Since its launch last year, Nintendo’s Wii U has needed something that did not include irresponsible and unnecessary ire and doubt levied against it. It needed to prove itself, and it needed to prove that it did not need the cutting edge of technology under its hood to deliver comprehensively satisfying and engaging gameplay experiences. Super Mario 3D World is the first game I have played for the Wii U that truly harnesses what the system is all about.
In lieu of some very minor issues with its gameplay design, the Wii U’s second Mario title is not just a must-have, it is a bonafide system seller.
Super Mario 3D World‘s story is one that we are all familiar with, however with Princess Peach as a playable character, there is a new damsel in distress. In this case it is plural; damsels, the Sprixie Princesses (Princess Peach’s sorority sisters) to be exact. Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad all journey to the Sprixie Kingdom to rescue them after they witness Bowser kidnapping one of them and escaping through a clear pipe (above). The journey encompasses over seven different worlds, ripe with different levels and challenges. In the process of traversing these worlds, there is a lack of any significant cinematic content between worlds and prior to boss battles to stitch the story together; a slight disappointment.
The design of both the overworld and levels are beautiful. Not since the Super Mario Galaxy sub-series have I seen a Mario game’s design so ripe with color and full of depth, thus delivering as much on its spectacle as it does on its gameplay; a rare feat. Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad all look wonderful in their classic designs. The game’s camera is accurate and on-point a large majority of the time, however I did have some issues with it when playing with a group of people, as there did not seem to be any adequate way for it to give a wider shot to view all of the characters when they were not clustered together. Instead, the game will place the character inside of a bubble and move them back to the center if they decide to run off-screen. Overall the combination of the game’s controls and camera contained a slight, but minimal learning curve, as the use of shadows and camera placement made the depth of the level sometimes misleading and confusing when aiming jumps – whether it be to land on an enemy or a platform.
Like many other Mario games, the story and gameplay are not solely dictated by progressing through levels to rescue the damsel(s), but also by obtaining high scores and collecting green stars (the equivalent of large gold coins in previous games) to unlock stages in some of the later worlds. Perhaps my favorite aspect of this game was when I unlocked a stage that was influenced by 1992’s Super Mario Kart for the Super Nintendo – complete with a remixed rendition of the Mario Circuit theme (above). Nintendo pulled on my nostalgia strings and did not let up. It was the only level I replayed for sheer fun rather than attempting to locate secrets or green stars I had missed.
Green stars are mostly obtained over the course of completing levels normally, while others are obtained via mini-games hidden in purple boxes throughout the levels. These challenges are varied and sway in their difficulty, adding necessary uniqueness in both the overall difficulty level and enjoyment of each stage. Perhaps my favorite were the Captain Toad levels; unique cubicle puzzles that force the player to navigate paths to five green stars with jumping ability stripped.
The general gameplay is akin to the game’s 3DS counterpart, 2012’s Super Mario 3D Land, but it also shares a lot in common with 1988’s Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES. Having not played Super Mario 3D Land, World was a wholly new experience for me. The levels maintain an old-school 2D Mario feeling in their gameplay and placement of power-ups even in light of the minor camera issues. The aforementioned colors, sharpness, and depth lend themselves well to this direction, and they all pop as a result of it.
The strong influence of Super Mario Bros. 2 means that each character – other than Mario – has an aspect that makes them unique. Luigi can jump higher and hold his jump for a slightly longer amount of time, but cannot brake completely on a whim; Toad is lighter and can run faster, and thus fall faster, and Peach can hover while in mid-air, but is slower than most characters. These advantages and disadvantages come into play sparingly in the game itself, and I found that it was less of a headache and more straight-forward to play the game as Mario – both in single and multi-player.
The power-up that is at the forefront and highly promoted around this game is the new cat suit, which can be obtained by picking up a Super Bell. The Super Bell is one of two new power-ups making their canonical debut in Super Mario 3D World. With the popularity of cats around the internet and amongst gamers as a meme, I was slightly surprised that this power-up was not added sooner or in a different capacity. The cat suit allows players to melee enemies in lieu of jumping on them, as well as giving Mario and company the ability to scale walls and unlock areas of the map that would otherwise be inaccessible.
The Super Bell is the most common power-up you will encounter in the game, and while it is fun at first, I can not help but feel that Super Mario 3D World loses out on variety, with this specific power-up being utilized as much as it is. The classic Super Mushroom and Leaf (you can glide, but not fly), and Fire Flower are in the game as well, with the latter two being fairly common. The Mega Mushroom from New Super Mario Bros. and Boomerang Flower from Super Mario 3D Land make very limited appearances throughout the game, likely because they are the most powerful in the game next to the Super Star (which is once again a timed invincibility power-up).
I have immersed myself in a vast, diverse amount of multi-player experiences throughout my gaming career. Super Mario 3D World is not just one the best of those experiences I have had this year, but one of the best I have had this generation. Nintendo was able to strike an equal balance between gameplay elements and levels that challenge each gamer to outplay each other and garner a higher score, while at the same time challenging the group to work as a team. Amidst all of these new and returning elements to the gameplay, Super Mario 3D World‘s strongest point is that while the game is an exhilarating cooperative multi-player experience, it can stand on its own two feet as a single-player experience and be just as enjoyable.
The second singular flaw amidst this otherwise grand and addictive multi-player experience is the lack of separation of player lives. Lives are communal amongst all two, three, or four players, and they can be easily liquidated by a single character if they go on a death-streak; before you know it, Mario and company are on the edge of oblivion.
While engaging and joyful experiences are what define Mario games, they have arguably never been the most cinematic of experiences; despite that aspect, they have delivered some of the best scores in gaming history. It has not been since 2008’s Super Mario Galaxy that I have enjoyed a score as much as I have that of Super Mario 3D World. All of the pieces I heard throughout the game were perfectly composed for their respective levels, with somber or foreboding moods for ghost houses and castles; and cheerful, festive melodies for outdoor areas. The score overall felt like a cross between the classical symphony orchestra we have heard in the Super Mario Galaxy sub-series and the more electronic score of New Super Mario Bros.
The equally epic experiences of playing with friends and by myself are what I will take away most from Super Mario 3D World even after I put it down for the last time. Fans have been clamoring for a return to the Super Mario Galaxy sub-series, and perhaps that will happen eventually. In the meantime, Nintendo has provided a joyful experience in Super Mario 3D World that is unmatched by any other game on the Wii U or on any other couch-co-op current-generation system this year. We play games to have fun, and that is what Super Mario 3D World is best at delivering.