Ever since I played Super Mario 64 over fifteen years ago I’ve been searching for the perfect followup. So, it seems, has Nintendo. Mario 64 was an ambitious, game-changing blend of exploration, platforming and action—a mixture so volatile it’s a testament to Miyamoto-san’s skill that it didn’t collapse under its own weight and actually turned out fairly incredible. In the many years since Mario 64 we’ve seen some truly spectacular follow-ups, but nothing quite on that level. After the somewhat disappointing Mario Sunshine, Mario Galaxy and its sequel came pretty close to 64’s caliber.
Curiously, Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS probably came the closest to 64’s style. It was a brilliant design, fusing the free-roaming 3D platforming of the main console Mario games with the mechanics and bite-sized levels of the classic side-scrollers in the Mario series. The result was a game that gave the illusion of grandness and scale from Mario 64, but could be played in short bursts on the go. That gameplay style was perfect for a handheld, but can it scale up to the size of a console game and work just as well?
Yes. Yes it most certainly can. 3D World takes the framework established by its predecessor and goes hog wild with it, cramming it with content and a potentially chaotic multiplayer. As Wii U’s first main Mario series entry, 3D World wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for but it is an incredibly pleasant surprise nonetheless.
3D World has the same basic level structure as 3D Land—smaller, more focused stages with limited camera movement and a heavier focus on platforming and strong gameplay fundamentals. The early levels are fairly straightforward to acclimate new players but by the halfway point, things get wonderfully weird. In a lot of ways it reminds me of the Mario Galaxy series in that each level takes a simple, oftentimes abstract idea like swapping platforms, diving off of tiny islands in the sky or ice skating and builds a whole stage around that idea.
This makes for a frankly amazing variety of different level designs but can occasionally give the game a disjointed, inconsistent feeling. Not inconsistent in quality, I stress, but sometimes the game throws so many cool concepts at you in sequence that it’s hard to keep up. At one point you’ll be exploring underwater caverns and in the next level you’ll be zipping down a Mario Kart-themed track. This same “anything goes” level design approach was introduced in its current form in 3D Land so I had an idea of what to expect, but it’s still fairly astonishing to see that Nintendo hasn’t run out of crazy ideas to turn into Mario levels.
It helps that they’ve added some fresh powerups to the formula, and not something lame like the flying squirrel suit from New Super Mario U. The cat bell is the one you’ve probably seen in all the advertising but to be fair it adds a significant new dimension to the gameplay and level design. Most Mario powerups in the past—the frog suit, the Goomba shoe, the stupid squirrel suit—conferred an exciting new ability but at some crippling or highly impractical tradeoff, to the point where it hardly seemed worth it, but not the cat suit. In fact, it feels a little overpowered at times. As a cat you can climb up walls, swipe at enemies with claws and even perform a dive attack. It certainly makes platforming and offense easier, and the climbing ability is necessary for snagging some of the game’s hidden secrets.
The cat bell might seem like a “training wheels” powerup to ease novice players into the game, but I think it adds something special. It isn’t just trading fireballs for a cape, or hammers for frog flippers in that one really annoying water level. With so many cool abilities packed into one costume, it makes you work that much harder to preserve your powerup and it’s that much more painful when you lose it. Don’t worry that it’s all about the cat ears, however. There is also a the new double-cherry, a fruit that adds a clone every time you pick one up; imagine six Marios running around shooting off fireballs and you get the idea. Classic abilities and more recent ones alike return in 3D World, including the Tanooki suit, fire flower and even the wearable propeller, coin and cannon blocks from 3D land. These abilities sadly don’t show up as often as the cat suit, and the balance makes them feel a little like scripted events.
One superpowered player at a time was reasonably balanced in 3D Land, but with four players at once, employing a combination of fireballs, cat powers and boomerangs, 3D World gets crazy even for a Mario game. While 3D World is perfectly playable alone, you don’t get a taste of its true potential until you round up three friends. Four people can play simultaneously as Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad, and just like in Super Mario Bros 2 on the NES, each character handles a little differently.
Mario is the most balanced, with a speed and jump that are easy to handle, but he doesn’t have any outstanding strengths or weaknesses. Luigi jumps the highest but, like in Mario Galaxy, he has poor traction. Peach is the slowest character but has the invaluable ability to hover for a few seconds, making her better for tricky platforming. Toad is the fastest character but he can’t jump as high as the others and he falls a lot faster. Then, of course there’s the secret character, Mario Galaxy’s Queen Rosalina. She’s unlocked after you beat the game once and possesses the spin attack that Mario had in the Galaxy games.
The game is completely beatable—and with 100% completion—with any character; you can play the whole thing solo as Toad or completely school Bowser in every level as Peach, but it’s a lot more fun with friends. The game supports any combination of the GamePad, Wii remotes, Pro Controllers or even Classic Controller, but as expected the GamePad player has some extra abilities. Like in New Super Mario Bros U, the GamePad lets you reveal secrets and impede enemies, and a few of the levels are explicitly built around the GamePad. Some secrets require that you activate platforms or blow on the microphone to reveal items and open pathways.
That said, Nintendo has done a remarkable job with the asymmetric gameplay. Not once during our playtest sessions did my friends fight over who got the GamePad next; in fact, trying to survive a level and help my friends out at the same time took some mental gymnastics, so I was happy to pass the GamePad around after a few hectic levels. Hectic is usually a pretty good way to describe it. The multiplayer can be an absolute blast with some of the craziest chaos I’ve seen in a platformer, but sometimes it isn’t terribly conducive to beating the game.
This problem cropped up a lot in the New Super Mario Bros series: four people, running around uncoordinated, stealing powerups and lives (unintentionally or not) and often bounding off other players’ heads and sending them to an untimely death down a bottomless pit (again, maybe on purpose, maybe not). I’ve often half-joked that New Super Mario Wii probably ended some marriages, but realistically without coordination and teamwork the games could very easily degenerate into a giant headache for everyone involved.
The nature of 3D World goes a long way to mitigating this problem. With some depth and breathing space to work in, it’s a lot harder to snatch up all the powerups that spring from item boxes, even accidentally, and I can’t remember one time that I got bounced into a pit. However, 3D Land is a game with plenty of secrets, like any good Mario game, and as expected the later levels put special items and the rare, level-unlocking green stars in tricky platforming sequences. Grabbing these green starts can be difficult enough on your own, but with three goofball friends taking up the screen, in a “who cares!” party environment and on a particularly challenging level, it’s easy for your friends to burn through your collected 1-ups in short order, ending family game night in frustration.
In these situations I’ve found that being the player with the GamePad makes a lot of difference. While my friends watched the TV screen I could pay closer attention to the GamePad, which displays the exact same thing and, for me at least, made it a lot easier to keep track of my character. It was still difficult to beat the hardest levels and grab all the green stars in 4-player, so I recommend running through the game solo first to nab all the secrets, so that 4-player mode with less experienced people can be played “just for fun.” That said, if you’d prefer to beat the game cooperatively for the first time, it might be better to play your first run in 2-player co-op, maybe with a significant other, sibling or buddy you get along with particularly well, and ideally someone who is an experienced gamer. Nailing a hard level on your first try, tag-teaming with a partner to get all the secrets, is an extremely satisfying experience that is hard to put into words.
Having friends along for the ride also makes a difference in just experiencing what 3D World has to offer, specifically, just how pretty everything is. 3D World doesn’t quite reach the artistic heights of the Mario Galaxy series—it’s cleaner and simpler than Galaxy, more along the lines of the New Super games. Still, watching my friends’ eyes widen in amazement at the latest crazy level or new world we opened up was strangely fulfilling. This is the first 3D, home console Mario game in HD, and Nintendo seems to realize the importance of that. Delicate pixel shaders grace every surface, some of the backdrops are nothing less than stunning, and even the cat suits have fuzzy fur mapping that makes them look soft and adorable.
The music isn’t quite on the level of Galaxy either, but that’s not a knock against it. Galaxy was an adventure on a cosmic scale and needed a sweeping orchestral score to match. 3D World, on the other hand, is more like classic Mario. The music is almost completely orchestrated but it’s smaller, punchier, light-hearted and fun. I recognized several tracks from 3D Land and it was great to hear them done instrumentally instead of synth.
Ultimately, it’s kind of difficult for me to nail down just what I thought of Mario 3D World. It isn’t exactly what I wanted but it’s still an amazing game and I’m not even close to finding all of its secrets. Nintendo often does this—they give their fans something amazing, but not necessarily in the exact form that they were expecting.3D World takes 3D Land and expands it in the literal sense—more levels, more players, new items—but not necessarily in concept or innovation.
3D World is to 3D Land what Mario Galaxy 2 was to its predecessor; Nintendo has poured a ton of effort into exploring and building within the superb structure they previously created, instead of creating a whole new paradigm from scratch. In that respect I’m still waiting for the second coming of Mario 64 that I’ve always wanted…but damn, does Mario 3D World come really, really close. If this truly is the last Mario game that Miyamoto-san will be directly involved with, as has been rumored, he’s left one heck of a crowning achievement on the Mario series.
Regardless of where 3d World stands in the pantheon of Mario games or what my expectations were, I can objectively state that Wii U has its killer app now. Smash Bros and Mario Kart might change things down the line, but this holiday Super Mario 3D World is the only reason you need to own a Wii U. It is unarguably the best game on the console right now.
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