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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The Surprising Similarities Between Sticker Star and Breath of the Wild

By LUDWIG VON KOOPA - Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the proto-The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

I have been muttering about how I believe Paper Mario: Sticker Star (developed by Intelligent Systems and published by Nintendo) and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (developed and published by Nintendo) fundamentally share similar game design philosophies for several years now. With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild finally having its sequel, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, releasing at the end of this week, it's time for me to finally and fully share my thoughts about how Paper Mario: Sticker Star is the gameplay prequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It was Nintendo's try of a non-linear limited-durability-weapon game four to five years before Breath of the Wild came out.

For the rest of this article, I'm going to discuss the gameplay similarities between the two titles, and then move on to the narrative similarities. (The story is greatly influenced by the gameplay structure.) Of course, the two games do have differences, as you should expect from a spiritual sequel, so I end the article by discussing those. It is also notable that both Paper Mario: Sticker Star and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are radical departures from what their respective franchises have developed a reputation for.

The Core Design Similarities

Designed with non-linearity

While everyone is well-aware of how The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild starts out—you wake up on the Great Plateau, acquire all of the Runes (Magnesis, Remote Bomb, Statis, Cryonis), and jump off with the Paraglider, and then you get to decide what direction you go—not as many people consider Paper Mario: Sticker Star as a predecessor to this.

When you leave Decalburg and enter the overworld for the first time in Paper Mario: Sticker Star, you're greeted with four different directions you can go in. Only one of them, World 1-1, allows you to make actual progress, but after finishing World 1-5, you have all of the abilities you need to progress (Sling-a-Thing and paperisation) to and through World 2 without finishing World 1. To start World 3, you do need the Trumpet Thing, and that does require you to go to World 1's final level (Goomba Fortress), but you don't have to actually beat the boss and clear the world to progress and start World 3. There tends to be substantially less requirements on having a very specific Thing to get through the future levels. It's implied linearity, but with the exception of bosses, a lot of the environmental Thing-related puzzles actually have multiple solutions featuring things you probably have.

You could say it's more like a Metroidvania than an open world game, and you're right, but Paper Mario: Sticker Star is still much less linear than its predecessors or its successors. When I first played the game, I went and finished the first boss (Megasparkle Goomba) as the last boss before the final boss. There are actual difficulty-related consequences for going out of your way (beating a world boss gets you more inventory space) but you can unlock every level in every world (besides the last world) without beating any bosses, as I've done in my second playthrough:

Paper Mario Sticker Star non-linear Gate Cliff Comet Pieces Royal Stickers
I have 37/38 Comet Pieces (the last one is in the level after the Gate Cliff), but 0/6 Royal Stickers (dropped by bosses).
The significance of Gate Cliff is that it's the entrance to the last level(s) of Paper Mario: Sticker Star. It's the equivalent to Hyrule Castle.

While something like Paper Mario: Color Splash also has a world map, and it looks like you can go through levels in different order, it's actually fake and the game is significantly more linear than Sticker Star is, with progress on the map locked to beating world bosses and collecting Paint Stars to trigger worldwide events. Sticker Star has none of that, making it the least linear game in its series.

Combat with consumable items

The core enabler of both games allowing for non-linear exploration is its combat system dealing with consumable items that you can pick up from your environment. Stickers are everywhere in Sticker Star; you can get them from ? blocks or literally pull them off fences. In Breath of the Wild, you generally pick up weapons from chests or from looting enemies. Neither game has permanent offensive stats or weapons (not counting the Master Sword); your battle output is determined pretty much entirely by what you pick up and use (though Sticker Star lets you skip fights by picking up more HP-Up Hearts for a stronger First Strike). After you use the stickers, they're done, and Breath of the Wild's weapons also have very limited durability. You also have limited (but raisable) inventory space in both games.

Fundamentally, you can go wherever you want and scale with whatever enemy you encounter, even in a “late-game” area, because whatever local weapon you pick up in that area will be strong enough to deal with the enemies in that area. This enables you to go wherever you want without having to fear you'll be outclassed. But unless you horde (or avoid combat altogether, which is a good idea given that there's little reason to fight things in either game), you might have consumed those weapons by the time you leave that area and go to another area, so you can scale down. It... doesn't perfectly work that way in either game, and more realistically, your inventory will be completely full at all times and you'll have to be discarding weapons if you want to pick up new weapons, which gave me a bad feeling while playing them. At least it's a similarity between the games and their design. I didn't say either of them implemented it that well.

You can also upgrade the quality of your weapons in both games. Paper Mario: Sticker Star has the circle of flowers ? blocks you can stick a sticker in to get a stronger sticker, while Breath of the Wild has World Level tiers, and Octoroks that de-rust rusted weapons. Breath of the Wild more directly lets you upgrade your armour.


Both Paper Mario: Sticker Star and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild have the equivalent of a collection of items in the game with descriptions. Paper Mario: Sticker Star has a Museum with Battle Stickers and Things you can submit, while Breath of the Wild has a much more extensive Hyrule Compendium featuring creatures, monsters, materials, equipment, and treasures. Future sequels to Sticker Star (like, its actual sequels) have more extensive museum exhibits that are more akin to the breadth offered by the Hyrule Compendium. (You do get to see enemies in Paper Mario: Sticker Star's Museum...just in a very inefficient way.) Both the Museum and Hyrule Compendium encourage you to visit every corner of the games’ worlds, even if you can skip a lot of them otherwise.

Paper Mario Sticker Star Decalburg Museum Broozer punching bestiary unlockable enemy
I prefer Breath of the Wild's photo mode than what Paper Mario: Sticker Star did to (incompletely) document its enemy cast.
At least Decalburg Museum features enemies attacking a (fake) Mario, which is at least a little gratifying. Even if the usability of the museum is awful.

Narrative Design Similarities

Both Paper Mario: Sticker Star and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were designed with being able to really go anywhere based on weapons that you could acquire as you go to anywhere. That has dramatic consequences for the narrative design of the games.

Because Mario and Link can handle the game's events in almost any order, the games’ plots aren't overarching between parts, but rather self-contained if they exist at all.

With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, there are four stories surrounding the Divine Beasts and their Champions, along with 18 Memories cutscenes featuring Princess Zelda and the other Champions. All of these can be completed/found in any order, and are actually optional. On top of this, there's the Untitled History of Calamity Ganon song and Calamity Ganon tapestry, both telling the game's main world-building event. The Memories, true to their name, are also world-building/lore events, not current events. Breath of the Wild also has a variety of non-playable characters who would like to give you warnings and stories about the land, the wildlife, and more.

With Paper Mario: Sticker Star, the tone of the game is completely different than the serious and dour Breath of the Wild, but it similarly avoids direct storytelling. You'll find Toads in bizarre places either due to an encounter with Bowser or because they fear an encounter with Bowser and so they cowardly ran to somewhere strange. There are also very brief story interludes after a world boss telling how the boss went from an innocent creature to something violent after being corrupted by a Royal Sticker. I wouldn't consider it deep lore or anything, though.

Both games have their primary antagonists as primarily background figures that you don't directly see or hear from until the very end of the game. Calamity Ganon is literally trapped in Hyrule Castle and doesn't do anything besides have the Yiga Clan pledge their loyalty to him, and apparently it's his fault there is the Blood Moon. Bowser appears in the first scene of the game to cause the plot, and then disappears, though you see his handiwork throughout the game in the form of Bowser Tape. However, it's mostly his minions like Bowser Jr. and Kamek doing the hard work. For all intents and purposes, Bowser might as well be trapped in Bowser's Sky Castle much like Calamity Ganon is trapped in Hyrule Castle. Neither antagonist says a single word in the game. The main protagonists don't talk, either! Though there are sidekicks who do.

Again, the lack of narrative development in both of these games is due to the lack of linear storytelling. The game can't guarantee that you would actually have experienced a hero's journey or set events, which is why the storytelling is all about stuff that happened before you started doing anything, and no one really reacts to anything that actually happens. The lore is tell, not show, since you might never be shown something.

Design Differences Between Games

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild had several opportunities to approach its design differently than Paper Mario: Sticker Star, thanks to its bigger budget, better hardware, and the ability to learn from Sticker Star's reception.

But Breath of the Wild isn't a pure upgrade. It replaced the disconnected overworld map of Sticker Star with a cohesive world featuring miles and miles of empty plains and mountains that separate areas of interest. At least you have some fundamental buffs to movement in Breath of the Wild, with a stamina bar and a whole physics engine that lets you do all sorts of wild activities that are much more varied ways of getting around than Sticker Star's mere walking. Accompanying you on that journey is a very minimalistic or nonexistent soundtrack, compared to the amazing and jazzy Paper Mario: Sticker Star soundtrack.

Of course, Breath of the Wild has much more scope. Rather than 5 Luigis, 16 Heart-Ups in the wild, and 35 Secret Doors, there are 18 Memories, 900 Korok Seeds, and 120 Shrines. It's up to the individual player on whether or not that extra scope is a good thing. Lots of people find hunting down all of those Korok Seeds and Shrines to be torture and not fun. At least your weapons have more than literally one durability in Breath of the Wild, and there are more weapons in Breath of the Wild. There also tend to be more ways of defeating enemies or bosses or solving puzzles, especially thanks to many puzzles being physics-based rather than inventory-based. Still, the boss battles in both games have heavily recommended methods of getting past them that do rely on having a certain inventory. Breath of the Wild also has optional quests that further encourage exploration, though Sticker Star's existing means of getting people to poke around (the eight Super Flag Achievements, particularly the ones saying to collect every sticker type, find every HP-Up, collect every Comet Piece, and make every Secret Door appear) are enough to see everything that game has to offer.

Breath of the Wild also lets you actually get to the end credits after completing the Great Plateau by allowing Link to tackle Hyrule Castle and defeat the final boss, while Sticker Star was significantly more tepid and lets you ALMOST get to the end of the game out-of-order. Unfortunately, to fight the final boss, you actually do have to fight all of the other bosses in Sticker Star, while those are optional in Breath of the Wild. You could say that the developers of Breath of the Wild didn't have the fear that some game developers have of players not experiencing everything in the game before being done with it, while Sticker Star tried to have a non-linear experience while still having that fear.

Ludwig is slightly upset that Breath of the Wild breaks the alliteration the article title had going for it. He unironically likes Sticker Star more than Breath of the Wild, and Sticker Star is actually more fun when you try to play it as non-linearly as you can, rather than go through the set path suggested by its world map.


  1. Seems Tears of the Kingdom is a mix of Breath of the Wild and a Traditional Zelda game with actual dungeons this time.

    1. I've seen some reviews say as much, but I don't really trust them.
      Nonetheless, like how Breath of the Wild refined how Sticker Star approached gameplay, perhaps Tears of the Kingdom has refined wot Breath of the Wild has done.


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