Some things in life are unavoidable. Death, taxes, and disappointing Wii U sales in its first nine months of life. Nintendo has a plan for the rest of 2013, however, which is encouraging for its fans — we've had the enthusiast's favourite The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, and soon we'll have the return of styles and franchises that epitomised the appeal of the Wii, with Wii Sports Club, Wii Fit U and Wii Party U. In terms of a game that accommodates the desires of as many different Wii U owners — current and prospective — as possible, however, Super Mario 3D World could indeed hit the spot.
We've been fortunate enough to spend a lot of time with this title recently, though can only discuss specific levels and worlds, but we will address one of the biggest questions right off the bat. Is this a compromise away from the extravagance and flair of the Super Mario Galaxy games? It's not as mind-bending, that's for sure, but a key point is that the experience of playing 3D World isn't as far from those Wii classics as many seem to think — conventions are more closely followed, but they're often accompanied with a playful twist, impeccable design and a burst of colour that makes them feel new. Super Mario 3D Land — this title's predecessor on 3DS — may be terrific in its own right and utilise the hardware brilliantly, but this Wii U entry adds new ingredients and home console flair that demonstrates the reasoning behind Nintendo's shift to this fresh wing of the Mario platforming fraternity.
The first two worlds of this title are surprisingly packed with such new ideas, yet remarkably don't feel overwhelming in any sense. Basic tips are given on key controls, but for the most part you're left to discover quirks, power-ups and moves for yourself. Tellingly, everything's based on the core mechanics of dashing and jumping, while crouching — and related moves such as the long jump — is an extra not particularly necessary in the early running; yet veterans will no doubt enjoy putting the move-set to the test. And there's a lot that 3D Mario fans will pick up, further decreasing the distance between this hybrid effort and the Galaxy titles. Favourite moves such as climbing trees to do a handstand flip off the top — so memorably introduced in Super Mario 64 — will raise smiles, and we also spotted plenty of references to the 2D classics of the NES and Super NES; for newcomers, these will simply be charming due to their design.
So in pleasing the eyes and ears, Super Mario 3D World is shaping up beautifully. It's a visual stunner, despite its modest file size, with gorgeous effects and lighting that take Mario graphics to an entirely new level, certainly showing greater flair than the 2D New Super Mario Bros. U. There are some attractive textures at work, with the art style — that we know is such a Nintendo strength — flourishing with powerful hardware, alongside a rock steady and terrifically fluid frame rate; the smooth performance also accentuates stylish new animations, such as a humorous gymnast's pose when landing from a high jump. There's also orchestrated music, much to our delight — whether this is performed by an orchestra or a skilfully executed 'synthetic' orchestra seems irrelevant when you can't always tell the difference. There are flashes of retro tracks, but the new themes are catchy, at times even jazzy, and perfectly suited to the action.
Moving beyond comparisons and presentation, there are a variety of formula tweaks that both shake up and adjust the experience to support this title's goal of satisfying both dedicated fans and including newcomers. For starters, the default running speed feels a little slower than normal, though the dash quickly gets the mascots up to speed; unlike 3D Land, there are actually three stages of running speed, as maintaining a dash beyond an initial second brings an additional — but subtle — boost. Throughout various areas there's also a sense that the environmental challenges support both steady, cautious progress or (as we rather preferred) madcap and instinctive sprints. Veterans may find they can blast through stages in a few minutes, though that would be somewhat missing the point.
In our experience, and it speaks more to our natural instincts allying with clear intention from the development team, we found ourselves being constantly distracted off the default path. There are green stars as the primary collectibles, alongside one stamp in each stage; the stamps are an extra that go into a collection and will be available for inclusion in Miiverse posts, and while both sets of goodies are sometimes clearly on display and necessitating trickery to reach, some are nicely hidden. Clambering up walls with the Cat power up — which is instinctive and delightful to use — exploring suspicious areas and checking the edges of the worlds may reward you with these or simply a few coins, but it encourages a basic child-like instinct to explore, no matter the age of the player.
The Wii U GamePad has also been used with admirable restraint, with additional features mostly adding to the gameplay in our time with it to date. Somewhat in contrast to New Super Mario Bros. U, we actually recommend that the strongest player adopts the controller in multiplayer sessions, while in single player its mechanics will offer an extra degree of challenge. In many levels the touch screen is an assist tool to reveal, collect and break blocks and coins, freeze enemies and simply mess around with a floating Mario hand to trace a pattern in sand. But this is all multi-tasking, as you're still responsible for your character.
And, while sounding like a challenge, it works. On some occasions you interact with key parts of the world and, for short spells, your eyes may temporarily be instinctively be drawn to play on the GamePad's screen. Allowing for the fact that, on occasion, player one has more to do than simply run and jump, the uses don't feel gimmicky — we can't give too many specifics — but rather like natural inclusions to utilise the hardware.
Our time with the title also gives us much encouragement that this experience will stack up both in single and multiplayer. In the former option, the sense of exploration is accentuated by clever, playful and often exceptional level design when playing alone. There are multiple new items introduced early on that perfectly suit the 3D engine — the Double Cherry introduces clones that you also control, leading to anarchy and some tricky manoeuvring, the Handheld Piranha Plant brings destruction to enemies on your path (while also tripping up colleagues), and the positively dangerous Cannon box, which fires projectiles at short intervals or, if you charge using the dash button, a powerful cannon. All are terrific fun, and the latter two's ability to actually disrupt and — in the case of the cannon box — damage coop partners add a fresh sense of chaos. Returning favourites such as the Tanooki Suit and Giant Mushroom are as enjoyable as ever.
It's in the drop-in multiplayer where Nintendo may have finally hit the golden formula to enable families and friends to play together without irrevocable damage to relationships. There's the madness of the 2D titles, but with much more space, while each character's strengths play into different play styles — Mario is the all-rounder, Luigi has his higher flutter jump, Toad is faster than the rest and Peach is the most manageable, with her ability to float sure to be invaluable. How people play together is also, in a twist with a hint of mischief, up for debate. While various mechanics are off the table to be discussed at this stage, the presence of a crown for the top players tells you all you need to know in terms of how the game tests your willingness to work together, alongside the desire to have a small graphical garment on your head. It's amazing what a shiny incentive can do to a player's instincts.
Also, for the record, there's multiplayer controller support for the sideways Wii Remote, Wii Remote and Nunchuk, Wii U Pro Controller and even the Classic Controller.
We can't go into intimate details, but we will say that this is a title that, perhaps more-so than the most recent Mario games, has elements of surprise in almost every stage. Some are subtle, while others smack you between the eyes — you learn to kick balls at enemies and at Bowser in that car as early as the first castle, Switch Scramble Circus is clever and cornea-burningly colourful, Shadow-Play Alley is exceptionally clever in its usage of — yep — shadows, and Double Cherry Pass leaves some secrets hidden for those that have the ability to accumulate and protect multiple clones. There's even, as the latest trailer shows, a neat feature introduced at the start of the second world where you can play levels alongside Mii Ghosts from players around the world. In terms of creativity and creating sheer joy in the experience, Nintendo seems to be bringing its A-game.
The greatest strength of Super Mario 3D World in its earliest stages is that, beyond everything else, it's outrageously fun. Whether being diverted in the quest for collectibles in single player, or dashing through the environments with others, there's a sense of multiple factors aligning beautifully. Nintendo's stated that it's seeking to make 3D Mario accessible for all, closing the gap — commercially, no doubt — between these adventures and the 2D equivalents; this could do just that, and we can't wait to see what the remainder of the title brings.
Check back on Nintendo Life in the coming days for a more personal recollection of the multiplayer madness in Super Mario 3D World.