Sometimes it’s easy to forget how weird Mario games are. Think about it: A pudgy plumber in overalls who can jump ridiculously high, throw fireballs when he touches flowers, get huge when he eats mushrooms and make it with a princess provided he kicks the seven shades of crap out of a giant turtle dragon. That is the stuff of fever dreams, the kind of thing Hunter S. Thompson used to run from in his mind after a particularly long bender. Super Mario Bros.’s legacy is surreality, zaniness, the bizarre.
Super Mario Bros. has always been at its most essentially strange in the sequels, the second time out on a given platform or in a specific style. The sequels in this regard are Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, and Super Mario Sunshine. These alternately featured a dinosaur that could float using its potbelly, an evil twin that brainwashes people and can only be defeated with bunny ears, and a talking water jetpack. Pretty weird, right? Super Mario Bros. 2, though, is the undisputed King of weird. The most common boss in that game is a transgender dragon that spits eggs at you, and when you conquer it, you steal its crystal and climb through a giant falcon face. It’s beautiful and worrying at the same time.
Super Mario 3D World means to slide into this sequel legacy, and even invokes Super Mario Bros. 2 by letting you control four different characters. Luigi, Toad, and the man himself Mario are back, as is the sorely missed Princess Peach (or Toadstool, depending on your preference). Not only are they all here, but they can all play simultaneously in multiplayer — a first for the 3D Mario games. And thankfully, unlike in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, they all control differently. Peach floats, Toad is surprisingly speedy, Luigi can jump the highest, and Mario is Goldilocks approved — he's just right in every way.
Not all’s right in the Mushroom Kingdom, though. Indeed something is very, very wrong. Super Mario 3D World isn’t really that strange. In fact, it just looks and feels like every other Mario game released in the wake of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a recycled amalgam of art and scenes. At least in the demo levels shown, Super Mario 3D World is in desperate need of a dose of the old peculiar.
Maybe it’s just the Level 1-1 blues. Playing through the very first Super Mario 3D World level on display at E3 feels like watching a rerun. Here’s the same Mario character model, the same Peach and the same Luigi that we’ve been staring at in every game from Nintendo since 2006. The world is the same blend of yellow blocks and dirt against green pipes and grass as in 3D Land. There’s none of the visual experimentation that marked those aforementioned sequels, from the painterly wash of Yoshi’s Island to the Caribbean resort milieu of Sunshine.
The limited point of view style of Super Mario 3D Land is back in full force, though the camera’s pulled back to let all four characters run around and play together. The concern with 3D Mario multiplayer has always been that the players would lose sight of one another and be unable to keep up; they’d be falling into pits even worse than in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, with no easy boundary on the screen to the right or left to float them in from. In 3D World, everyone stays together nicely, but it masks the fact that you never seem to be doing any truly complex platforming in the process. There is the new power up, of course. Bop a question block and out comes a golden bell which cloaks our heroes in an adorable kitty suit. They scamper on all fours and scratch at goombas, but it’s still too familiar, and not quite as shocking as a raccoon suit that turns you to stone. Now that was strange.
So the stages are a rush from the opening to a flag at the end. Old hat in a proven formula. Maybe there’s more to the levels that sit inside the finished game that’s waiting for all of us in December, but right now it seems from these first levels that it’s business as usual, with a little blast from the past in the form of selectable characters.
There is at least one moment that feels something like the warped and unhinged Mario of old. There’s one level where the whole crew hops on the back of a giant sea dinosaur and rides a rough river through the level. You have to jump over and up waterfalls, and there are even some tricky jumps to reach hidden paths where the level’s secret green stars are hidden (there are three in every level). It’s a bit like the manta ray rides from Super Mario Galaxy, but without the so-so motion controls mucking things up. The thing is, all four players have control of the dinosaur at the same time. The only way to get through is for everyone to cooperate or just let one person take the lead. Of course, that never happens, so the dinosaur spins about wildly like a water park ride gone mad, with everyone trying to follow their own path. It’s a blissful moment of chaos which reminds you of just how inventive Mario games can be.
Weirdness wasn’t the only thing that made old Mario games great, of course. It was also their unpredictability, the sense that anything could happen and likely would. The train of games since the sublime Super Mario Galaxy 2 have felt shockingly similar to one another, and it doesn’t help that they literally all look identical. Super Mario 3D World, for the most part, doesn’t feel like it's going to drastically change that, but it does have hints of being something more. Based on the short time we had with the game at E3 it's all looking rather safe right now, but we're hopeful that Nintendo will get its strange back before the game hits in December.