figure out how to properly use the action commands for hammer-like stickers. If you miss the command, you typically deal one damage point, or sometimes half damage, in what seems like random noise to a new player. In essence, the game lacks any tutorial structure or directional structure, and it punishes the fuck out of you for it. So let's talk about the rewards!

In addition to arbitrary sticker requirements to get through certain levels, like the 3-1 "thing sticker" eater, Boss fights have arbitrary sticker requirements. At least I think they all do; for all I know, some of them are nothing more than frustrating-as-fuck wastes of stickers. The first boss battle in the game (a giant, sparkly goomba) may have a hidden winning sticker, but I never found it. After I kicked the thing's ass with what I had on hand, the cunt advice/guide sticker I mentioned earlier ridiculed me for spending so many stickers on one fight. A quick wiki search just now reveals the answer:

"The key for beating it is waiting when the 16 Goombas Stickers appear and start to flip: at this moment, Mario should use the Fan sticker to make all the stickers but the corrupted one to collapse. After doing so it's like to battle an ordinary Goomba."

What. The FUCK. Is this DICKERY? Holy SHIT. What a novice fucking antic. There was no indication throughout the entire first segment of the game that a fucking fan sticker is the way to beat a giant, shiny fucking goomba. I think most people would agree that, while I have my moments, in general I'm reasonably intelligent. Probably more intelligent than the typical child for whom this game was developed by a good two or three sigmas. But you know what? I was CLUELESS that a fucking fan sticker was this asshole's silver bullet. But that's the trick: every one of these fucking bosses has one or two stickers for which bizarre, inexplicable, crippling exceptions are wired into the game to convert an invincible leviathan (invincible, as in your attacks typically deal 1-5 damage out of the 350-500 total hit points, per turn) into a pathetic puddle of slime. The game developers went so far as to code special sounds and animations for how thoroughly you're kicking ass when you use these stickers, but they couldn't be bothered to, say, drop a hint that this is what you want, or, you know, just make it follow intuitively from the circumstance of the battle.

I LOVE when you can abuse scenery or such to get the upper hand in a battle. Even when it's designed for a 12-year-old to figure out, I feel accomplished for realizing that. eg. in Metroid Prime: Corruption, the quickest way to kill eight enemies on a bridge is to step off of the bridge and collapse it. Contrast this with Sticker Star, where you have to divine that a fucking fan sticker used at this moment will reduce your giant sparkling goomba to a one-turn punchout.

The one exception to this in Sticker Star is the boss of world 4, which is a 25-story snow monster. I'll bet you can fucking guess what kind of stickers are effective against him. But he's the only one. The only reason I figured out world 2 is not because fire is the natural enemy of snow, but because the fucking tower is called a "stadium" for some inexplicable fucking reason, atop the tower is a literal baseball stadium, and the fucking advice sticker bothers to say "DAMN SON, LOOK AT THOSE LOVELY SEGMENTS. JUST LOOK AT ALL THOSE SEGMENTS. THIS BOSS COMPRISES MULTIPLE SEGMENTS. YOU STILL ATTACK THE BOSS AS A GIANT MONOLITH, BUT IT DOES COMPRISE MULTIPLE SEGMENTS. I WISH WE COULD FIND A STICKER TO SEND THOSE SEGMENTS FLYING WITH A LOUD CRACK. ARE YOU THINKING ABOUT BASEBALL YET? THERE WAS A BAT STICKER EARLIER." It turns out that the bat sticker is the ONLY sticker in the ENTIRE game that can individually attack each segment, which gives it a damage multiplier of however many segments high you allowed the boss to reach. All other stickers, including Thing stickers, can deal at most 45 damage to it. The bat does 45×5. Why is a bat special against a giant cactus in a baseball stadium? BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT WE CAME UP WITH, SO THERE.

There was one time that almost seemed intuitive, but for the wrong reason. At the end of world 3, I brought a really stupid sticker along (this thing is useless in battle) because it fit the theme of the big task at hand, being, soak up all the poison that's ruining the forest. I brought it along thinking I'd need to place it somewhere, but instead, it happened to have a pre-coded deus ex machina for the final boss of that world. I couldn't believe it.

The final battle is, comically, a big chain of special stickers you need. Through some happenstance, I figured them all out on my own (or at least I found a winning combination), but the game's so fucking cheap, it doesn't matter, anyway. The final Bowser fight (spoiler: the bad guy is Bowser in this plotless wasteoid called a game) consists of FOUR consecutive sticker gotchas. I really only solved three of them; one by happy accident, one by "well, I have a sticker that'll get rid of this asshole the old-fashioned way," and one by having the correct sticker literally fall from the sky to me during the fight. Here's the kicker: being that I do have some wit about me, I devised a sticker combination that allowed me to deal 600 damage in one long turn to practically any enemy, and I used it on bowser, who has 450 HP. The result is that after he's down to 10 HP, all further attacks do no damage at all. After the asshole dried up, and I dealt him one more zero-damage blow, he proceeded to the next sticker gotcha phase and healed as usual.

What this seems symptomatic of, to me, is that the developers were eager and industrious enough to add one special sticker to each fight, but too lazy or pressed for time to add, say, more than one… or drop any cues apart from giving you the correct sticker in battle. Perhaps they just weren't clever enough. Perhaps they didn't see it as a problem that they give you literally one way to play the game and win the battle.

Remember that linearity complaint…?

Anyway, my favorite example of this is the chain chomp fight. It gives you a save block, and teaches you the "go ahead and reset" way three things:

1. Chain Chomps like sleeping.

2. Chain Chomps cannot be damaged (except by glitching), or woken until three turns have passed.

3. When the chain chomp wakes up, he will attack; if he's not tied down, he will escape, ending the battle.

It is important that it teaches you this, because you must employ this knowledge in the next stage to remove a chain chomp from your path. The expected battle structure is this:

1. The battle commences.

2. You use a sleepy sheep hammer.

3. The Chain Chomp goes to sleep.

4. You flee from the battle, leaving the Chain Chomp asleep.

5. You disconnect the Chomp from his chain.

6. You re-enter the battle, and wait for the chomp to awaken, like last time.

Issue is, they didn't bother to code you in any help, AT ALL. Your success rate for fleeing the battle while the motherfucker is asleep is about 10%. You can exhaust ALL of your sheep hammers before you ever manage to flee the battle. WHAT THE FUCK, DEVELOPERS? HOW did this get through beta? This obscure fucking tactic was already going out on a limb, and now you want me to do it while putting up with your game's assery? How fucking hard is it to flee from a dog on a leash, WHILE THE FUCKING DOG IS ASLEEP? Holy shit.

Anyway, sorry for the rant. Also, not sorry; I had a lot of fun writing it. About as much fun as I had playing the game, actually. Indeed; I enjoyed the game, regardless. It made me think, even if the thinking was in vain because they either spell the fucking answer out for you or give you no way of inducing it whatsoever. And you can probably tell from the structure of my pain points that I spent the entire game trying to find ways to break it. It was fun doing that. Turns out, there aren't any ways to break it (there are some tricks, but you literally can't proceed without beating all five levels, any way you slice it; you're just completely better off playing it through by level number). And when the game finally ended, I was sad, not because it was a very good game, but because that was all I had…. Nintendo hasn't been putting out many games in my favorite franchises, lately….

So. Thanks for stopping in. If you still make games, learn from this example how not to make a game. If you still play games, learn from this example how to avoid this particular game. It will only break your heart and kill you.


Phoebii 8 years, 5 months ago

Was an interesting read, thanks =P

If you still make games, learn from this example how not to make a game.


aeron 8 years, 5 months ago

That fan bullshit made me laugh. You aren't kidding this sounds like a 12 year old's game design that actually made it into the final product. I remember when I was probably about 12 or so when I was big into adventure games (ala lucasarts) and I downloaded AGS. My first and probably only game in AGS involved a tiny 4-room setting that you had to get past a guard in a museum or something like that. 12 year old logic states that if you are in a situation like that, and all you can find is a taco and a key of some sort, the logical thing to do is slip the key in the taco and feed it to the guard who will choke on the key, allowing you to pass. Oh and I'm pretty sure the key was behind a painting or something incredibly hard to guess, so chances are the player gives up before making it past room #1 haha.

Anyway it sounds like this paper mario game has the "improbable adventure game syndrome", wherein you say fuck all to logic and explanation through hints and just accept that the player will have to try endless combinations of bullshit everytime they want to progress to the next area. Sure the problem could be solved by better story telling or functional gameplay elements, but we don't got time for that so its up to the player to guess out of endless frustration!

Goombert 8 years, 4 months ago

It looks like the pain in your jaw is going to last for a little while longer.