Review: Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)

A purrfect blend

Super Mario 3D World is a brave release as it strives, without any hint of apology, to hit on a formula to satisfy the majority of 2D platforming fans and the smaller — but still sizeable — legion of 3D Mario devotees. Many enjoy both, of course, yet they’ve always been distinct experiences that often lead to a clear preference for many Nintendo gamers — they’re 2D Mario fanatics or crave the greater complexity of his 3D adventures. To produce an experience that should feel familiar to both sounds like a compromise doomed to deliver half-fulfilled promises, and yet such is the skill of the Tokyo EAD team that it makes the transition with barely a flicker of doubt.

This started with Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, of course, a title that a good number loved — including quite a few of the Nintendo Life team — but, nevertheless, disappointed some. In seeking that mix of 2D and 3D that would accommodate the full spectrum of Mario fans, the reaction to the final result was undoubtedly mixed. For our money it was an excellent game, however, and its commercial success made a continuation of that style — perhaps it’s ultimately becoming a new subset in the overall canon — inevitable on the Wii U.

But let’s puncture one misconception right away: Super Mario 3D World is not a mere HD upgrade of 3D Land, nor does it simply recycle the handheld title’s assets and designs. It’s in the same young sub-series, yes, but its content is fresh and is as much a home-console clone as New Super Mario Bros. U is to the original New Super Mario Bros. on DS; if you want a game that utilises all-new power-ups and designs never seen before, then you may need to travel back to 1985 and play Super Mario Bros. for the first time. 3D World is very much its own game when compared to what came before.

The formula is, surprisingly, shaken up with the storyline itself. It’s a running joke with Mario games — though not if you object to the trope — that Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and Mario runs to the rescue, accompanied by his trusty brother and some Toad friends. Except Peach is part of the team this time around, meaning that the rather cute Sprixies are the victims being persecuted by Bowser, presumably as he attempts to conquer the Sprixie Kingdom. Quite why is irrelevant, as that’s as deep as the storyline goes, but the opening immediately contains enough new charm and fan-service to set this up as a diversion from the norm — the Mario Bros. briefly do actual plumbing, sort of, and Peach leads the way (accidentally, admittedly) in a rescue mission.

Once you land in the map there’s another subtle evolution, as it’s the top-down overworld familiar from days gone by but with additional freedom of movement. Options are limited to casually strolling around, but the curious and those willing to explore will be treated to some rewards. It’s one of many relatively minor touches in the experience that combine with bigger, bolder ideas for greater effect.

As the adventure gets underway properly it becomes clear that Nintendo’s utilised the capabilities of the Wii U with a careful mix of attractive visuals but, vitally, a rock-solid framerate. It was clearly a priority with both Super Mario Galaxy games, but sacrificed to a degree with the stereoscopic effect enabled in 3D Land; this new entry runs at a delicious 60 frames-per-second. It matters, too, and combines with a striking visual presentation that’s at once notable for its relative simplicity — don’t expect polygon counters to bow in admiration — yet beautiful to behold, taking the exceptional artistic design abilities of the development team and at long last enabling them with a HD resolution. Such is Tokyo EAD’s mastery of the hardware that the system barely seems to blink in even the most attractive Courses, further underlining the possibilities when talent, first-party hardware familiarity and subject matter converge as one.

The fluidity that the engine offers is best reflected in the controls and movements of our five heroes — Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Toad and the unlockable Rosalina. Unlike the underwhelming laziness of the cloned abilities of the protagonists in the New Super Mario Bros. home console games, each character has unique strengths and weaknesses; Mario is the all-rounder; Luigi is more frantic but has a terrific flutter jump; Princess Peach is the slowest and easiest to control with a brief glide in her leap; Toad is a weak jumper but quicker than the rest; Rosalina is rather like a powered-up Peach, with a handy spin attack that can also give a boost to jumps.

The balance of this squad is solid, though Luigi’s unsteady feet from previous games feel improved and — perhaps to celebrate the Year of Luigi — made him our go-to character. That said there are moments of enforced and voluntary variety: occasionally a level will have a button that can only be pressed by a specific character, for instance, encouraging a second play through to get that all-important collectible. There are moments later in the game, particularly, when a challenging sequence suits an alternative character to the player’s favourite — collapsing platforms may require Toad’s speed or Peach’s floating jump, or a Course with enforced speed-running can suit the steady footed Mario in comparison to his slightly slippery brother. The differences are relatively subtle and delicate, but they’re always relevant.

Although one set of Worlds, 3D World is a game composed of two very different experiences. To begin with single player, especially as it’s the option most likely to see the whole adventure, 3D World delivers a terrific quest. There’s an abundance of content, despite what fearful initial impressions may make some to believe, and it sustains a sense of momentum and excitement throughout. In fact, after the initial two worlds — which are fun but relatively low in difficulty — there’s a notable ramp up in challenge, with Chainlink Charge in World 3 being a “whoa, what happened there” moment on our part. Relentless sliding chain walls leave you scrambling and hopping across collapsing platforms, serving as a reminder to sit up straight and concentrate.

That’s just one example of the exceptional level design that teases players to make a bold leap for a green star, check a suspicious area for a stamp — these can be included in Miiverse posts — or engage in a breathless race through accumulating hazards. This variety is typified by examples such as the outstanding Super Mario Kart-inspired Mount Must Dash, the stealthy Searchlight Sneak, the brilliant Japanese temple-inspired Hands-On Hall and a number of stages when riding the large dinosaur Plessie, calling to mind Stingray stages and others from previous 3D Mario entries. In later points the creativity on show delivers a clever top-down Zelda-esque level, a “shooter stage” — perhaps a top-down homage to Super Mario Land — that’s been demonstrated by Nintendo in its promotional footage, and increasingly bold Course layouts to test players. While the game over screen may be a non-issue in save files — three are allowed per Wii U profile — devoted to single player campaigning, there are nevertheless stages and moments designed to bring pause and a number of retries. Levels become busier and require tighter running and gymnastics, while a general increase in trickery and playful verticality are gradually teased into proceedings.

It all invokes a one-more-level mentality, which is enhanced with the sense that each Course is delivering a worthy twist or evolution on what’s come before. There are various ways that this is achieved, with one being power-ups both new and old. The heavily publicised Cat Suit is, in a word, brilliant, and brings to mind the “why wasn’t this done before?” question. The ability to climb walls and execute a flying pounce — which thankfully has a very generous hit area — are joined by a swipe attack; all feel like intuitive moves that can make proceedings easier for less experienced players but, tellingly, are absolutely vital to skilled gamers on occasion when chasing hidden secrets.

The Double Cherry, which creates multiple clones that you control all at once, sounds impossible in theory yet actually works in practice. When playing with others it’s anarchic and hilarious, but in single player is a very tactical powerup; guiding your clones through a Course is a test of skill and strategy, forcing you to step back and plan your moves. Other occasional new items include a handheld Piranha Plant, a wonderfully destructive Cannon box, a rideable giant ice skate and a humorous Goomba mask to confuse the famous enemies. Throw in old favourites such the Propeller Box, Giant Mushroom, Tanooki leaf and more besides, and there are various ways to traverse and explore the worlds.

The GamePad is also, occasionally, put to use. Nintendo’s been cautious, it seems, to limit the use of the controller’s capabilities to relatively rare instances, which serve to increase their impact and keep gimmickry out of the way. When implemented they work well; the touch screen can always be used to seek hidden items, but in focused stages can sound gongs, open doors or activate platforms, while the microphone is utilised for a blowing mechanic. Off-TV play is there, of course, while a “free look” camera mechanic is the one example that feels tacked on, as the angle changes are often limited and, frankly, it’s far simpler to use the right-stick. The in-game camera, aside from moments where you’re encouraged to look around, is a delight, regardless, framing the action in a way that’s optimal for platforming precision.

As a single player experience, this hybrid of 2D and 3D moments is one of the finest that Mario’s delivered, escalating from charming beginnings to compulsive and brilliant Courses as progress continues. The sheer scope on offer with the hardware provides the development team’s playful ideas with the perfect infrastructure.

In what seems like a first for the series, the multiplayer aspect is almost a match for that single player experience, and may for some even stand above. With four — eventually five — characters of different abilities available, players can naturally work to their strengths; yet what makes this setup work is tight controls and space. Multiplayer in 2D Mario titles can be a claustrophobic, chaotic affair, where only the latter applies to a meaningful degree in 3D World. Teams of four can, with co-ordination and skill, progress with a minimal loss of life and truly get the best out of the mode, or they can charge forward like maniacs and have a lot of fun.

We suspect the latter will happen in many cases, and the game over screen will appear often; a continue then gives each player a generous five lives to start again. The option to pick other players up is mapped to the dash button, as is the norm, which can be used to help or for obnoxious and devious ends, while a nice touch is that the reserve item allocation is multiplied to match the number of players; it’s possible for any player to accumulate and distribute these vital extras with a touch of the Select button.

The title also scores every player at the end of each level which is, on the surface, utterly meaningless. And yet it’s a psychological ploy, especially as the top player gets to wear a crown in the next Course. It becomes a symbol of power, though it is no such thing in reality, and it tests a group’s friendship and team spirit by appealing to the basest of instincts. It can be hilarious to be part of a group feuding over the crown — it can be stolen with a well-aimed butt stomp — only to revert back to frantic co-operation when time or lives run low.

The multiplayer dynamic applies an entirely alternative feel to the game’s design, making it a terrific accompaniment to the impeccably paced solo adventure. It’s the best multiplayer main-series Mario title we’ve ever seen, and it’s pure, distilled fun whether in groups determined to proceed well or those out to look after number one at all costs. The camera frames the action well most of the time, automatically putting slow characters into bubbles to keep them up with the action; on a few occasions the camera lost its place, or went to the back player rather than those most advanced, but they were very rare instances. It also works well with a host of controllers — the GamePad player will need to multi-task in the aforementioned touch screen and microphone activities, while others can ideally use the Wii U Pro Controller or Wii Classic Controller / Pro, with the alternatives of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk or sideways Wii Remote. The final option is the least desirable due to navigating a 3D world with a small D-Pad, but it’s functional. Most importantly, players of any level are engaged and participating fully in the action.

Beyond the accomplished design and riotous multiplayer there are many minor touches that make the difference in propelling this title to the top of its class. There are the stamps on Miiverse that we’ve already mentioned, and Ghost Mii characters that appear in your levels and show others working their way through; these can be funny, instructive and both combined. The World Map has Captain Toad’s puzzle stages — which feel as if they’re inspired in part by Mario and Donkey Kong: Minis on the March, but with full control given to the player — and Mystery Boxes that wrap up multiple 10-second challenges to test your skills. Mini Boss stages occasionally block your path, while more need to be found by exploring the map; there’s always the option to goof around on the touch screen, drawing patterns in sand or blowing mini Goombas off a platform.

A special mention must also go to the soundtrack, which blends revisited melodies and retro classics with a host of memorable new tracks. After the midi tunes of New Super Mario Bros. U, the orchestrated ‘Big Band’ approach here is a treat, bringing to mind the grandeur of the iconic Galaxy compositions.

And so Super Mario 3D World feels like more than a sum of its parts, serving up more tricks and extras than can be reasonably expected. It starts wonderfully and keeps getting better, while reaching the end-game left us happy to hunt out green stars, stamps or hit gold flagpole finishes that we’d missed. The multiplayer component also brings its anarchic fun to the table, well beyond the exploits of the 2D games or the shallow assist gameplay in the Galaxy games. There’s lots that’s new, nods to the past and a style of play that’s reminiscent of 3D Mario’s finest efforts; all given a hint of accessibility that eluded the triumphs that came before.

As is often the case with 3D Mario games, the precise, masterful physics and controls place it above so many wannabe peers. There may be five characters with different abilities, but they’re crafted wonderfully, and executing backflips, handstand jumps off trees and forward rolls is as much a delight as ever. The red dungaree'd plumber's been doing this for years and has perfected his moves, but now others (beyond Luigi) are joining in to equal effect. It’s a twist on the 3D Mario experience so many have grown to love, crafted with the greatest care.

Conclusion

Super Mario 3D World can be easily summarised — it’s a terrifically enjoyable, tight and impeccably structured experience. It recalls the mascot’s 3D heritage while providing the perfect starting point for those that prefer 2D platforming, catering to an audience of beginners and skilled veterans alike. Nintendo’s also mastered Mario multiplayer for, arguably, the first time; it’s still manic and can be either co-operative or competitive, but there’s also a sense of space that allows determined groups to progress coherently.

This is a definitive 3D Mario experience, successfully finding a middle-ground between the iconic Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy. You may not swing Bowser by his tail or run upside down, but it’s bursting with creativity nonetheless, while delivering on the craft and skill that defines the Tokyo EAD studio. It’s unmissable.