Super Mario is in a pretty tough spot these days. New Super Mario Bros.(NSMB) Has gotten its share of criticism for a lack of innovative design.
Enter Paper Mario: Sticker Star. While the first two Paper Mario games on the Nintendo 64 and GameCube consoles were largely turn-based role-playing games with the normal trappings such as equip-able items, experience points and exchangeable partners the franchise has been driven in a wildly different direction as of late. Super Paper Mario on the Wii was more of a pure platformer with a heavier emphasis on story and dialogue while Sticker Star goes back to the turn-based combat of olde but with its own gameplay stylings.
This is where things get kind of messy. Paper Mario games, like most long-term Nintendo franchises, comes with certain expectations. On the surface Sticker Star looks like an expected Paper Mario RPG and at one time in its development it may have been. Early screenshots from 2010 even indicated that the game was going to have playable partner characters like the earlier Paper Mario games. But after Shigeru Miyamoto, creative mind behind the Mario and Zelda franchises, played the prototype developed for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2010 he had some changes in mind.
“After E3, Miyamoto-san played the prototype and said it was just a port of the GC version,” says Naohiko Aoyama, Director of Paper Mario: Sticker Star in an interview with Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s president, during an Iwata Asks segment released by Nintendo.
According to the interview, early development mirrored earlier Paper Mario games with heavier role-playing elements such as partner characters and a more traditional character upgrade system though experience points. When Miyamoto got involved development moved in a new direction. While not all the role-playing elements were axed, the game moved in a more puzzle-oriented direction.
“[The] idea of using stickers came up. Originally, the plan was to use stickers here and there for solving puzzles on the overall map and so forth, but then we thought, ‘If we’re gonna do that, then we might as well use stickers for the whole thing, including battles,’ and we decided to begin rethinking the game mechanics,” says Tanabe.
Whether this was the right decision is subjective. The name Paper Mario comes with certain preconceptions, Nintendo and developer Intelligent Systems could have played to those preconceptions and been successful. But these changes do show a desire on Nintendo’s part to try something new with a beloved franchise. In this way, Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the very antithesis to New Super Mario Bros.. The great irony here is both games were criticized by their core fan-base, New Super Mario Bros. for not changing enough and Sticker Star for changing too much. This raises an interesting question for major long-term franchises’. How much change is too much? How little change is too little? It is a delicate balancing act.
There are other factors to the New Super Mario Bros. debate. For instance, New Super Mario Bros. 2 launched only 8-months after the excellent Super Mario 3D Land on the same platform and then only 3-months before the Wii U successor, New Super Mario Bros. U. It may have simply been a case of Mario overkill; too many games that resembled each other too closely. Whatever the cause, it led to a general state of Mario apathy, something utterly unheard of in generations past.
Despite how one may feel about the neutering of Paper Mario’s role-playing lineage in Sticker Star it is important in that it shows that Nintendo is still eager to try new things with the brand. It is a move that seems uncharacteristically bold of a company that, on the software side, has been taking fewer chances as of late.
Sticker Star may end up being an isolated incident, but it is still a refreshing change from Mario games of late being too interested in simply reliving past glories keeping them from forging their own identities. Even the afore mentioned Super Mario 3D Land borrowed heavily from games like Super Mario Bros. 3 with a heavy emphasis in its design and marketing using the tanooki leaf power-up.
Even if all the design choices in Sticker Star do not necessarily stick (if you will excuse the pun), the important thing is to see a major game franchise like Mario still eager to try bold new ideas and craft unique game designs. After all, it was that bold ingenuity that made Mario games as exciting as they were in the early days.