What the hell are Mario games on about these days? Why do we keep playing them? Surely, part of it is a nostalgia-driven demand for Mario games. We grew up with these characters; we grew up drawing Mario levels on pieces of scrap paper; but, at some point we actually did grow up. Mario has never been “just for kids”, as some may have you believe. Nostalgia is only part of the equation. We return to Mario games because they are well-designed, we return because they are fun to play, and this time around we return because we simply have to see the frumpy figure of Toad in a cat suit.
Super Mario 3D World is a strange Mario game. It’s not the revelation that Mario 64 was, and it isn’t quite the innovator Super Mario Galaxy managed to be. Despite the consumer-end of the spectrum being only partially driven by nostalgia, I can’t quite shake the feeling that Super Mario 3D World is a game absolutely saturated with it.[pullquote align=”right”]It’s a sort of greatest hits collection, if you will.[/pullquote]Everything about it borrows liberally from previous titles in the franchise. The free-roaming over world of 3D World is borrowed from Super Mario World; the excellent level design of Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 3D Land is ubiquitous; and, as in Super Mario Bros. 2 you have the ability to play as Mario, Luigi, Toad and Peach. Even the absolutely excellent music borrows from various games in the franchise, all updated or re-orchestrated for maximum awesomeness. It’s a sort of greatest hits collection, if you will.
It isn’t exactly new and different, but the way in which the best elements of past games are combined does lend Super Mario 3D World a pair of legs to stand on its own. As you are playing through the worlds you’ll notice the same masterful pacing as in previous games. The difficulty curve is generous, never punishing, but just enough to make it hard when new concepts are introduced to the player. Eventually a familiarity is gained with these concepts, and the player can continue for some time before the next concept is introduced to them.
Sometimes these new concepts are pieces of level design. A jump pad that sends you higher if you successfully press the jump button as close to the ground as possible; various pieces of the level that rotate in unison and require the precise timing of jumps; and parts of levels that act as treadmills, speeding up and even reversing direction; all of these and more make an appearance. But it isn’t necessarily the careful design of the levels that will keep players on their toes. It’s the obstacles that are put in your way that really make the levels shine. Patterns are established, then reversed, then mirrored, and then mirror-reversed all within a single level. It is platforming at its best.
The new power-ups also allow for experimentation in design. The cat suit will turn Mario (or any of the four playable characters) into a cute, cuddly, Internet-ready version of himself. With the cat suit, you have a mid-air pounce move that is helpful in traversing bits of level littered with enemies, and you have the ability to attack at a greater distance instead of having to close the gap for a jump kill. Most importantly, you gain the ability to climb up walls, opening up areas of the level previously gated off to you. There is also the cherry power-up that clones your character. It does nothing to change the utility of your character, there are simply more of them. Yet, this, too, allows you access to parts of the level previously inaccessible to you. And that’s an important point to expand upon.
One of the things that is a bit different this time around than in previous installments in the series is how the game approaches collectibles, a perennial favorite of most players who enjoy platformers and a staple of the Super Mario franchise. Collectible stamps will unlock stickers for you to use when interacting with others in the Miiverse. Really, though, who cares? They’re stickers. Whatever. More important are the three green stars hidden in every level. Sometimes these are incredibly easy to procure, while other times they are quite difficult. Some castles, and even levels within a world, can only be played if a certain number of stars have been collected, making the pursuit of these green celestial gas balls a priority. But don’t worry, Nintendo isn’t making you bend over backwards for stars. From what I can tell, it will require some extra effort on the player’s part to seek stars, but nothing that will have you spending most of your time chasing them down if you don’t want to.
The pursuit of these stars will also require you to play as the various characters at some point. Yes, you could play through the entire game as Mario, but you would be doing yourself a great disservice if you did. I can’t stress enough how shoehorned the ability to play as multiple characters could have felt. Luckily, Nintendo took great pain in making sure that the differences between characters manifested, not just in the characters themselves, but in the attitude the design team took toward 3D World’s excellent levels. Some levels are clearly designed for Peach, with her floating jump; some for Toad, with his ability to run faster than the rest of the gang; and some still for Luigi’s higher jump. And while the aforementioned green stars are obtainable with pretty much any character, having the right one can make the difference between an easy or frustrating experience. I really do appreciate the fact that Nintendo made the differences between characters meaningful and distinctive.
Now, as I believe I have indicated, there is a lot to like about 3D World. However, there are a couple of things that need to be pointed out. It may be a stretch to call this a Wii U game. “But it says Wii U on the box, Jon!” Yes, I know. But it does so little to sell itself on what Nintendo thinks is the Wii U’s biggest selling point: second-screen functionality. I’ve played through all of the game’s eight worlds and can only recall three levels that had me using the gamepad’s touchscreen in any way.
If you’re going to position the touchscreen as a selling point and reason for people to buy the console, and if you are going to release a game that you hope will propel Holiday sales and provide a boost to a console that is very much in need of one, it would probably be a good idea to make sure that that particular game incorporates the touchscreen in some pretty meaningful and cool ways. Nope. Truthfully, this isn’t to the detriment of the game itself. But, here’s the deal, when the game that uses the touchscreen best is a zombie game that came out over a year ago, and not games in your flagship franchises, you have a problem. The second-screen functionality is part of the reason I bought the damn thing, after all.
Also worthy of some frosty words is the multiplayer. The multiplayer doesn’t really make a case for itself, so it is hard to judge it as either good or bad. It’s just kind of there for you to engage in if you want to. I think if you’re a young’un, you’ll find the chaos-for-chaos’s sake to be fun. Surely, Mom and Dad will enjoy not having to hear little Billy and Susie fight over who gets to go first. Instead, they get to fight over who is going to be Peach.
The problem is the lack of justification for multiplayer at the design level. Contrary to what some of my colleagues have been saying, I actually don’t think the game is designed with multiplayer in mind at all. The absolutely atrocious multiplayer camera is evidence enough. None of the levels are designed in such a way that they are for two or more characters. It really does appear to be there because, reasons. Personally, multiplayer isn’t why I play a Mario game. So, I own up to the fact that I may be wanting a little more justification than is necessary. It really isn’t hurting anything by existing. That being said, I would like to see a little more thought going into how certain elements of design in the Mario franchise can accommodate multiplayer in future titles.
Super Mario 3D World isn’t the killer app Nintendo needs it to be. It is, however, a great game that should be played by everyone who owns a Wii U. Its HD graphics are not cutting-edge, but it is an absolutely gorgeous game that proves, when it comes to Nintendo games, it has never been about graphical fidelity, but the charming aesthetic of their art direction. Yes, 3D World relies heavily on our nostalgia for various games in the franchise; yes, its multiplayer is a confusing addition; and, yes, it’s not very good at putting the gamepad’s touchscreen to use. But it is a great, great game and I can honestly say that I never want to play another 2D Mario game again.