I think I’ve figured out the problem I’ve had with the Mario games since Super Mario 3D Land back in 2011: it’s all about the design. Super Mario 3D Land was varied, with the developers tossing out new mechanics left and right that never feel overused, and level designs that were colorful and unique. But then there were those other pesky New Super Mario Bros. games. Those were the ones that felt stale; they lacked creativity and that spark of something special that made games like 3D Land so much fun. Super Mario 3D World continues the philosophy of 3D Land, as well as the philosophy of most modern Nintendo games: it’s varied and quite enjoyable most of the time, but also has the tendency to get stale quickly.
Doki Doki Panic, or Super Mario Bros. 2 for US audiences, allowed players to choose between four different characters at the start of every level, each with a unique ability. Super Mario 3D World brings back this mechanic, allowing players to play as Mario, Luigi, Peach, or Toad. Each has their strengths, but Peach is really the star. She can hover after jumping, giving players that extra push forward in a difficult jump. Luigi can jump high, but cut him some slack, his year is almost over and he needs all the fans he can get. Toad runs faster than other characters, but players are going to be jumping far more than running, and I never used him much. Mario is your all-around good-to-play character, good for newer players or those not as confident with the controls.
Like the New Super Mario Bros. series, Super Mario 3D World lets up to four people play at once. This feature always feels unnecessary and more of a grief tool than for any meaningful party play. At a certain point the game becomes too difficult for multiple players to take on at the same time, unless they work in close union with each other. Unlike last year’s Wii U title, players can use any control option they want: GamePad, Wii Remote, Pro Controller, or Wii Remote and Nunchuck. No longer are you shackled to your Wii Remotes for a Mario game on the Wii U. But I came to notice something in my 12 hour playtime: I don’t think I like the Wii U GamePad — it gets uncomfortable quickly.
3D World’s camera tends to be less than perfect sometimes. For most of a level the camera will be at a slight angle, throwing off some platform or coin placements and causing a fair number of deaths once the game’s difficulty spiked around the halfway point. You have the option of flicking the right stick to change the camera’s orientation, but that isn’t very practical during intense jumping sections.
Most of the time I never noticed the camera, save for those ever frustrating auto-scrolling levels. These levels force the camera to continue moving at a set speed for the entire level. If you don’t keep up, you’ll die and have to restart. But that won’t be a problem since the camera moves at a snails pace. During all dozen or so of these levels I was constantly at the top of the camera’s frame, waiting for it to show me the next platform I could jump on. It is frustratingly slow and quite problematic for more advanced players, as if these levels were designed to move slowly to give all four players time maneuver.
3D World has plenty of enjoyable levels, but most aren’t exciting or crazy. It lacks invention on anything past the core mechanic of jump on enemies and platforms until you win. Maybe it’s the nature of it being a spiritual sequel to 3D Land and it can’t invent well past that. This is to say that the Galaxy team is capable of much grander design. While nothing in 3D World is ever flat out boring, levels also never aspire for much more than competency.
For the first three worlds or so, I was merely admiring 3D World visually. Nintendo has taken their high definition visual design a step further with 3D World; it’s quite a beautiful game, even if a lot of the environments tend to have a pre-fab tiled look to them. The levels are vibrant and colorful, eliciting a smile from how cute everything looks — and diverse as well. Most of the time Mario games are set in their environment by the world you’re in, but 3D World mixes it up constantly, throwing sunset, shadow, and ghost levels in at various times just to add some variety to the design. There was a level made entirely out of cookies and cake, which never made a reappearance that I can remember.
It’s that variety that allows 3D World to shine above recent Mario entries. On the sixth world they were still introducing new mechanics and power ups, like a flashlight box you stick on your head to kill ghosts. But for as many times as they introduce a new mechanic, they retread a new one. The cat suit is the most-given power up in the game, much like the Tanooki suit was for 3D Land. When you wear the cat suit, your character runs around on all fours and meows when they finish a level, it’s weird, but the suit itself is devilishly useful, with a fair number of the green stars out of reach without it.
I liked a lot of what I played in Super Mario 3D World. The platforming is as good as ever. The level design is, for the most part, interesting and clever. Later worlds are nefarious in their difficulty. It’s a good game, a natural extension of Super Mario 3D Land. But standing tall in the pantheon of Mario games, it is not.