The launch of a three-dimensional Mario platformer on a console always carries huge expectations with it.  Ever since Super Mario 64 redefined 3D gaming and single-handedly sold countless people on the Nintendo 64, each 3D Mario game is expected to somehow match its impact.  Well, that’s physically impossible — literally, we’d have to make a 4D game to recreate it — and we need to accept that.

That doesn’t mean the quality of the games can’t be improved, but from that standpoint, there is a huge amount of pressure.  Super Mario 3D World had overwhelming expectations to live up to after Super Mario Galaxy put the entire genre back on track by emphasizing platforming instead of exploration and Super Mario Galaxy 2 perfected the formula to make one of, if not the best, Nintendo games of all time.

When Super Mario 3D World was revealed at the E3 Nintendo Direct last June, very few people thought it had any chance of meeting those expectations.  The only significant new feature seemed to be the four-player co-op that had previously been confined to 2D Mario.  A backlash against the New Super Mario Bros. games meant that this addition, if anything, made people more convinced that SM3DW would be a disappointment.

The game was criticized for being a direct sequel to the portable Super Mario 3D Land and many assumed it would be a rehash without the creativity shown on Nintendo 64, GameCube, and the original Wii.  If there is one thing I’ve learned from closely following every Mario game from announcement to release, it’s that you cannot judge them by their reveal trailers.  Super Mario 3D World proved this yet again when a better trailer was shown in early October and information began to steadily trickle out leading up to its release.

No, there isn’t a reason everything is a cat. Does it really matter?

So how did the final game turn out?  I’m not going to pretend SM3DW is as innovative as Super Mario 64 or even Super Mario Galaxy, but it doesn’t need to be.  It is a brilliant and creative platformer that is one of the best Mario games ever made.  It is not a reinvention, but like Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy 2, it takes an existing formula, adding to and polishing it until it glows and bursts with content.  Everything from Super Mario 3D Land is present, but it has been so refined that it feels brand new.

Like its similarly named predecessor, SM3DW is an attempt to fully merge the 2D and 3D styles of the Super Mario games.  The levels are all linear stages where the goal is to get from the start to finish — with some optional secret items, of course — through several worlds.  The gameplay, however, is fully three dimensional.  While the camera is not as customizable as in previous 3D Mario games, you are always free to move in three dimensions and levels may be viewed from pretty much any third-person perspective you can think of.

The power-up system works like its 2D predecessors: you can hold onto a special suit until you get hit or overwrite it with a different one, although there are some power-ups that are confined to the level they are found in.  The Double Cherries are confined to certain levels, but are just as fun and inventive.  For each Double Cherry you pick up, you get a copy of your character.  This isn’t a shadow; you have full control over up to six of your character simultaneously.  The levels featuring this are all designed to allow you to herd them into manageable groups and use them to their full potential.  Also, if you’re hurt in your normal form, you will shrink, giving you only one more hit point before you die.

Charging Chucks, the holy grail of long absent Mario enemies, finally return.

Charging Chucks, the holy grail of long absent Mario enemies, finally return.

The jumping system is almost identical to Super Mario 3D Land: you can do the long jump and backflip — but not the triple jump — and your movement isn’t a full 360 degrees.  To make up for these limitations, you have more control in the air than you previously did.  You get a lot of hang time and can easily adjust your landing in any direction from the height of a full-speed jump.  The running speed and jump height is a little more confined into tiers than other types of Mario games, which is my only real complaint with the game.  However, the levels are designed around this so well that I barely noticed and, once I got used to it, I was able to consistently navigate narrow ledges and precision platforming at a speed few 3D games would allow.

The most obvious gameplay addition in Super Mario 3D World is the multiplayer.  With the exception of occasional puzzle stages the jumpless Captain Toad must face alone, every level of the game can be played with up to four simultaneous players.  There is a bigger competitive element to the multiplayer than before, with the game keeping constant track of which character is doing the best and encouraging others to try to mess them up.  Despite this, the 3D gameplay makes it easier to avoid bumping into other players by accident.

No, that’s not the Angry Sun, but it’s the closest we’re going to get.

Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Peach are all playable — with a fifth character being unlocked late in the game — and, unlike the New Super Mario Bros. games, each character plays differently.  Luigi jumps higher but lacks traction, Toad is fast but can’t jump as high as the others, and Peach is slow but can float during jumps.  Mario plays like he always did and is the most balanced of the characters.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because the abilities of each character are indeed the same as in the western version of Super Mario Bros. 2.

While every stage in the game can be fully completed in single-player mode, the additional characters have an effect on it.  Anytime you enter a level in single-player mode, you have the option of choosing between the different characters.  A few levels have a secret that requires a specific character, but that is very rare.  Which character you choose mainly comes down to preference and the characters are actually quite well-balanced.  Peach’s floating has been nerfed so she is not the undisputed best character and Luigi’s skidding and slow jump speed have been sped up so he’s less frustrating to play.

Imagine how gruesome this is from the Goomba’s point of view.

Control and mechanics are certainly a vital part of any game, but what separates solid platformers from exceptional ones is level design.  It is in this area that Super Mario 3D World excels more than any other.  The game throws new ideas at you constantly, but still spends long enough on them to wring out every bit of their potential.  There are countless elements from Mario games spanning the entire series, but nearly all of them have a twist to make them feel new.  Pipes are now clear and let you switch directions inside them to collect power-ups or avoid enemy projectiles.  Ghost houses use new tricks to take trolling players to unprecedented levels.  Fire Bros. leap between stacks of Goombas you must whittle down while the Fire Bro is riding the other one.  Koopas actively chase you if you take their shell.  The long-absent Charging Chucks work together to overwhelm you.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t completely new ideas and level themes in SM3DW — there are plenty.  The most promoted is the Cat Suit and it lives up to the hype.  Being able to climb up walls is a huge advantage in a platformer and SM3DW manages to push it to its limit in optional and secret areas while balancing it enough that it doesn’t completely break the rest of the game.

These things have a king of the same species, believe it or not.

In the new level settings, you’ll swing from trapezes in night time circus stages, hunt rabbits in expansive savannas, and navigate mazes in old-fashioned Japanese mansions.  There are new enemies, like squadrons of Octorok-like soldiers that panic then regroup if you kill one, wall-scaling ants that can act as platforms, and rolling lava ball enemies that leave behind a dangerous burning trail.  I’m leaving things out, as there really are too many ideas in the levels to describe.

There are a few levels that utilize the Wii U Pad’s touch screen and microphone, but the game shows restraint in these areas and I feel that was for the best.  The new map style is the only part of the game that feels like it could be utilized better: while you freely run and do a very limited jump in the classic overhead world maps now, the secrets hidden in them are minimal.  However, SM3DW is absolutely not the New Super Mario Bros. series in 3D as many feared.

One of several new settings, the Japanese mansion can be explored both inside and outside.

One concern everyone always has about Mario games is the difficulty level.  I think that every Mario game since the introduction of the Super Guide in New Super Mario Bros. Wii has managed to do a good job of both challenging experienced gamers and not overwhelming new ones, but SM3DW has quite possibly the smoothest difficulty curve in the series.  While the early worlds in the game are not going to pose much of a threat to series veterans, they require enough effort to be enjoyable, especially if you want all the secrets.  Starting around the third or fourth world, the difficulty starts steadily rising for the rest of the game.  With a third of the worlds being optional post-game content, the difficulty has plenty of time to increase and culminates in an excruciating test of platforming skill that easily surpasses Super Mario Galaxy 2’s The Perfect Run as the hardest challenge in series history.

No matter how difficult SM3DW gets, you never feel like it is unfair and your victories always feel like accomplishments instead of getting lucky.  Even when I was spending hours on the last couple levels, my progress was consistent and I became able to easily overcome parts of a level that I struggled with as many times as I needed to finally find the right strategy and timing for the next part.  The only thing worth mentioning as too easy is the bosses, which is pretty much a universal constant for Mario platformers.  There is one creative use of them post-game that puts up a hell of a fight, however.

Super Mario 3D World gives you a lot of game for your money.  You get the standard eight worlds — and the now-expected ninth world — to reach the credits, but the game does not end there.  It actually has a whopping twelve worlds total.  Players familiar with Super Mario 3D Land will want to know if the post-game worlds have their own levels or are just harder remixes of the earlier ones.

While two of them would count as that from a technical perspective, it really feels like an injustice to call them that.  They are not earlier levels with a stricter timer or faster obstacles; they are changed to the point where little besides the general graphical theme is the same.  Completely different enemies and obstacles fill many of the levels, some are completely different even in their basic structure.  In addition to normal levels, there are also levels where you face a rapid-fire stream of ten-second challenges and the aforementioned jumpless puzzle levels.

With these types included there are about 100 levels and that’s in addition to boss and enemy encounters that have their own section on the map.  With hundreds of green stars and dozens of stamps hidden in levels, combined with how hard the game gets in later worlds, it will take at least 20 hours to find and play everything.  And that isn’t including playing every level as all five characters, which thankfully only unlocks a minor cosmetic reward.

Only Luigi could be this terrified of a Goomba dressed as a cat.

The graphics in SM3DW are without question the best in any released Nintendo game.  They are so bright and colorful, as well as smooth and rounded, that they almost seem edible.  Nearly every type of Mario setting makes an appearance in addition to new ones, like the absolutely breathtaking night-time carnival levels.  The lighting deserves special mention; shadows and reflections are done perfectly from every source of light in the level, no matter how small.

Classic Mario enemies show more personality than they ever have before.  It’s honestly hard to imagine them looking more alive.  The detail in the characters, the objects, everything, makes this the definitive graphical showcase for the Wii U.  This is the first game to truly show what Nintendo is capable of in HD.  The music is just as exceptional.  Jazzier than the more classical soundtrack in the Super Mario Galaxy games, SM3DW is still fully orchestrated and able to inspire any emotion it chooses.  Anyone worried about there being too much reused music can rest easy: the soundtrack has less reused themes than any Mario in recent memory.

Conclusion:

Super Mario 3D World needs to be judged for what it is.  It is not a reinvention of Mario, like Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy, and it doesn’t need to be.  It is a triumphant combination of all the Mario games made before it, just as Nintendo stated it to be.  The creativity and polish infused into the existing series formulas is evident during every second of gameplay and that is just as big of an accomplishment as creating something new.  If you are on the fence about getting a Wii U, Super Mario 3D World fully deserves to push you over the edge.  This is not a filler game just made to say Wii U has a 3D Mario — it is one of the best games in the series.  Even if there aren’t any galaxies left to conquer, Mario can still make the world better.

Written by Giancarlo Bellotto


Pros:

  • Exceptional level design with constant new ideas
  • One of the longest and most challenging Mario platformers
  • Some of the best music in any Nintendo game to date and the best graphics by a wide margin
  • Multiplayer is both more competitive and less chaotic than previous Mario platformers
  • Huge amount of secrets and replay value

Cons:

  • Running and jumping feel a little bit stiff
  • The free movement on the world maps could have been utilized better

Final Score:  10 / 10

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