Month: October 2020

Paper Mario: Sticker Star, The Most Underrated Pop Game of the 2010s

by Jed Pressgrove

During the 2010s, the game industry fed audiences at a gluttonous rate. Major releases often propagated open world ideology, which tells us that more is better and that we can obtain ultimate freedom in games. With a religious dedication to Content, numerous titles operated like buffet restaurants, offering constant character progression through the accumulation of experience points, comprehensive maps that reduce the likelihood of delayed gratification, and cookie-cutter tasks that sometimes reward the player for just showing up to the party, so to speak (in Fantasy Life, the common act of entering a shop and talking to a clerk is, ridiculously, a “quest”).

Years into the future, we may look back at 2010s pop games and find that many of them blur together like Marvel Universe movies. Paper Mario: Sticker Star, though, will be among those works that shall not be mistaken for any other. Sticker Star was the rare 2010s pop game that went full throttle with an unusual concept with little regard for whether people found it easily digestible. By and large, people didn’t give Sticker Star the credit it deserved. It contradicted what they were used to. It didn’t feed them like the typical 2010s pop game.

The (Consumable) Concept

Sticker Star revolves around the collection of stickers. Without them, Mario can’t defeat foes or access numerous locations. The kicker is that every sticker can only be used once, and Mario’s sticker album has limited space. Luckily, you see stickers everywhere. They’re plastered on buildings, trees, the ground, you name it. All Mario has to do is pull the sticker off whatever it’s stuck to.

Peeling a sticker comes with comic satisfaction. In cartoonish fashion, Mario puts some muscle into it. The player must hold a button to watch Mario tug and tug and, finally, snatch a sticker from a surface.

There’s a distinctive feeling attached to this action of holding a button, a strong sense that there’s a struggle in motion, however silly it might be. I can’t help but think that, in this small but significant respect, Sticker Star outclasses other pop 2010s games. One of the biggest trends of 2010s gaming was the need to hold down a button, whether to open a menu, enter a building, or initiate just about any other trivial activity you can think of. This trend, which continues to this day, tends to be annoying, if not stupid, in its unnecessariness. In 2020’s Final Fantasy VII Remake, for instance, you must hold a button to pull a switch, yet the game gives no visual evidence that the protagonist must exert any extra energy to perform the menial task. No such disconnect exists with Mario’s sticker-pulling. Holding a button in Sticker Star is not merely about the game following a dimwitted fad — the requirement comes across as an essential way of communicating that the stickers really stick. It even lends suspense to the proceedings when baddies inch closer to Mario as he yanks on an adhesive label.

In a curious departure from modern inventory and menu design, Sticker Star doesn’t provide any description of its most special stickers, which are a slew of random real-world objects — from a bowling ball to a fan, from a radiator to a guitar. In many cases, the purpose of a special sticker is self-explanatory. Even a person with a sorry imagination could guess what a baseball bat would entail. But with certain finds, there’s a bit of mystery as to what the effect of the sticker will be. Ingeniously, the ambiguity both arouses the player’s curiosity and sets the stage for ironic visual punchlines when the stickers’ powers are revealed.

A Bold Revision of Turn-Based Combat

In the style of Super Mario RPG and the first two Paper Marios, touching enemies in Sticker Star initiates turn-based combat, and timed button presses lead to more effective offense and defense. Sticker Star has a distinctive take on this classic system: with the exception of running away, every action requires the use of one sticker, so if you run out of stickers, you can’t attack or heal. In most turn-based RPGs, efficiency is a goal. In Sticker Star, efficiency is a necessity. Wiping out enemies in a single turn not only saves stickers but also gives Mario bonus coins. Coins are for two essential things: (1) purchasing more stickers and (2) triggering a slot-machine minigame that can, if played successfully, allow Mario to use multiple stickers in one turn.

Fascinatingly, there are no experience points in Sticker Star, so success in combat is always a product of skill and, when particular enemies have resistances or weaknesses to certain stickers, thought. Sticker Star rejects the comfortable, widely approved notion that players should always grow more powerful to the point where they don’t even have to pay attention to the battle system. Grinding as we know it doesn’t exist in Sticker Star.

This provocative creative spin on a well-worn idea was a disappointment for many players and critics. Instead of recognizing the different philosophy of Sticker Star’s turn-based system, they focused on how the game didn’t meet their predictable expectations. This quote from Ben Lee’s review at Digital Spy represents a common line of thinking about Sticker Star:

But while the battle system is enjoyable, the battles themselves are let down by the fact that there’s no character progression at all. Mario never gains experience or levels up, and health increases are periodically found rather than earned. Mario copes with increasingly tougher enemies by picking up better stickers mostly while you’re exploring the world, which makes engaging in battles rather pointless.

The stickers being disposable also introduces a couple of problems. Firstly, you may feel inclined to save your best stickers for a tough fight or impending boss. This means that dealing with non-threatening encounters takes longer than it should as you’re deliberately using your worst stickers.

Secondly, battles don’t always reward you with stickers, so in most cases, fighting will slowly deplete your album. There are more than enough stickers in levels for this not to be a huge issue, but getting nothing useful out of battles inspires you further to avoid enemy encounters.

There are multiple problems with this passage. As I suggested above, the point of battling is to accumulate coins through efficient usage of stickers so that Mario can be prepared for more difficult segments of the game. You don’t always know what stickers will be the most helpful in a given level or boss fight, but maintaining a varied collection of stickers and figuring out which ones lead to the fastest destruction of your opponents is the challenge. Without that challenge, one would sleepwalk through Sticker Star, and the game would have little to distinguish itself from countless pop games.

“[D]eliberately using your worst stickers” is the exact opposite of what one should do in Sticker Star. Owning and using less-effective stickers results in inefficiency, which means fewer coins and a more depleted sticker collection. One’s strategy should be to remember the types of attacks that tend to do well against enemies with similar traits and to, accordingly, stock up on such stickers, whether by revisiting locations (stickers reappear in the same places after you exit a level) or going to a shop. Don’t waste your inventory space on stickers that don’t have broad applicability. The disposability of stickers is indeed a problem, as Lee states, but it’s a problem that can be solved with knowledge, experimentation, and intuition. Rather than getting stronger artificially through experience points, you get better by drawing on your literal experience as a player.

At one point in Sticker Star, I found myself low on coins and in need of certain stickers. I ended up looking for battles with four or five enemies at a time, knowing from previous engagement that I could take them all out with a single turtle shell attack and rack up dozens of coins in a snap. This is not to say I never avoided battles like Lee. Sometimes, to preserve your number of stickers, avoidance is key. What do you need more? More stickers or more coins to buy different stickers? This is the central management conflict in Sticker Star that influences whether a fight is worthwhile.

The unique appeal of combat in Sticker Star goes beyond mathematical considerations. Although Mario RPGs have always emphasized active button pressing during turn-based battle, Sticker Star takes the feel of it all to another level, and I’m not merely talking about the rhythmic timing involved with the many techniques. There’s a much different sensation when you jump on an enemy using a regular boot attack versus a steel boot attack. The former has an appropriate lightness and momentum to it, while the latter carries an illusion of extra weight coming down when performed — a delectable feeling that is noticeably absent in 2020’s Paper Mario: Origami King. On the opposite end of the spectrum, when you fail to execute a particular type of hammer attack, the weapon snaps in two, and your very finger is left with a resounding sense of flimsiness. Because of this profound tactility, I have rarely felt as impotent playing turn-based games as I do when I screw up in Sticker Star.

The audio of Sticker Star further punctuates failure. When your hammer breaks, a sound effect suggesting immense clumsiness rings out. Even more devastating is when the standard battle music devolves into a bastardized, bizarro version of itself when Mario is near death. An awkward, ominous form of the previously upbeat melody is accompanied by an unpleasant pulsating bass line that evokes sloppy drunkenness. Although the timing for Mario’s moves doesn’t change here, the disturbing sonic transition can very well affect one’s performance as a distraction. The potential disorientation here is almost as powerful as the dynamics of the “Touch Fuzzy, Get Dizzy” stage in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island. But unlike that SNES classic — which delivers its druggy experience with an altered soundtrack, wavy visuals, and inexact controls — Sticker Star achieves a similar effect with sound alone.

Boss battles represent another area where Sticker Star doesn’t care about the tenets of a traditional RPG. Unless you can identify a sticker that cripples the abilities of a boss, the game’s bigger fights are grueling and unforgiving. This characteristic of Sticker Star is considered a grave sin by more than a few critics. Here’s what Philip Kollar said in his Polygon review:

Boss battles also become more dependent on these item-based solutions. An ink-spewing squid at the end of one area is nearly impossible to beat if you don’t bring along a sponge sticker to soak up its attacks. Mixing combat and puzzles is a problem because it happens without warning and without a way to call up new stickers during the fight. If you enter a boss battle without the single specific sticker needed for victory, you might as well reset the game and try again. At least “Thing” stickers can be purchased in the town hub and replaced in your book after you’ve used them, so it’s not difficult to prepare once you know which sticker is needed.

While this analysis is more level-headed than others, Kollar’s suggestion that certain stickers are “needed” to advance in each boss encounter is not accurate. With a well-stocked inventory (i.e., plenty of health-restoring mushrooms, weapons that allow for higher combos, and special stickers), I defeated multiple bosses without exploiting their weak points, and the tension that came with these hard-earned wins recalled the suspense of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door’s Bonetail fight, the most difficult and meaningful conflict in that now-classic sequel. In fact, it could be argued that knowing which sticker to use against every boss in Sticker Star takes something away from the emotional potential of the game. If one, as I did, manages to eke out more than one nail-biting victory against Sticker Star’s bosses, one will be that much more relieved and jubilant when an optimal weapon is utilized. Many great games, from Castlevania III to The Witcher 2, are worth playing precisely because they scoff at our desire to dominate the competition as a prophesied hero would. I put Paper Mario: Sticker Star in the company of those works, which is a most unusual distinction for a Mario spinoff.

A World Ripe for Exploration and Satire

Despite its lackluster reputation, Sticker Star received a fair bit of praise for its level design. Stages are almost like toys that Mario can manipulate and break. Sticker Star’s visual style, which draws heavy attention to the paper- and cardboard-based artificiality of the environments, practically dares players to go wild with Mario’s hammer with the hope to find new routes or uncover items by busting up some contrived piece of the world. The game doesn’t skimp on variety, either. There’s an Egypt-inspired Yoshi sphinx structure with numerous nooks and crannies, a mansion that recalls the setting of the original Resident Evil, and a rafting adventure that has Mario facing the background, foreground, or the side of the screen as he rides a set of logs and dodges everything from floating barrels to Shyguys swinging on vines. There’s only a few missteps, like the ski lift level that essentially recycles a banal flying Goomba obstacle and a second rafting stage that features an underwhelming conflict with a giant fish.

At the same time, Sticker Star can demand an exhausting amount of backtracking, almost as an ode to the sigh-inducing back-and-forth traveling in the unforgettable Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge. Some of the pathfinding in Sticker Star involves head-scratching and pedantic solutions. In one level, ice must be melted to advance, but even though several stickers involve heat, only one of them will work for the puzzle. In most cases, the sticker must fit snugly into a specific space to bring about a new path. Yet, confoundingly, in a handful of situations, a sticker that would otherwise seem to have the wrong width and height is actually what needs to be used. The most extreme nuisance is Sticker Star’s third world, which demands Mario to hunt down and chase individual moving pieces of a yellow caterpillar. If you lack patience here, you won’t experience a significant chunk of the game’s levels, so as unrepentantly tedious as the quest is, it functions as a rite of passage, testing one’s gumption and will and highlighting Sticker Star’s rejection of both linear and open world design. (And once the ordeal is over, you’re rewarded with an amusing scene of the reconstructed caterpillar circling his treehouse like a furious train.)

If nothing else, the rough side of Sticker Star is worth enduring for the opportunity to see more of the game’s hysterical irreverence toward video game norms. To advance in World 1-5, Mario must set off an over-the-top chain reaction that has everything from trees to mountains to clouds toppling into each other like dominoes — the wacky sight reminds us that game environments are but grand contrivances, whether to gawk at as dynamic visual marvels or to influence with preposterous authority. World 3-4 has an area where Mario can use a bowling ball sticker to knock over some pins, but the ball, instead of rolling on the ground, flips in midair toward the pins for a strike. Afterward, a pair of instant replays underline the absurdity of the moment, lampooning the excitable pride that both developers and gamers take in awkward-looking imagery (I think of pretentious sports simulations and their ultimate failure to resemble reality). Within the aforementioned Resident Evil esque mansion, you enter a hallway to see a giant stapler crash through a window from the outside. As parody, this scene calls out the cheap thrills that typify the overrated survival horror genre. Sticker Star thumbs its nose at the sacred.

A Message to Sticklers for RPG Conventions

As weird as Sticker Star can be, it marked a return to the turn-based RPG combat that its predecessor, Super Paper Mario, abandoned in favor of pedestrian action platforming and gimmicky perspective-switching exploration (Fez before Fez). And yet, Sticker Star’s lack of experience points and lack of detailed storytelling made the game a false RPG to many. As I’ve suggested before, stakeholders in the gaming world sentimentalize the definition of “RPG” based on their subjective (and most likely nostalgic) histories with games. With this in mind, Sticker Star, despite adhering to a number of conventions that people associate with RPGs, is what I would call an unsentimental pop RPG.

The most powerful evidence of my claim lies in how Sticker Star mocks the fetishization of overblown spectacle that was popularized by the summons abilities of 1997’s Final Fantasy VII. The epitome of Final Fantasy VII’s bloatedness is the Knights of the Round summon, which lasts more than 60 seconds (what’s more, the player must invest hours in a banal chocobo racing and breeding minigame to even attain Knights of the Round). Although no attack in Sticker Star matches the ridiculous length of that spell, I couldn’t help but think about Knights of the Round and its ilk when I finally unleashed the goat sticker, which calls up a gargantuan version of the barnyard creature that chomps down on Mario’s enemies eight times to accordion music. The jaws of this humongous goat stupidly take up the entire screen. This evidence of artistic desperation, however sarcastic, should forever tie Sticker Star to the RPG, the most overly revered of all video game genres.

Ninja Spirit Review — An Ode to Offense … or Not?

by Jed Pressgrove

Ninja Spirit pushes the classic strategic maxim, “The best defense is a good offense.” In this side-scrolling platformer, it’s not unusual to be surrounded. Ninjas run at you from both sides, thrown shurikens and knifes threaten you from all angles, resilient brutes keep approaching you until they’re slain, spear-wielding murderers poke at you below platforms, and aerial foes are more than ready to deliver cheap shots. To give the player a fighting chance, developer Irem gives Tsukikage, the hero of Ninja Spirit, two fundamental advantages: (1) a circular sword slash that has high priority, a more-than-generous hitbox (especially when upgraded), and the ability to deflect projectiles, and (2) a power-up that can spawn up to two spirits that mimic the movement and attack patterns of Tsukikage. Tsukikage can also throw shurikens or explosives on the fly, with no regard for ammo. And so, mashing the attack button religiously in Ninja Spirit can result in awe-inspiring escapes from certain death. Tsukikage might have father issues like the protagonists of Shinobi and Ninja Gaiden, but the stealth of Shinobi and the speed of Ninja Gaiden are nowhere to be found in Ninja Spirit.

Another critical part of survival in Ninja Spirit is jumping, but it’s a double-edged technique. Tsukikage can leap the length of the screen, which means that he can put a lot of distance between himself and an attacker on the ground with ease, but his jump is very floaty. The hero is quite vulnerable as he falls back down, assuming he doesn’t land on a higher platform. There’s another practical drawback: Tsukikage has limited maneuverability in midair. This lack of agility can be especially deadly around the jingasa-wearing, staff-spinning enemy, who can deliver a killing blow if he meets Tsukikage in the air. The risk-reward aspect of the jump in Ninja Spirit makes for a provocative design choice in a platformer. It’s both freeing and nerve-wracking to be able to reach ridiculous heights with the press of a button, particularly during the stage when Tsukikage must travel vertically — while making sure not to land in places where bombs are exploding — to reach a boss battle. (Two years after Ninja Spirit’s 1988 arcade release, Low G Man on the NES would feature a similar type of electrifying, anxiety-inducing jumping.)

The spirit power-up is by far the most distinct aspect of Ninja Spirit, though. Not only does having two shadow versions of Tsukikage increase the likelihood of the hero warding off the onslaught of regular enemies, it can simplify many of the boss battles. That’s because in addition to copying Tsukikage’s patterns, the spirits stop moving when Tsukikage stops moving. If you’re fighting a boss who requires you to jump high in order to damage it with the sword, you can make the leap toward the boss’ weak point and then land on the ground and refrain from moving right or left. At this point, the spirits, which always follow Tsukikage’s lead while keeping a certain amount of distance from him, will be suspended in the air. From here, the spirits may land several attacks on the boss from their stationary, gravity-defying positions as long as Tsukikage continues to swing his sword. In short, clever arrangement of the spirits translates to easy offense and better safety for Tsukikage. Tecmo, the developer of the Ninja Gaiden series, took notice of this innovative tactical gameplay: Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos contained a power-up that allowed protagonist Ryu Hayabusha to spawn orange clones of himself that mimed his every move.

Ninja Spirit further cements its place in video game history with a part in its final level where Tsukikage must jump off a cliff and, for what can feel like an eternity, dodge ninjas that seem to be rising up toward him with their blades above their heads. Regardless of whether you’re playing the TurboGrafx-16 version of Ninja Spirit (which, unlike the arcade version, has a lifebar of sorts), one hit from a flying ninja leads to doom and means that you must start the plunge over. The ninjas are so plentiful that there’s often only narrow pathways between them, there’s no way to decrease your momentum during the fall, and Tsukikage can’t kill the ninjas. What makes the extreme trial-and-error challenge that much more intimidating is that the accompanying music sounds like it was composed by Satan. The unfair vibe of this segment is almost comical, but I respect the audacity behind the design. The segment marks a radical departure from the game’s typical brand of action. You can almost hear the team at Irem saying, “The best defense is a good offense — EXCEPT HERE.”