Exclusive to Wii U
After so many years and so many classics, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the latest Mario game is an absolute blinder, yet somehow it is. Back in June, with the headlines dominated by a new generation of consoles, Nintendo’s choice of flagship Christmas Wii U title seemed quixotic, if not outright barmy. A semi-sequel to the 3DS’s Mario game? Really? This isn’t a series reinvention in the vein of Super Mario Galaxy, nor much of a technical showcase for Wii U. Its use of the Wii U pad is oddly perfunctory. Yet it only takes half an hour or so of play before you recognise that this isn’t just a solid Mario game, but a great one. It’s not a game dominated by big ideas or novel control systems like Galaxy, but one made up of a thousand little brilliant touches, each contributing to one of the most continuously inventive games you’ll play this year.
Admittedly, it’s not one you’ll enjoy for the rich storyline. Mario, Luigi, Toad and the rest fine a pipe that leads to the undiscovered world of the Sprixies, only to find that Bowser has got their first. From there we’re on to a map not unlike that of the SNES’s Super Mario World which links up a series of stages, mini-boss battles, miscellaneous challenges and gift-giving toad houses, not to mention a boss stage at the end of every land.
But if the structure isn’t exactly high on novelty, then the same can’t be said for the gameplay. As with Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, the stages run basically from left-to-right, keeping you on a tighter rein than in the more exploratory Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy games. Mario can still move in 3D however, and the different stages usually give you lassitude to do so. Mario has all the classic jump, bottom-bounce and wall-jump moves, and can smash bricks to uncover power-ups that give him the power to throw fireballs, hover or climb. On the most fundamental level, this is Mario as we know and love it.
The magic is really in the details – in the new suits, the new power-ups, the new ideas that seem to populate almost every level. Any designer of mediocre platform games can cobble together a level throw in some new concept and hope it entertains. The genius of Nintendo’s EAD Tokyo division is in introducing an idea then building it into something bigger and smarter, like a composer improvising around a theme. Thus we don’t just get a cat suit, which transforms Mario into a cat who can claw at his enemies or scamper up a wall, but stages and areas which are designed to introduce the suit, then reward you for using it, and then encourage you to think where you might use it next. A cherry that splits you into two Mario clones becomes the focal idea for stages full of high-speed pipes and switches that push you to keep splitting further.
We could keep dishing out examples – there’s hardly ten minutes that go by in Super Mario 3D World where something doesn’t come along to make you go ‘wow’ or leave you smiling. But that would be spoiling the fun. This is a game of discovery, and we’d rather you did that for yourself.
It’s also a game of discovering secrets. Each regular stage has three green stars hidden somewhere, and as the game goes on you’ll need these to unlock the specific stages – normally boss battles – that bar your way. Some will be out in plain sight, others locked away in little bonus stages, and still others concealed in hidden chambers or at the top of seemingly unclimbable towers. And beyond that there are other bonus stages, extra challenge stages, time trial ‘Mystery House’ stages and weird Toad stages where the little mushroom chap has to collect a set of stars without being caught. It’s no Professor Layton, but Super Mario 3D World is more of a puzzler than you might expect.
Last year’s New Super Mario Bros. U was a brilliant Mario, but it had its share of problems. In some ways it was held back by the need to show off the console’s features, pushing multiplayer play and touch controls whether you wanted them or not. The same isn’t true of Super Mario 3D World, and while there are isolated levels where you’ll need to tap the screen, they’re not the norm. New Super Mario Bros. U could also be mean, forcing you to redo a whole clump of stages every time you ran out of lives. Super Mario 3D World is kinder and gentler, saving after every level and allowing you to continue from where you died. You will still end up replaying levels to farm for extra green stars, but with new routes and hidden areas to uncover, this is always a pleasure, not a chore.
It’s tempting to describe the multiplayer as the icing on the cake, but that doesn’t really do it justice. This is the first 3D Mario game to support four-players, and it works like a dream, the camera zooming out to show a wider view, then turning lagging players into bubbles so they can catch up with their faster friends. Four characters are initially available – Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad – and each has their own quirks to do with jump heights, movement speeds or floating skills. As well as the Wii U Pad You can play with a Wii remote, the Pro Controller or with the Wii Classic Controller and Classic Controller Pro. We’d recommend using something with an analogue pad, as it can be a struggle without.
Get two to four players involved and there’s a great sense of cooperation – helping each other to cross the stage or reach new areas – and competition, with scores totalled at the end and the winner receiving a crown. Some stages force you to work together, while others actively encourage you to race or trip each other up. There’s also more space in the stages to move around without clashing with your comrades, though the zoomed out camera angles sometimes make precision jumping tough. You can easily live with that – local four-player gaming doesn’t get more fun or frantic.Super Mario 3D World even has its own take on trendy asynchronous multiplayer, albeit in the form of random MiiVerse ghosts invading your game and occasionally handing out presents. You can pick up a few tips, and return the favour if you're so inclined.
Much has been said of the Wii U’s limited graphical horsepower, and – sure – it’s going to be an issue when you’re talking about epic adventures and FPS games that have been built with the Xbox One and PS4 in mind. Yet the more you play Super Mario 3D World, the less such things seem to matter. It looks fantastic, combining bold, colourful shapes and textures with beautiful lighting effects, and everywhere you look there’s that attention to detail and sense of wonder that only Nintendo seems to bring to 3D platform games. It’s all so consistent, so rich and so polished, that it only hammers home how badly second-rate efforts like Sonic: The Lost Worlds get things wrong.
If you were preparing for a second-rate Mario, get ready for a big surprise. Super Mario 3D World is too bold, too colourful and too inventive to play second fiddle to the Mario Galaxy games, and the balance of accessible platforming, exploration and discovery is nigh-on perfect. As each stage goes by you fear the team will run out of ideas, yet amazingly they keep finding new ones, or at least new twists for the old. Add the brilliant four-player multiplayer and you have one of the best games we’ll see this Christmas, whatever the platform.