Super Mario 3D World is a game that should, by all means, be considered a masterpiece in my eyes. It's a labor of love, joy and good ol' fashioned game design that follows off the heels of its 3DS predecessor. Having thoroughly enjoyed Super Mario 3D Land, common sense should entail I'd love its sequel just as much.
And why shouldn't I? It's propped up by a live big band score, which is undoubtedly the funnest Nintendo soundtrack since Rhythm Heaven first visited our American shores. It's polished to oblivion, with secret coins, mushrooms and Luigi sprites hidden everywhere from the most unsuspecting of bushes to the tiniest of bonus stages. The warm, fuzzy nostalgia of Super Mario World aesthetics returns and is just as soft as you remember, with the familiar clean artstyle popping up everywhere in the form of Miiverse stickers and familiar cast members roaming the landscape (the Chargin' Chuck football guys!).
And it sheds the spotlight on cats. Cats! My status as a hardcore cat lover is beset by how all three of my cats treat me like I'm the Anti-Christ, dashing away the moment my lumbering presence enters their personal space and daring only to stare at me from the dark reaches of the stairtop (that, and I forbid myself to watch cat videos on YouTube in fear I'll waste hours watching Scottish Fold kittens). That Mario and Co. appealed to my rejected heart by dressing up in cat costumes and meowing up a storm is the best medicine I've received yet, and I dearly wish for the Cat Suit's appearance in more games.
Let there be no miscommunication here: Super Mario 3D World is quality. It plays great and oozes personality and charm in everything it does, all the result of love being poured into every line of code. And how my heart aches that I don't appreciate all that as much as I should. As should soon be evident, it's a game I still wrestle my feelings with, as while there are certainly elements of it that I love, I can't fall in love with the package as a whole. I've often wondered if the problem lies within my own high expectations for 3D Mario, a series that essentially created, defined and revolutionized 3D platforming (and gaming, in general) over the span of five previous games. Whereas Mario 64 laid the foundation and the Galaxy series crafted such imaginative heights, 3D World is mainly concerned with just having fun (and one other factor, but we'll get into that shortly).
Not that there's anything wrong with that by itself, but such a goal immediately places 3D World at odds with the Wii U's GamePad controller, a device that Nintendo completely failed to prove its worth. Much like every Wii U title that isn't Nintendo Land, 3D World establishes, at best, periphery involvement with touch-screen control and the like. When considering the heights reached in design and control from 64, Galaxy and even Sunshine, that a potential new avenue of 3D gameplay was discarded in favor of designing a HD sequel to a handheld game remains a poignant disappointment.
However, like how not every Wii game needed motion control, not every Wii U game should be decried for not having touch controls, so despite the franchise's prestige, it wouldn't be entirely fair to single out 3D World for that mistake. But alas, it's within that very mistake that 3D World's biggest flaw is made apparent, one that renders it inferior to even its own predecessor.
It wouldn't be wrong to claim Super Mario 3D World is the culmination of the seeds first sprung in the Galaxy series, where Mario's fantastical adventures in space were guided along in a more linear fashion. While they were still designed around the star-collecting missions from Mario 64 and Sunshine, their more open level design was tossed in consideration of those lost in three-dimensions (that the first two New Super Mario Bros. titles, which revived the 2D gameplay of old, sold significantly more than any 3D Mario title only seemed to prove Nintendo's point). The result: 3D Land's further distillation into a pure platforming experience (one could even perceive that the "3D" portion of the title was a rebranding of this particular Mario genre)
Like 3D Land before it, 3D World emphasizes the nostalgic bare-context of the 2D Mario games of yore. We spot this quality in its speck of a plot, bare minimum usage of text, the timer that inexplicably kills your character, and, as seen above, the flagpole signalling the end of every level. Alone, these aren't problems, but they do contribute to 3D World's biggest flaw: in it's rush to streamline 3D gameplay via 2D tropes, the game forgets to innovate and instead produces a homogenized product.
"Homogenized" as in it borrows too much from 2D Mario, I mean. This isn't to say 3D tropes we've seen before aren't present (as seen with how it unlocks progression via collecting Green Stars), nor am I saying it doesn't possess any new ideas, but then why do I grow so tired of it, then? That 3D World is a sequel to a handheld game to streamline 3D Mario gameplay means it has to juggle between retaining and building upon its tropes within an HD context all the while pointlessly reviving elements from 2D Mario, which naturally presents some problems.
Take the level design, for example. You could argue Galaxy and 3D Land of being homogenized as well, yet they're careful enough to frame their ambitions within their respective contexts. 3D Land is particularly interesting in how the level design is built around the hardware, with levels that go down, down, down or up, up, up appearing all the more imposing and inviting on a tiny handheld screen (when factoring in the 3D, the affect is all the more powerful). It's new, it's fresh, it's uncharted waters for our portly plumber.
And yet note how 3D World borrows some of these levels wholesale without a speck of difference. As expected of a sequel, you may say, but the levels that go up, up, up or present a Zelda-inspired top-down perspective simply don't possess the same magic on an HD level. Yes, the former plays well into the wall-climbing antics of the Cat Suit, but that we've already done this before adds a dull sense of familiarity within the first world.
It's no surprise then that the best levels are the ones built around Mario's new toys. The cloning Double Cherry, in particular, is the game's one true stroke of imagination and presents an unparalleled sense of precision and wonder everywhere it appears. Losing one of your clones to enemy fire or a mistimed jump is a common risk, and it takes some skill to, say, carefully navigate a block slide that, according to their color-coded design, disappear and reappear to the music beat. Something we've already done before, mind you, but points for difficulty.
There are other gadgets for Mario and Co. to fool around with, be it potted Piranha Plants to gobble up foes with and an oversized comfy Ice Skate to ride around in. But as expected, they're sparingly used so as to not grow old. This would okay since the clever "clear" warp pipe idea commonly picks up the slack, but that it's shackled in bringing back 3D Land tropes and coming up with new ideas brings me to my next point.
Look at how bright and colorful that is! Indeed, the colors in 3D World pop with such vividness and festivity that they're often propped by distant fireworks and the like (seriously, try bopping on the innocent Sprixie folk; they shed actual confetti). Here's some more delectable shots below.
Here's one with some modern effects. 3D World's character models and setpieces are polished to the point where reflect the shiny smoothness of toys and action figures, highlighted in the above rainy sequence. Note the rain dripping down the screen.
And then there's setpieces where the game just explodes with color. The hidden Golden Express is pure mouth-watering gold (complete with the aforementioned fireworks to highlight the game's status as a hidden level), wherea lava levels alternate between molten-hot red and delicious, tantalizing blue (often accompanied by a certain music track showcased just a ways down).
Anyone who's played 3D Land should recognize how most of the examples provided above aren't present in the handheld title. What isn't shown are not-so-new levels that while necessary within the sequel context, don't bring much new on their own. For every exciting idea found in train levels (Cat bullet bills!) and Japanese bath houses, you shouldn't expect to see them more than once or twice. Yes, it does a gorgeous job of bringing 3D Land level setpieces into HD, but we've seen these ghost houses before, we've traversed these dessert-themed landscapes before, we've crossed these poisonous swamps before, we've ridden on a sea creature down perilous rivers before. Are they framed in new contexts? Sure, but chances are they've probably originated from earlier Mario adventures (hello, flip switches).
Bosses are also disproportionate in imagination. On the highest end of the spectrum lies the above Motley Bossblob; of course, that it'd use the Double Cherry as the fight's basis guarantees it's success, but look at how inventive it is! The flashy fleshiness of his giant form! The choices of either gunning for his fleeing vulnerable form or hopping on his scattered blobs to reduce his size!
...then you have this Bowser boss, where he rides a sexy giant car to lob bombs at Mario. It's host to the slowest, most boring boss fight in the game in that you have to kick back the bombs while Bowser just chugs along in the car. Within games featuring conflict, cars are generally used to run over people; as this would prove problematic in Mario, it has no option but just to sit there looking pretty. Any other platform could've not only sufficed in hosting Bowser, but to build upon it for a more exciting fight.
World themes, too, face disproportion as like 3D Land, 3D World generally places levels wherever it feels like. This wasn't a problem in 3D Land since most, if not all, of world themes weren't so explicit, but this isn't the case in 3D World. We have explicit takes on ice worlds, deserts, and skies, yet 3D World's sense of progression is totally absent barring the necessary castle level.
A desert slide and a dessert level. Wha?
Progressing through the carnival only brings more disappointment: 3D World introduces circus levels as it's most common recurring trope, yet not a single one of these is in sight! In fact, a good chunk of that amazing shit you see in the opening shot aren't used at all. Instead of being granted rollercoasters, we're treated to the same ol' level tropes that only vaguely relate to evil circus theme.
"What's the big deal," you may ask. It's what I've been arguing all along: the game is far too comfortable with borrowing 2D Mario's sense of bare context. While Mario games shouldn't be bloated with story and dialogue (see Sunshine), that 3D World largely uses familiar world tropes as only crutch as opposed to building upon them (or, y'know, expanding on it's original themes) is a disappointment. The circus does not build upon itself, nor the sky world, or even the ice world. You know there's a problem when a) Super Mario World and even the later NES Mario games excel at this and b) I'm questioning context in a series that's the very definition of "suspension of disbelief". As it is now, 3D World in it's entirety comes across as some sort of gaudy fever dream.
You could say "Well, the desert slide is still a great piece of game design", and so it is. To deny that 3D World isn't designed well is heresy, but that it restricts itself to 2D Mario tropes is what I take issue with. What place do entire levels based around the "race against the clock" concept belong in a 3D platformer, particularly if they're insanely short? Why bother with quick n' dirty enemy blockades? Why include a giant open area in Sprawling Savannah when the ever-present timer naturally deters exploration? Alone, these are nitpicks, but that they keep building and building only serve to prove the game's homogenized nature. That they're included only for the sake of pandering to the 2D titles associates it far too closely with the games in question, and so we lose uniqueness.
So does this mean 3D World is a complete disappointment? Well, not exactly. Yes, 3D World comes up short as an inventive, cohesive title, but that to deny it's status as game designed around providing the player with as many fun scenarios as possible would be, well, rather ungrateful for one and would also undersell how well-designed its stages are. I can't say I agree with how they're fully framed, but these are still Mario levels through and through.
Take the above tribute to Super Mario Kart, for instance. That it takes place in the ice world makes no sense, but the brief time we're granted with it captures Mario Kart brilliantly thanks to the pervasive placement of Boost Pads. That it's combined with bouncy mushroom pads to regain momentum and slides ripped straight out of the Playskool playsets from your youth only seals the deal.
Meanwhile, Sunshine Seaside is absolutely the best beach level in the game due to how involved it is. Echoing some of the collection missions in earlier 3D Mario games, your character of choice has to nab five key coins hidden across the coast. Be it one of the many goodies hidden inside the giant sand statues or breaking up a Chargin' Chuck huddle, there's no stone left unturned. Once complete, you're rewarded with an amazing Plessie ride. Note what's quite possibly 3D World's greatest easter egg: riding around inside Koopa shells. How I'd love to endlessly surf across the stage without the impending ticking of that pesky timer.
And no one could possibly hate the adventures of Captain Toad! These fun breathers from the main adventure take the form of isometric puzzles where the world's most adorable treasure hunter has to hunt down five green stars. It's the one area of the game where the GamePad is put to good use, as the gyroscope is utilized as the camera to help the player navigate and decipher these puzzles. These actually do grow in difficulty and even complexity as the game progresses, and I was always delighted to partake in them.
And once again, my love for the Cat Suit must be elaborated. Say what will you about the actual adventure, but the new suit is undeniably the funnest the Mario gang's had in years. Everything from how the characters prance along to the exact movement of a cat, how they scratch frantically before futilely sliding down walls (leaving loooong claw marks), let out a celebratory meow upon completing a course (or in the case of Toad, the cute little "myew! of a kitten), or even how the developers just added a sneaking maneuver (complete with it's own pounce attack) for no reason other than to be cute just highlights how much fun they had in creating it. Also, Cat Goombas. And Cat Bullet Bills. And Cat Bo...nah, I'll let you find that one out for yourself.
I can't help but resist spoiling one little surprise though. One day I asked myself, "what would happen if I climbed up a clear pipe with Cat Mario?" The picturesque shot above is the result. It's not possible with every clear pipe, of course, and it doesn't even qualify as a shortcut, but it's one of the very few instances of "create your own fun" that 3D World allows. In fact, if you try this in the very first level, you may find a tiny secret hinting the developer knew about this all along.
In that sense, it's best to enjoy 3D World as a "turn your brain off" sorta deal. It might not blow your mind and it's certainly not Mario at his most ambitious, but during the entire time I've wrestled with my feelings over this game, I always ask myself if that really matters. So long as you don't expect anything from 3D World, it works. Maybe not entirely in a way I'd want it to, but even with it's missteps it's still fun and exciting to play.
What can really ease this process is the score. My god, the score. Truth be told, I am growing a little tired of the newer Mario themes borrowing Super Mario Bros. 3's motifs again and again, so I've instead decided to kick off by sharing the game's best boss theme. 3D World apes Big Band music, and Hisstocrat is where that hits its apex. An explosion of drums, trumpets and synth all contribute to the flurry and chaos of that particular boss battle.
While Mahito Yokota takes up the bulk of the soundtrack, veteran Koji Kondo picks up the slack with his new take on the customary Athletic theme (known as Chain Link Charge). As opposed to the typical high-strung energy found in those themes, Chain Link Charge goes for a slower, jazzier tone that I'd imagine wouldn't be too out-of-place in downtown New York. It's certainly the most grounded Athletic, a unique direction that I'd love to see continued in future Mario games.
Of course, my favorite has to be the one I've discussed before: Double Cherry Pass utilizes a pair of violins so bouncy and alive that it perfectly taps into that animated Mario zen, rendering any level it accompanies the manifestation of pure joy. That it accompanies the best level in the game (of the same name) is no coincidence, as it heightens the wondrous discovery of the wonderful Double Cherries.
Maybe, for me, it represents a song of forgiveness. I know that Super Mario 3D World is not perfect, and I know I will continue to wrestle with my feelings over it for some time. In an era where Nintendo had to prove the worth of their shiny new GamePad, that it chooses to overly restrict itself by 2D tropes is undeniably disappointing not matter how well it plays.
But whenever I hear this song, I can channel that elusive reverie that I, myself, have been chasing for so long. This may or may not have to do with the fact that the song plays in the level where I can have up to five Cat Marios dance in tune to the music, but that it compels me to forget that and simply do that despite the impending tick-tock of a timer is no small feat.
Perhaps one day, I could simply forget the game's flaws and just play it? In a time where Nintendo is no longer a stranger to HD and downplays wacky gadgets, that may be possible, but that fear of homogenization is a tad too strong now.
Regardless, the game plays well, looks well, sounds well, and, well, manages to make me smile. It may not be my favorite Mario game, but that last factor is a hallmark quality of Mario through and through. And I guess I should be grateful for that. Meow.
Sorry for the delay, folks! Got too caught up in polishing this before I was satisfied with it. Was I too indecisive? Please let me know!