When I was a kid, I didn’t have many hobbies other than video games, which concerned my mom. So she shoved a book of stamps in my hands and said, “Now you’re a stamp collector.” I was skeptical, so she overcompensated. Sometimes she’d buy extra stamps at the post office for me. Sometimes she’d find a few lying around in a drawer. Once, when going through some family heirlooms, she stumbled upon a very old framed parchment containing a few stamps from the Civil War. It was a wonderful artifact that I have never looked at again.
Still, it wasn’t long before I began organizing my stamps in my spare time. For fun. I had a few favorites that I prized above all else, and when I was asked to list my hobbies for a school project, I found myself writing “stamp collector” by my own volition. The more I collected stamps, the less I remembered why I’d started in the first place.
Mario and I have a lot in common. His hobbies, to the best of our knowledge over countless titles and consoles, include starring in his own video game and not much else. (I suppose he’s technically a coin collector.) So Nintendo shoved a book of stickers in his hands in Paper Mario: Sticker Star and said, “Now you’re a sticker collector.” He was skeptical, so his Nintendo masters overcompensated. They made his life all about the stickers. Every step he takes stems from the all-important collection—to whack a goomba with a mallet, you choose the mallet sticker. When the game introduces shiny three-dimensional objects, like a pair of scissors, into the two-dimensional, Etsy-spun world—they come with a mandate that Mario turn said treasures into stickers. Want to rescue a few stray Toadstools? Grab that sticker holding ’em in place, and pull. Then get back to collecting.
Despite the compulsory nature of its sticker obsession, Paper Mario: Sticker Star maintains an unfussy charm. Like its Paper Mario predecessors, the game looks like a children’s diorama that the parents probably helped with. Bridges and stairs are constructed out of cardboard; blocks collapse into delicate piles of papier-mâché. Each level folds and bends around itself, creating immaculate mazes that spring up like from a pop-up book, with hidden walls and trap doors. And Mario can admire the world from afar, taking a snapshot and leaving the page entirely to drop special stickers, like a fan sticker that turns the blades of a windmill. Here, obsessive sticker collecting isn’t a sickness. It’s heralded as a noble pursuit, and Mario is game to oblige.
Like many a Mario game, the game gets underway when Bowser shows up to wreak havoc just as the Princess was about to do something appropriately royal. It’s so rote at this point that the characters barely take time to acknowledge this particular atrocity: the interruption of a sacred sticker festival. Mario marches off, with only a blank book of stickers at his disposal, to collect pieces of the grand sticker star that have been scattered. Well, there’s also the guidance of a talking, glowing crown—like the Navi fairy from The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, but much less annoying.
Barely two minutes go by before Mario is ripping boots and mushrooms off the sides of buildings for “collecting” purposes. His sticker book looks awfully empty, and he doesn’t have to look far for his next fix. There are stickers inside blocks, on fences, plastered to the floor, hiding behind cardboard bushes he knocks down. Or sometimes there are merely coins, which just so happen to be the preferred tender at the sticker shop.
That may sound excessive, but Mario needs all the adhesive help he can get. Fights in Sticker Star, which take place outside the papercraft landscape, are turn-based: Mario attacks his enemies, braces himself for their counterattack, and so on. Each action, be it “jump on bomb with springy shoes” or “shoot a koopa shell directly at a Mariachi shy guy” requires you to burn off a sticker, never to be seen again. You’d be wise to maintain a robust stock, as the menagerie of enemies have a wide array of specialties. Mario can’t, for instance, leap onto a goomba that’s turned himself into a paper airplane. That’s what the side-swipe hammer is for. (Obviously!) Variations like this set each fight apart and justify Mario’s collecting zeal.
Success in Sticker Star is a byproduct of the meticulousness with which you maintain your scrapbooks. New and twisted enemies (and because they’re made of paper, I mean that literally) pop up all the time, like a goomba king who can organize his friends into a single sheet capable of steamrolling Mario. At one point, I used up most of my stickers taking down a single monster, at which point the crown-face popped up to tell me that, next time, I should probably use more powerful stickers to conserve my supply. That’s the moment Paper Mario: Sticker Star turned me into a hoarder.
But these stickers are enjoyable things to stockpile, and not just because sometimes you find a shiny one—ooh, the shiny ones are the best. The sticker book is not just utilitarian. It’s a way to measure progress, a keepsake in a Super Mario universe that usually asks Mario to consume or destroy all that’s around him. Sticker Star is informed by the sentimental value we attach to tiny, paper-thin treasures in everyday life. Just as a note from my dad provides me emotional strength to weather the volley of everyday stress, a boot sticker provides Mario with a more tangible strength. Mario may have been forced to take up sticker collecting, but it’s a hobby that grows to define him. And perhaps when it’s time to put that book of stickers away, he won’t be so quick to let it go.