Here’s a common sentiment, I’m sure, but Nintendo games have always held a special place in my gaming library. At their best, they’re charming worlds lush with stellar design, full of secrets and places to explore. They’re filled to their limits with boundless creativity, and are designed so artfully it boggles the mind how it’s even possible to craft a game that good. For me, Super Mario World and Super Mario Galaxy 2 have reigned over the plucky plumber’s side of Nintendo, providing platforming perfection. Today, I have another to put on the pedestal.
Super Mario 3D World is the reason you should own a Wii U. It’s the best game Nintendo has put out since Super Mario Galaxy 2, and it’s one of the best games I’ve played all year. Rarely was there a moment when I didn’t have a smile on my face, chuckling at whatever ingenious thing was happening on my television, or from just how beautiful the 3D Mushroom Kingdom finally looks in 1080p. If you can’t make it past this second paragraph, know this: If you don’t play Super Mario 3D World, you’re missing out.
The first thing you’ll notice is how good the game actually looks. Is this what we’ve been losing with the Wii’s insistence on standard definition? There are more colors in one screenshot of 3D World than in the entire palette of some other huge releases this fall. The environments vary wildly from stage to stage. Enemy and character designs are top notch, with some really nice looking bosses showing up again and again. Toad’s head looks exactly like a super mushroom from the original Super Mario Bros. when he gets a fire flower, and Peach gets a lovely white dress. Some showpiece areas, like a horizon of a glimmering beach or the grassy sunlit plains are some of the prettiest areas I’ve seen in a video game. The visuals are stunning, so don’t do it the disservice of playing with muddy colors on the Gamepad, at least until you’ve seen how it all looks in HD.
The second thing you’ll notice is that you have free reign to move around the world map, however you want! Weird right? After being used to moving Mario through dots in a line, it’s crazy how freeing it is just to run around a place with each level just a few steps away. Imagine the map from Super Mario World, except Mario has broken off the track and can move about. It doesn’t feel like the time-wasting hub world from Mario 64 or the original Mario Galaxy, but it adds a tiny, satisfying sense of control. You’re still walking to a level and choosing it from a map, but you can also experiment with objects around world as well. Secret levels and interactions can be found if you know where to look, and it actually goes a long way in making what is essentially a world map an exciting place to explore.
After you make the leap into a stage, however, is where the real fun begins. Every stage is brimming with new ideas. After showing off its new cat suit in the first stage, every level is a blast to run through and explore. The levels are exciting platforming challenges with a plethora of clever tricks on display, making every sprint and jump an adventure into new territory. On top of some excellent base level design, there are secrets everywhere. Unlike New Super Mario Bros. U, you could spend a while in one of these stages looking around every corner to see what’s hidden. NSMBU was a fine game, and one that I enjoyed a great deal for its platforming, but that’s about all it did really well. 3D World combines good platforming, discovery, challenge, and rewards in nearly every stage.
Each level in the game has three green stars to collect, a stamp to find, and a flagpole to turn golden by reaching the top of it. So many collectibles might feel a little unnecessary in a lesser game, but here they feel perfectly executed. Stars and stamps offer an additional challenge to those who wish to seek them out, and are typically placed somewhere that you’ll find if you’re exploring the stage. As I play, I love testing the limits of the system and seeking out what unusual places I can get my character. Usually, I’ll end up somewhere completely new and find a star as a reward, because of course they knew I was going to scale that wall to try and break the game. Some are hidden so well that going through and hunting them down is half the fun. I found one only after running past the flagpole at the end of the stage, and jumping off onto an entirely new part of the level I’d never seen before. Stars unlock new areas after collecting enough of them, and stamps are used when posting Miiverse messages.
The Miiverse integration is my favorite I’ve seen on the Wii U yet. At the end of each stage, you’re given the option to post a message that others will see when they finish the stage. At the end of every level, a long list of every message posted scrolls through the top of your screen, and can be clicked to comment on. It’s a cute touch that lets you see what everyone else thought about the level you just played through, and can also help you find some of the trickier secrets when users feel like posting helpful hints. The stamps found in each level can be used in the messages too, and make for some entertaining art posted by fellow players. These messages can be posted around the world map as well, so you’ll see plenty of Miis flying around the hub, making the whole game feel like a wonderfully communal experience.
If you replay a stage, Miis of players who have finished that stage will run around alongside you. They have no actual effect on your gameplay, as they’re just “ghost” replays like in Mario Kart, but you can race against them to the finish or follow them to see how other players finished a stage. Up to three local friends can jump into your game if you feel like having real people in your game. The game is essentially unchanged in co-op, and remains just as fun to play and bounce around with friends, but you’re not missing much if you choose to go solo.
Each time you enter a stage you’re asked to choose from the four characters available. Each has their own talents, and I ended up keeping Toad and Peach around for most of the game. Toad has superior speed and Peach can float for a moment after a jump. Having a variety of choices every time I entered a level added extra options that I never knew I wanted, and choices actually do make your playstyle feel significantly different. There’s a “random” button that will automatically select a character for you that you didn’t use during the previous level, and I used that quite often to mix things up. It was exciting never knowing how I was going to play the level ahead of me, and trying to master handling each character’s strengths and weaknesses for the few minutes that I ran through the stage.
When you reach the second world, which is themed like a desert, you might emit an audible groan like I did. “A desert world? Really? Fire and ice worlds right after this, I bet.” You’d be excused for being a little disappointed at first. After playing through a few levels in the world, you’ll realize that every hub world has a theme, and the majority of the levels inside have nothing to do with it. One of the levels in the desert world is a stage where you control Mario’s shadow through a castle, and another is a bright pink, fruit themed, character cloning level. In the third world, which actually is an ice themed hub, you visit a haunted house and a race track.
Not satisfied with creating some excellent platforming, the game spices up worlds by including Captain Toad stages and Mystery Box challenges. Captain Toad stages have you control a Toad, who can’t jump, through one room arenas. You’re tasked with getting him to 5 stars around the stage without jumping, and these are nice, deliberate breaks from the platforming (see: no jumping), and are well crafted puzzle rooms to solve. The Mystery Box stages are rapid fire challenges that vary each time you find one. Usually you have to finish 5 or 10 challenges in a row without failing to earn the maximum amount of green stars. These, like the Captain Toad levels, are completely optional, usually one per world, and offer some great changes of pace to the familiar (but still excellent) Mario levels. Also breaking up the pace are the Plessie dinosaur levels, in which you slide down a hill like the penguin from Mario 64, accompanied with the same music, of course. There are a wide variety of level types, and many of them never repeat. This team isn’t afraid to come up with an excellent idea, use it once, and toss it away, only to come up with something else just as inventive for the next stage.
And just when you think you’re nearing the end of the game, you probably aren’t. The game has so many fake-out endings that I lost track. I only reached what I believe to be the real ending about 12 hours in, after playing through nearly a dozen worlds. Those 12 beautiful hours are some of the best hours I can remember spending with a game. I never felt like a moment was ill-spent, and I flew through the entirety of the game in about four sittings. It was hard to stop playing. I always was ready to play one more level, ready to see just what they could possibly throw at me next.
The ONE issue I have with the game is the camera. Sometimes an isometric perspective doesn’t cut it when you’re briskly bouncing over platforms. I faced a few dozen leaps of faith because I had no idea where my character was standing. Spatial perception is limited when you’re looking at characters from far away, at an odd, fixed angle, and you’ll know exactly what I mean when it happens. Sometimes you’ll only know where you are because of a shadow on the ground when you jump, and sometimes the shadow can’t even save you because it’s obscured. It’s never an issue that last longer than a few moments, and the charm of the rest of the game will catch back up to you soon after, but it can be irritating and is a small blemish on an otherwise perfect experience.
I’m leaving some nonessential bits out, but there’s so many little things about the game to love. I love the clear warp pipes that let you see characters glide around the levels. I love the hidden cloud stages (from Mario Bros 3!) that turn 3D World into a runner-style game. I love that ground pounding angry blocks makes them even more angry. I love the top-down shoot-em-up stage. I love the entire soundtrack, especially the haunting new ghost house theme, and how many excellent tracks they create specifically to be played once, and never again. I love that Princess Peach actually gets to be the hero. I love how much of the game there is to love.
After playing Super Mario 3D World for an hour, I knew I didn’t want it to end. Those opening levels brought more smiles and laughs than anything I’ve played all year long, and reminded me why I lined up for a Wii U on launch day. Nintendo is back at full force for the end of 2013, reminding us that they have some of the most talented teams in the business. There’s something magical about what Nintendo does, and it’s nigh-impossible to name anyone who can accomplish what they’re capable of at the top of their game. Not only is Super Mario 3D World one of the most consistently entertaining games this year, it’s one of the best games Nintendo has ever made.