Gaming’s most famous mascot distills joyousness in a way that almost defies explanation. Mario isn't an anthropomorphic Siberian husky, he’s a portly, hirsute Italian plumber, and yet he and a collection of simplistic cartoon enemies manage to instill that same fuzzy feeling in their audience over and over again while an endless stream of contemporaries that seem to tick all the same boxes just feel come off as phoney and childish.
Are Mario games genuinely better? Is it quality or merely the illusion of nostalgia? Marketing? Culture? Do these rhetorical questions even matter? The fact remains that despite being superficially not-to-dissimilar from other platformers, the core 3D games are nearly always better, and Super Mario 3D World is a perfect example of this.
Perfect because, compared to the recent Galaxy titles, which are a tour-de-force of endlessly creative level and graphic design and wear their quality on their fireman-red sleeves, 3D World is bare and restrained. It’s still a beautiful game. The blocks of bold primary colours are as exceptional in HD on the Wii U as they were in 16bit on the Super Nintendo. Mathematically, however, there’s just less going on in any given level. There are fewer enemy types. Fewer platform types and fewer permutations on the ways platforms are arranged in 3D space. While Galaxy sent Mario elatedly spinning between contrasting globes made of cake to enormous toys, 3D World’s levels tend to be formed of basic squares and triangles. Nintendo’s most recent Mario game also tends to stick to stock level types such as beach, fire, ice and grass.
If you were merely to watch footage of gameplay on YouTube, then it would appear that Nintendo had taken a step back with 3D World. In reality, however, its most recent Mario game benefits from these design choices thanks to its multiplayer.
3D World toes the line between cooperative and competitive multiplayer. Four characters are playable: Mario, Luigi, Peach and a Toad. Luigi can jump higher than other characters thanks to his gangly frame and Toad can dash faster. Peach can float on her petticoats for a moment at the peak of a jump and Mario has intermediate stats. Points are scored throughout each level based on coins collected, enemies dispatched and even the height reached on the classic end of level flagpole. A crown is given to the player who accumulates the most points over the course of any given level, and it persists with that player into the next course and absorbs damage much like a big mushroom.
3D World handily outdoes the Galaxy titles in one obvious department, and that’s in its use of power-up items. They are nearly endless, intuitive to use, and provide new unique methods to grab points and finish levels. The moment a player grabs a golden bell and becomes a cat-onesied version of him or herself, the immediate instinct is to run towards walls and ascend them in a flurry of scrambling claws. Another favourite are the double-cherry items, fruits that can clone any character. Picking up the item a second time will grant a second clone. Little looks more comical than a trio of toads dashing around a level in perfect synchronization, only to all miss a jump and drop off level as a group, six little feet flailing.
Just as in the New Super Mario Bros. games, avatars in 3D World are corporeal and can be interacted with. Toad can toss Peach like a sack of potpourri. Luigi can bounce on his more famous brother’s head. One player can get ahead far enough in the level that one or more members of his team are forced to abandon whatever they were doing, most likely collecting coins and trouncing goombas to rack up points to catch up, lest they be bumped into the abyss.
It all makes for the perfect amount of trolling. A team might’ve collected all three green stars, effectively perfecting a level. The victory flagpole is in sight and the one teammate who remains alive is empowered with the perfect perks to enable her to get to the very top of it and grab the maximum amount of points. Not enough points, unfortunately, to place her in first place for the level so instead of winning she wriggles her little tanooki-toes until the Luigi she controls floats over empty space and dies. It sounds mean spirited, but in reality, the levels simply aren’t long enough for this kind of behaviour to be deeply frustrating. A tad annoying, sure, but nobody will be shattering gamepads.
It's an immaculately paced game that doesn’t have any notable low points. Levels range from desperate single room challenges that must be completed in a few seconds, to Sonic The Hedgehog-like sections that possess momentum and feel like a mini-racing game swaddled within a cooperative platformer.
Super Mario 3D World isn’t Galaxy, and those approaching this game as if it were the third instalment in that series will come away disappointed. 3D world is a superbly-crafted game that takes everything that worked about Mario’s most recent 2D outings and refines them for a 3D platform. Highly recommended.