Classic Mario with a Galaxy twist.
If you’re like me, you find it hard to get too much Mario. Every year or two I get an itch for some good old platforming, and while you’d think the concept would have staled by now, the wizards at Nintendo always seem to find a way to spice things up sufficiently enough to keep it interesting. The darlings of the series most recently have been the critically acclaimed Galaxy games, which arguably could be the best content Nintendo has ever produced as a company. So when it was announced that the Galaxy team would be working on a new Mario game that is probably closer to New Super Mario Bros. than it is Super Mario Galaxy, the response was that of mixed emotion: sure, it’s exciting to see them toiling away at what would likely be another blockbuster platforming adventure, but at the same time, after having experienced the majesty and creativity of Galaxy, not much else can compare.
But have faith! While the (optional) multiplayer design might inhibit the cinematics of Super Mario 3D World’s progression as compared to Galaxy, there’s still plenty of creativity on tap. Surprising enough is the fact that it was actually possible to pull off this multiplayer strategy without the action devolving into the utter chaos that was most of NSMB, but even in spite of that, the single-player approach feels perfectly adequate on its own. Let’s expound.
Super Mario 3D World is sort of like a cross between the New Super Mario Bros. and 3D Mario games. It walks a middle ground that incorporates elements from both offshoots in such a way that you’ll often feel like you’re playing both. Presentation-wise, the game is certainly more on the level of NSMB, exchanging much of the mind-bending and heroic cinematics for the playful and silly cuteness of traditional Mario.
But fortunately, for the very first time in series history, the quality of the presentation hasn’t regressed as a result: although the attitude is playful and the action more conventional, the soundtrack is still mostly live recordings, and I’m happy to report that it’s fabulous. Most of the majestic orchestra has been replaced by a catchier live jazz routine, which works very well in most cases—though you’ll still find the occasional live symphony tossed into the mix, such as on many of the boss levels—typical Mahito Yokota fare; that is to say, some truly great stuff. The soundtrack ranges from the headlining big band jazz-style pieces (including the main theme, which thankfully doesn’t wear thin thanks to restrained usage and the excellent athletic theme) to smooth jazz (such as the calming beach theme, which is actually a second take on the athletic theme with Caribbean-style instrumentation), all the way to a bit of techno and some really great orchestral arrangements. There are even a few new remixes thrown in for good measure, such as the Super Mario Bros. 2 slot machine theme. Overall, it’s a terrific soundtrack and one of the best in Mario history, even if it does arguably fall just a bit short of the magic of the Super Mario Galaxy material.
Visually, matters are equally impressive. Super Mario 3D World is how you might have expected New Super Mario Bros. U to have looked a year ago; as opposed to simply being higher-resolution and more detailed, it cleverly includes such polished touches as depth-of-field blurring, lots of lighting effects, lens flares, and lots more. The world really feels alive with beautiful animation of trees and pristine water effects too. There are only a handful of examples of situations where repetition notably rears its head—such as in large lava lakes and other expansive distant areas—but it’s nothing distracting. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but this is also the most beautiful Mario adventure to date, and it truly looks like a next-generation game.
Oh, and as for the story: it’s terrible, precisely as it ought to be. Might I humbly suggest that anyone who cares about the story in Mario games might want to take a step back and reevaluate their approach.
Finding the stamp on this level is ROUGH.
How about the actual gameplay, then? Now that presentation is out of the way, let’s get down to the real details. I’ll be the first to tell you that while I thoroughly enjoyed Mario’s latest NSMB adventure, I am nowhere near the fan of that branch of the series as I am of the Galaxy games. I have always found the gameplay and atmosphere both to be more captivating on the Galaxy side of things, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s literally impossible to find anything to criticize about either title. But with Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo has taken a big step in the right direction with their more traditional titles.
For starters, it’s important to reiterate that this game is not a traditional Mario side-scroller. There are plenty of side-scrolling elements, but there’s much more three-dimensional gameplay than two-dimensional. That isn’t a bad thing, however; the way it’s presented, it feels like a good balance of both. It’s not conventional Mario, but it’s a lot more conventional than Galaxy ever tried to be.
To that end, you’ll find that each level (much like in NSMB) is its own item on the map—so you’ll no longer be revisiting the same environment for multiple stars as in Galaxy. Of course, that doesn’t mean you won’t be returning to the levels, however; much like those star coins in NSMB, three green stars are hidden in every level for collection. There’s also a stamp hidden in each of the main levels, and sometimes it can be really tricky to locate. Finally, at the end of each level is a classic Mario flagpole—and you’ll have to hit the top of each and every one (denoted by a gold flag) if you want to complete everything in the game.
Gameplay itself is much like that of any other 3D Mario game with a few notable exceptions. First of all, there is no longer a double- or triple-jump, though the turnaround side flip still exists. There’s also a new addition that sees your character’s running speed kicked up a notch if they run uninterrupted for a couple of seconds straight. It’s a little tough to get used to, but it’s a valid addition to the repertoire nonetheless.
Kuribo's Shoe gets blades!
At the start of each level, you can choose from Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Peach on the fly by pressing the B button. Each character controls slightly differently (yes, Peach can float, which is awesome), though there are only sparse occasions where a particular character is required to collect something (such as buttons marked with a character’s symbol that can only be activated by them). Far more often are scenarios which require a particular power-up to be on hand in order to reach and area or collect a goodie, and sometimes this is a challenge to not only accomplish but simply to discover. For instance, one area requires you to have a fire flower on hand to light two torches (thinking Zelda? You’d be correct… though I won’t say any more). Luckily, the item box also makes a return, allowing you to keep one item in queue for use on demand.
But by far the most useful power-up is the newest addition to the series, Cat Mario. Wearing this suit, Mario is capable of clawing enemies with a quick attack, running at crouching height, dive-kicking (well, sort of, anyway), and—perhaps best of all—scaling walls up to a certain height. The latter ability allows Cat Mario to reach hidden areas that would otherwise be impossible to find, and it’s where you’ll find a fair share of difficult green stars and stamps for collection. Other power-ups include Fire, Tanooki, Boomerang, Giant, Propeller, Cannon, and Light box Mario, all of which are exceptionally useful depending on the situation.
Cat Mario is awesome.
If there’s just one item that I wouldn’t mind seeing them leave out of future Mario games, it’s the Double Cherry. While it sounds like a great idea, it’s actually horribly cumbersome in practice: although your doubles all control simultaneously, they’re slowly separated and spread out by obstacles and other hazards. This requires you to regroup them at a nearby wall or risk losing them to a pit or similar. Some of the game’s most challenging (read: frustrating) sequences involve Double Cherries, such as one in particular which leverages rolling circular lifts in conjunction with lots of enemies and a Double Cherry that you have to hang onto until later in the level to reach a lift that takes you to a green star. It’s a nightmare.
While the power-ups provide a great deal of variety to the adventure, the real genius lies in the level designs, which are just about as clever as ever. Ideas are rarely recycled, with each level possessing its own twists and challenges and lots of fresh concepts. You’ll find a veritable menagerie of environments ranging from the traditional ghost houses and colorful plains all the way to circus levels and jungles heralding the return of the dreaded purple Death Water. Oh yes—be prepared to curse. There are even a couple of wild extras, such as a touch-based Japanese dojo level and a Super Mario Kart inspired sequence tackled on foot with boost pads and well-timed jumps.
There are also clear pipes which will whiz you around the levels, under the ground, and through the walls, and a dinosaur named Plessie who you can ride through bodies of water (with intentionally limited control at your fingertips) in an attempt to safely reach the goal. Speaking of which, Yoshi is nowhere to be found this time—though the game feels more than robust enough without him. As is now a requirement of the series as much as it is a luxury, the game repeatedly introduces new concepts and refuses to overuse those from previous encounters. The closest thing to recycled content in Super Mario 3D World are a few of the boss encounters and (spoilers!) the remixed levels you’ll find after completing the main game, which number a few dozen and are incredibly challenging. These levels lack stamps, but they feature their own set of three green stars apiece. If you want the ultimate prize, you’ll have to collect everything to that point, which unlocks the final world.
This is not an easy game.
In terms of overall content, the main game does feel a bit shorter than that of recent Mario side-scrolling titles, though not by much. Post-game content is pretty surprising in its scope as well, though nothing here trumps the total offerings of Super Mario Galaxy 2, which takes the cake for the most ridiculous amount of content in series history. It’s more than worth your money, however, if you’re a Mario follower; Super Mario 3D World feels unique and fresh enough to satisfy veterans like me who can’t get enough of quality platforming content.
One of the biggest differences between this and the Galaxy games (and one of the most striking similarities to NSMB) is the handling of multiplayer. At any time, up to three other players can jump into the action and roam the world with the main player, which is a really cool addition that you’d think would be a total disaster in three dimensions. Fortunately, it’s not—primarily thanks to the simple fact that leaving a player behind doesn’t kill him but rather carries him back to the leader—though clearly the on-screen action is still a whole lot more confusing and chaotic with four bodies roaming the field of pixels versus just one. All in all, it’s actually quite fun, though you’ll find it difficult to beat the toughest challenges with all of the distraction that comes along with it.
Speaking of challenges, the game is not at all easy. If you’re worried about it being a pushover, quit worrying: some of the stuff here is amongst the hardest Mario material in recent memory, assuming you’re going for completion (and if you don’t, you’ll never see all of the areas the game has to offer). It certainly crosses over into frustration territory every so often—which is a little disappointing—but for the most part, it remains fair. In case you’re wondering about length, here’s some SPOILERS for you (in general terms): the main game is perhaps a little shorter than usual, albeit with a couple of interesting twists. But once it’s complete, you unlock the first special world, which is filled with super-difficult levels bearing a heavy Galaxy feel (both in terms of presentation and gameplay). After that, a couple of worlds exist featuring remixed (insanely difficult) versions of previous levels. Once that’s complete, you won’t be able to move on unless every green star, stamp, and golden flagpole is collected. It’s this step that will separate the men from the boys.
The game pulls from every corner of the Mario universe.
Is this the best Mario platformer ever? That’s a loaded question. In my opinion, probably not; nothing twisted my mind like the Galaxy games, and nothing shocked me more than how much better Galaxy 2 was than the amazing original—and, of course, there’s still a special place in my heart for Super Mario 64, Super Mario World, and Super Mario Bros. 3. But it’s certainly a mainline, highly polished title with tons of content, challenge, and inspiration—something we’re starting to take for granted with each and every terrific Mario game that comes our way, but which is still invariably appreciated. If nothing else, it’s a must-have title for Wii U owners, and probably enough to push you over the edge if you’re waiting to buy a system and harbor an appreciation for Nintendo’s platforming contributions.