Super Mario 3D World was not the sequel that people were waiting for. After the sublime Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2, fans were looking forward to another traditional 3D adventure that was similar to Super Mario 64 and its many successors. However, Nintendo seems to have had other plans. Instead of making Super Mario Galaxy 3 as everyone expected, they took the successful formula established in Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS and tossed it onto the Wii U. While it wasn’t what we were expecting, or maybe even hoping for, it turned out to be a brilliant idea, and we are left with yet another classic in the Mario series.
Previous entries in the 3D Mario series have stuck pretty close to the formula that was established way back in 1996 with the release of Super Mario 64. You controlled Mario while platforming your way through semi-open environments that were all selectable via the game’s overworld. The camera stayed close to you, and was controllable via a thumbstick or buttons. This has worked very well, as many of those games are some of the highest rated of all time. Apparently, that pedigree just wasn’t enough for Nintendo, because they decided to go and mess with it.
Don’t get me wrong, Super Mario 3D World is still a Mario game in every sense of the word. However, it has taken a good amount of liberties that enliven the series beyond what the usual iterative improvements would have done. For one, while there is an overworld, it now functions much closer to the one found in the 2D games, such as New Super Mario Bros. U. Selecting a new level is as simple as walking over to it and hitting the A button; all levels are on a track, and you are shown which level opens up next upon completion of its predecessor.
The camera in Super Mario 3D World is much more fixed than ever before. No longer will you have the camera staring at Mario’s back; it has been pulled back so that you can see a large portion of the level and, aside from basic up/down/left/right alterations, is completely controlled for you. This camera setup changes up much about the Mario formula. For one, it gives the levels a more two-dimensional feel while still retaining the bonuses of a three-dimensional environment. It also allows for the series’ latest revolution, multiplayer, to make its 3D debut.
New Super Mario Bros Wii was the first game in the Mario series to feature multiplayer. There, you had four characters to choose from, but they all essentially played the same. With Super Mario 3D World, that concept has reached its logical apex. Now you are able to choose four characters (at the start of the game at least), each of which play very differently. Much like they did in Super Mario Bros 2, each of Super Mario 3D World‘s characters have unique abilities. While I default to Mario whenever possible, I did see a few benefits in mixing up my choice for certain levels. Multiplayer itself functions much the same as it has since it made its debut. You and your friends can cooperate or compete depending on how much alcohol you have consumed or how much of a jerk you feel like being. The player who scores the highest points for one level gets a crown (read: target) over their head on the next.
Super Mario 3D World is the first 3D outing for Mario on the Wii U. Unfortunately, the GamePad is relegated to ancillary activities, such as revealing secrets or blowing away small enemies. Admittedly, I wouldn’t have wanted to be tapping away at the GamePad screen all throughout game, but it would have been nice for this flagship title to utilize the system’s main feature in more creative ways. At the very least, they could have gone with the Super Mario 64 DS method of including mini-games along with the main game. Off-TV play does work though, so the GamePad is not completely unused – it just isn’t used more than the bare minimum.
While the external hardware may be largely ignored, the internal hardware is put to great use. Like the Galaxy titles before it, Super Mario 3D World ends up raising the bar for what a game on a seemingly under-powered gaming system can deliver visually. Quite simply, Super Mario 3D World looks stunning and rivals a few of the titles released for competing “next gen” systems, despite those games residing on much more powerful hardware. Textures, effects, and art all combine to create the best-looking Mario game ever, and a game that will be used to judge future Wii U titles in terms of what the system is capable of. It does help that Mario‘s simplistic styling and cartoonish visuals lend themselves well to less powerful systems, but in the end it looks gorgeous either way. While the visual design is certainly stellar, the real star of Super Mario 3D World is the level design.
Moving the camera back didn’t just change the game for the player; it completely changed how levels had to be designed. As I said before, the levels now seem to have a mixture of 2D and 3D design philosophies. This mixture melds together the two flavors of Mario so well that it almost feels like it has always been this way. Shifting your thinking between 2D and 3D can lead to some very enjoyable experiences, and creates the sort of gleeful moments that you look for in a Mario game. I can’t count how many times I marveled at a particularly brilliant design decision or laughed with surprise at some small touch that would likely go unnoticed by most players.
One small issue that pops up, however, is that the game’s new perspective was pioneered on a device that allowed for true depth perception. With the transition to a 2D display, there does need to be some allowance for that loss. I did die a couple of times due to simply not understanding where my character was in relation to another object or platform. While it did happen on a couple of occasions, it was never a major frustration and simply means that this style of Mario game has a bit of room for improvement in future releases.
Variety is the biggest advantage Super Mario 3D World has over its predecessors. Whereas previous entries featured multiple objectives on the same level, each level in Super Mario 3D World is there simply to be beaten and then forgotten (unless you want to get 100% completion, of course). This has allowed the designers to include experimental courses that feature new mechanics, and then get right back to regular business as soon as the level ends. Racing levels were a particular favorite of mine, and the shadow levels were a nice diversion that made me wish Contrast had been a better game.
That variety has extended into Super Mario 3D World‘s music as well. The music for Super Mario 3D World is some of the finest of any Mario game, and that is truly saying something. Jazzy tunes mix with old favorites to create an orchestrated tour de force. As I played the game late into the night, I found myself consistently raising the volume just to hear the music better, especially on the amusement park-themed levels. I could easily see myself listening to many of these tunes if Nintendo ever decided to release a soundtrack.
A few new power-ups have also been added, with the much talked about Cat Suit being a particular favorite. Being able to climb walls and lunge toward enemies feels so natural within the Mario series, and yet they are just now making their debut. Double Cherries, Goomba Hats, and Cannon Boxes are a few more of the additions, and while they add to Super Mario 3D World‘s enjoyability, they are not used quite as much and end up being interesting diversions rather than essential additions. I did enjoy the small change of not allowing the retention of more than one item between levels, though; most of the New Super Mario Bros. games ended up with me having so many power-ups that later levels felt like a breeze.
That feeling of easiness did seep in during my time with Super Mario 3D World, but as you start to enter the later levels, you understand that Nintendo has essentially perfected their own method of difficulty management. By having later, sometimes optional levels that play out like advanced courses, they have allowed less experienced players to retain the feeling of completion while still including the more difficult challenges that veterans crave. By also including optional collectibles within every level, Super Mario 3D World contains enough content and difficulty for anyone, no matter how experienced they might be.
While I would still like to see another installment in the traditional 3D Mario series, Super Mario 3D World ends up being the sequel that I didn’t know I wanted. Bringing multiplayer into the 3D space has revitalized the series, while remaining true to its roots. Visuals, sound, and gameplay have all been taken to their next level for this release, and it has all combined into a refreshing take on a classic formula. That formula was built around the idea that games should be fun, plain, and simple, and with Super Mario 3D World, that fun has reached new heights.