The moustached one's more versatile entries have proven surprisingly quirky. It's true of Sticker Star. While Mario is still the silent action star, developer Intelligent Systems has plenty of fun playing with convention with the wider cast and familiar settings. Koopas that introduce themselves in rhyme, Toads that emote a (for a Nintendo game) surprising range of personalities. Solutions and combat that fit both the Mario universe and the trappings of the pseudo-RPG, yet are unique to both.
Yet even with its own stylings, Sticker Star is much more a conventional take on the core 2D series than you'd expect, certainly surprising given what potential the 3D aspect the format could - should - bring.
So its steeped in tradition. There's the World Map, sub-worlds with multiple stages, many of which contain more than one route to completion.
And while each stage is placed in the third dimension, inhabited by 2D cut-out enemies and festooned with secrets, progress is almost-boringly pedestrian. With no run button to his name, Paper Mario scoots through each level, leaping on platforms, knocking out enemies, collecting coins and stickers, and eventually tracks down the level's goal. Same as ever. Sure, there's a few clever tricks and the levels aren't straightforward (there's a light, welcome, degree of exploration here) left to right runs. But there's a feeling the developers never capitalise on playing with convention or the game design.
That's likely too harsh, as there is plenty to enjoy here. Humour's a strong point (even if it's more half-smile than full-blown laugh) but it's not the only one.
Paper Mario's the only title in the series that we've actively avoided jumping on an enemy's head. A completely alien convention after over two decades doing the complete opposite, but sometimes necessary. One, Mario's now got a health bar, and two, Sticker Star's come packaged with a turn-based combat system.
Taking cues from the genre it so lightly alludes to, hammering (literally) or jumping on enemies whisks you to a Vs screen in which you use any stickers (yanked from around levels or bought in shops at hub areas, and coming in standard or a small number of unique super-sized varieties) in your album collection to perform moves.
You've got your Boot stickers to do one jump or multiples, koopa shells to take out rows of enemies. Hammers to pound adversaries off the arena, Mushrooms as health restoratives. Stickers are all big, bright. Easy to quickly associate with their action (though there's small optional notations in case you forget), and a quick tap of a button organises them automatically into types for easy selection from the touch screen.
The choices gradually increase as new stickers are discovered, and that a timing mechanic's in place to power up or increase the number of hits means you're still involved through every aspect of the fight. Tap correctly when using a ice or fire flower, for example, and you'll double the damage. There's a block button as well, letting you work out enemy attack timings to lessen damage taken. Fights can be swiftly utilising these methods, and they prove essential come boss fights to survive.
For the most it's a decent system, with enemy immunities to some attacks requiring you to adapt throughout. But the roulette option embedded into the combat system is poorly implemented.
The decision to allow you only one strike per turn's a smart one, else the game would be more a breeze than it already is. The roulette system lets you exchange coins for the chance to triple your attack number, and has three phases. You can chance hitting the same three icons in a row, or cashing in to combine the first two wheels so they always match, and lastly spending a bit more to slow the third wheel's rotation.
Even with the deceleration the third's more miss than hit, to a point that it pushes you beyond caring if you do or not. That there's some added spice to the combat isn't the issue. The design is. That you're happier to take the hits rather than score the extra turn that'd mean you avoid them seems wrong. The lack of caring is partly due to the overabundance of coins in your possession; you're never gambling life-saving survival on your last dime. It's a wonder Mario can move at all, given his pockets are always weighed down with hundreds of the golden discs.
More rewarding is the smattering of puzzles that do use the stickers creatively. Early on we were stumped by a set of fans in the distant background, that'd blow us off the castle battlements any time we tried to cross. A quick tap of a button to go into 'Paperisation' mode, allowing you to place stickers onto the world, let us paper over the fans and thereby cut the breeze, long enough for us to cross. The game will indicate if placement is necessary by a square outline when in this mode. It's a little bit too much hand-holding for our tastes, but at least establishes the rules of the world early on, and there's enjoyment to be had in dreaming up potential solutions to level dead ends.
The Paper Mario series has never been completely oddball, happy to tinker with convention and establish its own personality within the boundaries of the franchise. Sticker Star is neither boring or bland. What it is, is safe. What little sparks of brilliance there are aren't enough to ignite this into the supernova it should be. Super Mario 3D Land then remains the plumber's definitive outing on the 3DS.