Super Mario 3D World is a game of incredible joy and immense fun. This is probably the best compliment I can give to the game. Almost every inch of this experience has been polished and designed with care in order to bring a smile to the player. Mario moves with a tightness and precision that makes moving around in his world a pleasure and allows for an optimum input system that allows you to focus on maneuvering through the many varied and interesting obstacles in his path. The visuals are bright and beautiful; beachside levels glisten in the sun and food-themed levels are so delectable that I want to take a bite out of my TV screen. The catch here is that while 3D World is nothing less than a great video game and does a lot to set it apart from previous Super Mario games, it is still a very familiar experience, and is plagued by that feeling of "been here, done this, seen that, seen this" that has bogged down the Mario series since the original Super Mario Galaxy.
Despite this, one of 3D World's strengths is that it is not afraid to ignore recently overused series staples and do something new. While Bowser is present and accounted for, there's no Bowser Jr., no Koopalings, no clown copter, no airships, and no Yoshi; instead we have new bosses like a gigantic regal snake with a kickass battle theme, auto-scrolling train levels as well as Super Mario Bros. 3's auto-scrolling tank brigades recreated in 3D (more Mario 3 nostalgia, yes, but fresher than the airships), and a new dino buddy named Plessie. Yoshi does not need to be in every Mario game. Neither does anything besides Mario's ability to run and jump. 3D World is a more exciting and more engaging Mario game because it is not afraid to throw out conventions that have been bogging down the series for years in favor of a new experience. And even though Bowser is still here and I would appreciate a different villain for a change (the Mario series, even the platformers, have had villains other than Bowser, believe it or not), I don't mind Bowser in this game too much because of one of 3D World's other positive traits: it has personality.
|We've seen Mario fight Bowser before, but never like this|
Bowser isn't just the cliché that turns into a giant at the end of the game for the final lava-filled boss fight; he appears as soon as the first castle, driving a gigantic purple Cadillac and throwing soccer ball bombs at you. He has a swanky theme song and has taken to carnival life this time around; in fact, the game even toys with player expectations towards the end, delivering one of the more satisfying and original finales the series has seen in a decade. This is the kind of creativity I like to see in a Mario game, which can really be about anything at all and should feel free to branch out, something games like Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy understood, and that Super Mario 3D Land and especially the New Super Mario Bros. series do the opposite of. More so than any Super Mario game since Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3D World feels like a new Mario game.
Another aspect that helps this feeling is the plot and setting: 3D World takes place in a new kingdom known as the Sprixie Kingdom, where Bowser is not capturing Princess Peach this time but bottling a bunch of fairy-like Sprixie Princesses Link-style. While the game has merely traded one damsel in distress for another (or seven others, to be exact), compared to other recent entries, it's a revolutionary new story. So if Peach hasn't been kidnapped, than what is she doing in this game? Saving the day and kicking Bowser's ass, that's what! For the first time in a main series Super Mario platformer since Super Mario Bros. 2/USA, Princess Peach is fully playable, hover jump and all. So are Mario, Luigi, Toad, and a secret fifth character that isn't a secret at all because Nintendo decided to spoil the surprise before the game came out and let it be plastered all over the internet (I guess this is just how it goes these days, but still, I chose not to watch Nintendo's reveal video for this character and two seconds later the thumbnail of another video talking about the reveal video spoiled the character for me). I defeated Bowser at the end with Peach the first time just because I could (and sent the overgrown turtle flying into a pit of lava with a shrunken little Peach in one of the game's other Bowser battles), and after jumping, climbing, and Tanooki-ing with the princess for half the game, I see no sensible reason why she should ever play the damsel again, because she's clearly capable of handling herself against Bowser and his minions. Players can choose whichever character they want at the start of each course, and while Mario still handles the best, the variety each character lends to the game is another welcome new addition.
|Above: a sort of new plot! Below: Princess Peach is finally playable again!|
Oh, the soundtrack! What a surprise, and it really shouldn't be, but with so many Mario games lately just recycling the same music tracks or remixing classic ones, the varied, jazzy, big bandy OST of Super Mario 3D World is such a welcome inclusion. The soundtrack is an example of why I respect this game because it represents the effort put into the presentation. It would have been very easy for the developers to simply slap the old airship theme as the BGM for the tank brigade levels (both the airship and tank levels share the same theme in Mario 3 after all), but a brand new track, one that echoes the old airship theme but is entirely original, was composed for these levels instead. So much care was put into the musical presentation of the game that an original track was composed solely for the only desert-themed level present in the game. This track will only be heard for a few minutes by most players, but the game's composers still went to the effort of creating an original piece for this level instead of recycling something else (there are a few other compositions that only play on a single level as well). That's the kind of dedication and care that the makes the New Super Mario Bros. series lazy, uninspired, and mediocre, and Super Mario 3D World special. I'm also surprised that almost the entire soundtrack was composed using live instruments. Even though it's mostly fully orchestrated, the soundtrack has a different feel than that of the Super Mario Galaxy games, which have a decidedly epic and grand flavor; 3D World's OST, on the other hand, is more akin to the style of classic Mario tunes, except made using a live orchestra. They're simpler, catchier melodies, but that doesn't necessarily make them inferior (and the game also isn't without its epic and moving pieces as well). But many of the tunes in the game also feel very different than traditional Mario fare or anything we've heard before in the series, making the soundtrack very unique as well. In fact, this is one of my favorite OSTs in any Mario game and I was constantly surprised and delighted with each new piece that I heard in the game. The overall theme of the soundtrack is jazz and big band-inspired pieces, but this doesn't encompass the entirety of the soundtrack and there is a ton of variety here. The big band athletic theme and it's more relaxed tropical remix are exciting and joyous; then there's the catchy violin of the other athletic theme; but the more slow-paced and moving ghost house piece contrasts these and feels more like something out of BioShock, but still fits the levels so well; the savanna theme is another favorite that I had stuck in my head after hearing it once in a trailer for the game, and I already mentioned Bowser's theme and giant snake boss, Hisstocrat's interesting and unforgettable melody, which I originally fell in love with when it accompanied the fantastic second trailer for the game. Even beyond the music, the overall sound design in 3D World, from Mario's tinkering footsteps on glassy surfaces and the creaking of boards as he explores the Japanese castle to all the personable one-liners and grunts and yelps from the cast, is exceptionally well-executed and just makes the game that much more charming.
|The level designs are varied and gorgeous|
controls terribly. The main newcomer, the cat suit, however, is perhaps the best new power-up since the classic days. The cat suit not only adds oodles of charm and personality to the experience, but it's simply a lot of fun to use, a joy to master, and useful in numerous ways, such as being able to climb up a wall to save yourself from a pit, or being able to dive-bomb enemies from above. The sheer amount of things a player can do with the cat suit, some that don't even serve much of a function but are just there for fun, and the attention to detail with the cat-like animations is impressive for a single Mario power-up. They definitely weren't lazy with this one. The double cherry is also interesting and a lot of fun, especially when used in conjunction with other power-ups like the fire flower. There are even some power-ups that are hidden abilities that the game doesn't teach the player how to perform up-front. Like other modern Mario games, most levels give you the same power-up throughout a level and levels often somehow revolve around a single power-up. I wish there was more mix and match experimentation with power-ups across the levels like in classic Mario titles, where bringing a fire flower into a level might be useful, but a raccoon leaf might also prove useful in the same level (and when losing a power-up actually felt like a big deal since you weren't guaranteed to get the same power-up two seconds later). I do, however, feel like 3D World does a good job in providing a fair balance of all of its powers across stages (with the head-lining cat suit being used most frequently of course), so every power-up gets a lot of use and nothing feels shoehorned in simply for the sake of it (like Yoshi does in New Super Mario Bros. Wii). It is also great to see the Mega Mushroom in a fully 3D game and not only do the giant character models look great but it's a ton of fun to use.
Even without any power-ups, Mario's moveset is more full than ever in this game; he can roll, roll jump, spin jump, butt stomp and then fly into the air with a new high jump...the range of available actions is vast, and while not all are always useful, they're fun to learn and play around with. The only move that seems to be missing is Mario's triple jump (you know: WAH! YAH! WAHOO!), which was also absent from 3D Land. As I mentioned, the game's base level design isn't particularly challenging (until the game's final, optional, unlockable level, Champion's Road, which completing with all five characters, a feat required for 100%, is probably the most difficult challenge I've ever completed in a Super Mario game), but I don't particularly mind this because players can control how challenging they want the experience to be because as always, going for the hidden collectables in each stage (this time, green stars and stamps) adds more challenge (and while most of these are fairly straightforward to locate, they are sometimes harder to actually acquire and a select few are truly deviously hidden). Also, I don't need Mario games to be extra challenging as I play them mainly to have a fun and joyful experience rather than for a very steep challenge. After finding all of the collectables in a level, there's not much else to these courses though. Sure, there are a few other fairly easy-to-find hidden secrets that yield 1-ups, coins, or a power-up, and replaying levels is fun just for the sheer quality of their aesthetics and design, but I feel like there's not as much depth to these stages as in classic Mario games. I'm still finding new secrets to this day in Super Mario Bros. 3 and I feel like every nook of the levels in that game holds some kind of mystical prize and going out of one's way to fly off the screen or check every pipe is always rewarded. I miss the days of hidden warp whistles and ducking behind the scenery, of carefully hidden secrets that blew my mind. 3D World has a few things like this that I didn't find and had to read about online, but very few...like literally only two actually (as far as I know that is...). Again, it's fun to replay stages just because of the joy of it all, but I feel like I've rung 3D World dry whereas repeat visits of classic Super Mario games often yield new treats. To be fair though, this is not an issue exclusive to 3D World, but one I have with most modern Super Mario titles.
|3D World has more tricks than just a cat suit|
But 3D World still isn't quite where I want the Super Mario series to be and this is mainly due to a still recurring "been there, done that" feeling persistent throughout the game. This is easily the most original Mario game in at least three years, but it still has that tried and true formula of "travel through eight main worlds containing five+ levels and a castle (or in this game's case, either a castle level, train level, or tank level), with three collectibles in each level (four this time counting the stamps)". The game is full of delights, but it still feels like going through the motions in the end and as the game went on, I began to feel a bit of fatigue due to the repetitive nature of a formula that I'm so familiar with. The game also feels very reminiscent of the Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3D Land (besides just being the same brand of 2D/3D Mario hybrid that 3D Land is), utilizing a lot of familiar and re-used level gimmicks from those games. Stage gimmicks like the flip-swap platforms and beat blocks are still great ideas, but some of these gimmicks we're seeing for the third time in this game and they've run their course at this point. I'd rather see brand new ideas in their place.
I always maintain that all the Super Mario games up to and including the original Super Mario Galaxy feel completely different and unique from each other (barring the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2, also known as "The Lost Levels" and the original New Super Mario Bros., which I've always thought feels like a watered-down version of Super Mario Bros. 3, with elements borrowed from other classic titles as well for the sake of nostalgia): Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2/USA, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World all have their own distinct identities; Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy all distinctly stand apart from one another as well. The two Game Boy titles, Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins are also two very unique experiences. But just as the four New Super Mario Bros. games all blend together and lack their own unique personalities, the four Nintendo EAD Tokyo-developed games--Galaxy 1 and 2, 3D Land and 3D World--all share elements in common as well. Power-ups, level gimmicks, some music, and other elements are shared from game to game and while these four games are mostly more distinct from one another than the New Super Mario Bros. series (and vastly superior to that series in every other way as well, with 3D Land being a possible exception), they still mix together and cross identities in many ways and as a result don't feel like the bold individuals their ancestors are. As I said earlier, 3D World feels more like a truly "new" Super Mario than any other entry in recent years, but after completing it, it still doesn't feel nearly as fresh as Super Mario Galaxy did in 2007, or Sunshine did before that. All this homogeneity makes the Super Mario series feel less special than it did before, less like each game is a separate, innovative entity that justifies its existence and more like the series is becoming a "yearly franchise" where each new title takes the previous one, adds some new elements to what already exists and "updates" the franchise rather than reinvents it. For an on-going series as old as Mario, this "reinvention" is necessary to keep the series relevant and engaging, otherwise it will become stagnant and even an old fan like me will lose interest.
|Recurring level gimmicks like the red and blue flip-swap platforms (top to bottom: Super Mario Galaxy 2, Super Mario 3D Land, Super Mario 3D World) contribute an ever-growing homogeneity between the Super Mario games|
The damn timer. Giving players an average of 400 half-seconds (because Mario seconds are shorter than actual seconds) to explore each level is a huge design oversight in my eyes, and I find it hard to believe that a game with such care and polish put into every other category managed to have such a stupid flaw. The timer adds nothing to the experience but takes away so much. Some say the time limit adds "challenge". Bullshit. Rayman Origins doesn't have a timer. Donkey Kong Country Returns doesn't have a timer. Both of these games are overall far more challenging than 3D World. The timer adds nothing. You know what else Rayman and DKCR have in common? They both have optional time attack modes, which is what 3D World should have had. Why craft such detailed, beautiful levels only to rush me through them with an obnoxious time limit? Hard as I tried, as the game went on, I couldn't help myself from constantly glancing up at the upper right-hand corner of the screen, constantly in fear of the timer counting down. Overdramatic? Maybe, but this one oversight seriously impacted my enjoyment of this game.
I never have much of an issue with the timer is 2D Mario games and even in 3D Land because the levels are always short and compact enough for me not to notice it, but many of 3D World's levels are much larger, more detailed, and encourage exploration, especially with the new cat suit that makes me want to climb every single wall just to see what's up there. I can't tell you how many times on my initial runthrough of the game I found myself annoyingly running out of time and having to either rush through the rest of the level or kill myself after reaching the mid-way checkpoint flag to reset the clock. I might be able to overlook the timer if it was adjusted accordingly, giving much more time for larger levels and less time for shorter ones, but it seems that little thought was put into this aspect. Some of the levels in 3D World are designed less as linear point A to B environments and more as open areas that invite exploration. 3D Land had levels like this as well, except that game always gave the player not only more initial time but plenty of extra time bonuses to find in the level, so while the timer still shouldn't have been there at all, it at least never hampered my enjoyment of that game. The open levels in 3D World don't give the player nearly as much time as those in 3D Land did.
The timer problem really hit home for me on the gorgeous, open "Sprawling Savanna" level, where after going through an opening portion of the level, cat Mario is unleashed on a wide-open plain full of bunnies to chase, little goodies to collect, and secrets to find. There's just one problem: the first time I was playing this level, when I got to the actual "savanna" part of the level, which is really where the course truly begins, I looked at the clock and I only had 163 seconds left to enjoy myself. Look, I take my time with games, I'll admit, but ignoring the fact that I never thought that taking my time to enjoy and appreciate every inch of a carefully-crafted level is a sin, this is still absolutely unforgivable. But what makes me even more angry and also baffled is how the Savanna level gives the player a starting time of 400 seconds on the clock to complete it, with a handful of +10 seconds bonuses scattered throughout that barely add much comfort, while some other stages that are more linear and much shorter give the player 500 seconds. I noticed that most of the levels in the first world give the player 500 seconds but later worlds' levels offer less time with most levels starting with an average of 400 seconds. I assume that this is supposed to add "challenge". Again: bullshit. It's irritating and makes the game less enjoyable, plain and simple, especially when the level in question is open and designed to be explored. In fact, there is a shorter, more compact version of the Savanna level in one of the game's special worlds (which remix old stages similar to the special worlds in 3D Land), and not only does this shorter version give the player more time to start with (500 seconds) but it contains a +100 seconds bonus in the level. I had more than enough time to finish this level, but had to rush through the first version. If the timer is an attempt at added challenge, than why is the supposedly more challenging version of the level equipped with much more time? It's ill-thought-out, stupid design in an otherwise expertly-crafted video game. That's just really frustrating. When I revisited levels that I was familiar with in the game, the timer became less of a problem, and many levels do contain those +10 and +100 seconds bonus clocks (I found them often being an inadequate bonus though), but even very early in the game, the time limit was a huge sore point for me that frustrated me to no end. Here was a beautiful, fun, creative experience that I really wanted to love, but couldn't because of a poorly-thought-out, archaic design mechanic from the 80s. This stuff needs to go, Nintendo. It really needs to go. (Note: keep in mind that I'm not referring to the levels that are specifically designed around having a short time limit, such as the ones that start with 100 seconds on the clock or the mystery house levels which give a player 10 seconds to complete a short challenge; the timer is these stages serves a purpose and does add to the experience. There is a big difference between these levels, which are purposefully designed with the time limit in mind, and the incorporation of the timer in traditional stages.)
|I know you want to enjoy that beautiful sunset, Peach, but only 146 seconds left on the clock: better hustle! (this is the beginning of the "Sprawling Savanna" level by the way)|
The game has some other issues, mainly a perspective issue when it comes to precision platforming. Because many of the levels have a fixed camera with a view from the side (as opposed to behind the player character) and yet players must maneuver Mario through a 3D space, there were several times during my play-time that I miss-judged jumps and or didn't land where I thought I'd land due to the awkward perspective. It's not a game-breaking issue, but it is an issue that I also sometimes had with 3D Land and one that isn't present in the fully 3D Mario games like Galaxy. There is an option to change the camera angle in most levels (though not all), and also a more free-roaming camera mode, but these options are very restricted and I found that although flawed, the game's default camera position was still usually the most ideal option available. Mario's handling is also a bit different than in previous 3D installments with the game employing a "three-tiered" style of running that can take some getting used to. When holding down the run button, a character will start doing a light jog before bursting into their full-on run. This mechanic can feel a little sluggish at first, and I often found myself having to run around in circles on narrow platforms just to keep my momentum up, as stopping would mean having to slowly "charge up" my run again (if I did stop, I would usually also run around in a circle until it was fully charged). It's an odd and cumbersome design change that I eventually got used to, but I'm not sure why the running doesn't just work like it did in 3D Land. 3D Land had a similar style but Mario went into his full running speed very quickly after holding down the run button. Running feels natural in that game, but it feels less so in 3D World. I'm usually constantly holding down the run button in a Super Mario platformer, so having this slightly stilted system does make the control a little less than optimal (although bursting into that full run as a trail of dust erupts behind Mario is very satisfying and once you are in a fun sprint, a character feels very satisfying to control). I also encountered a weird glitch several times throughout my playthrough. The game would freeze while it was in the process of saving and would get stuck in a never-ending loop where it just wouldn't stop saving. This would cause me to force a shut-down of the console and risk losing my save data. This happened to me about five times and there didn't seem to be any apparent cause; it also wasn't just my game as far as I can tell, because I read about some others having the same issue online. Thankfully, I never lost any save data, and because the game auto-saves after every level, I would only have to reply the last level that I just recently completed. I was lucky that this never happened after completing one of the game's tougher challenges, and if this had happened after completing Champion's Road with any of the characters, stuff would have been broken. I probably wouldn't have a working Wii U GamePad anymore.
|The new way running works can be awkward and the perspective of the action can sometimes lead to frustrating mistakes|
Super Mario 3D World is flawed and familiar, but it's also fresh and fun. Despite the game not being quite the bold new Super Mario game that I want, it is an undeniably polished and immensely satisfying video game. It has heart and a kitty-fueled fun personality that many other Mario games lack these days. Every little detail of this game (besides the timer) has been carefully crafted with the express purpose of bringing delight to the player, such as being able to decorate a giant cake landscape with rainbow-colored sprinkles with the touch of a finger to the GamePad, the way that Mario and co. kick up massive dust clouds as they run and how Mario holds his hands at his sides full sprint in the same way he did in Super Mario Bros. 2/USA ("mayor Luigi"-style), and how players can blow into the GamePad's microphone to send a group of tiny Goombas flying off a cliff. Oh, right, I guess I should mention the GamePad-specific abilities. By blowing into the microphone and touching the GamePad, players can make certain things happen. This can be used for added charm like the things I just mentioned, or in more practical ways like being able to find secret blocks and shake trees of their contents. The Japanese castle level has players opening sliding doors with the touch of a finger and banging on gongs with a tap. There's also one very gimmicky level that uses the touching and blowing features to manipulate platforms: it's a decent idea, but I'm thankful it's only in the one level because to be honest, it's a bit of a mess. Touching platforms on the GamePad while trying to jump across them on the TV screen and holding the microphone up to your face constantly to move other platforms...it's not terrible, but it's just unintuitive. This kind of thing reminds me of the forced motion control levels in the Galaxy games; you know, the worst part of those games? I wish EAD Tokyo would just spare us and leave this gimmickry out of their Mario games. This shoehorning of GamePad support is exactly the opposite of the subtle way that I want the technology to be used.
In the sea of all the recent disappointments in the series, from the New Super Mario Bros. series to Paper Mario: Sticker Star, Super Mario 3D World is easily my favorite Mario game since Galaxy 2; it's just not quite the next revolution and that next truly original game that I want from the series. It's annoying that some of the game's flaws could have easily been fixed with more options. If people want a timer, why not just have time trials unlocked after completing a stage once like every other modern platformer has? Why not an option to turn the timer off at the very least? And on that note, can I please have the option to turn off the game-breaking White Tanooki Leaf from ever appearing in a level? But damnit, 3D World, when you're this unrelentingly, gleefully fun, I just can't stay mad at you.