I’ve been sitting on my copy of Super Mario 3D World ever since purchasing it two weeks ago on launch day. Imagine that. A brand new, unopened Mario platformer sitting in my house, like Belgian chocolate or a Calvin Klein model, for an entire fortnight. Untouched.
Don’t ask me how I managed it. The anticipation was agonising, the delay of pleasure almost tantric, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Because, two nights ago, the demon god of retail scheduling finally smiled upon me; three of my workmates were able to come round for a night of pure, orgiastic four-player Mario gaming, like the Romans of old.
There is a true magic to be found in this game, you see. And you ain’t gonna find it on your lonesome.
It opens with a charming, if entirely pointless, cut-scene that fans of the series will instantly recognise. Mario, Luigi, Toad and Peach are strolling along one starlit night when they encounter a broken glass pipe protruding from the ground. Hey ho! Mario and Luigi “fix” it in about three seconds (it’s nice to be reminded occasionally that they are, in fact, plumbers) and Bowser emerges on cue, holding a small fairy princess in a bottle that he has apparently captured for some reason. Lord knows why he chooses to pop out and alert his arch-nemesis – and, more awkwardly, Peach, who is obviously no longer his kidnap victim of choice – but he disappears into the pipe, and the others follow.
Mario games have long dispensed with any kind of exposition at this point, and Super Mario 3D World sets itself up with a minimum of fuss. You’re launched immediately into The Sprixie Kingdom, which is arranged as a large world map reminiscent of the original Super Mario World. A number of Mario games in recent years have returned to this structure, and it’s a nice touch; here you’re allowed to leave the path and explore the various nooks and crannies of the landscape, but what you’re really more likely to do is jump straight into the levels themselves.
After more than thirty years of platforming in both two and three dimensions, it’s nothing short of astonishing that Nintendo can still draw such fresh and inventive puzzles from its established formula. Super Mario 3D World features some of the most brilliantly conceived level designs of any Mario title to date; whether it’s a corridor cast entirely as shadows upon a wall, a series of desperate ten-second dashes to the finish or a sequence aboard a speeding train, every level incorporates a unique challenge. Some feature entirely new mechanics and power-ups, while others are cleverly redesigned from previous titles such as Super Mario Galaxy.
While Galaxy kept a more moderate pace, though, encouraging a sense of careful exploration, 3D World keeps you moving at all times, with a ticking clock, scrolling camera and relentless enemies that prevent you from ever really slowing down. And each level is brief and punchy, never wearing out its welcome, but testing you just long enough before moving on to the next.
In this regard alone, Super Mario 3D World is an extremely solid and enjoyable platformer, easily the most consistent Mario offering since Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel. But there’s one more crucial ingredient, and this is where the game becomes truly spectacular…
And four player co-op. Well, both actually. I’ll get to the onesies.
Yes – if the levels weren’t tricky and chaotic enough, toss three other people into the mix and this game instantly becomes HILARIOUS. Moving platforms, switches and obstacles that may be taxing for one person are positively insane with the added requirement of teamwork. Players can both help and hinder one another, bouncing off each other’s heads to boost themselves higher, picking up and carrying their teammates past difficult hazards (or, y’know, off the edge of a cliff), or just shooting them in the face with a cannon. It’s amazing how certain puzzles and boss fights are transformed with multiple characters in play.
One player uses the Wii U gamepad at all times, and this is also employed quite effectively in multiplayer. One level required me to tap the screen to activate certain stepping stones for my friends, and blow into the microphone to move propeller-driven platforms. Unfortunately, blowing became quite difficult once I was out of breath from laughing (ironically, at all the jokes about my blowing prowess). The gamepad user can also tap enemies on the screen to ‘stroke’ them with a gloved hand, effectively stunning them. Seriously – there are, on average, at least two euphemisms per level if you’re doing it right.
What the game does so cleverly is encourage both teamwork and friendly rivalry at the same time. Working together allows you to collect all the hidden stars in each course, but at the end of each level, the player with the highest score is quite literally given a crown to wear in the next. And let me tell you – he who wears the crown must die. That is essential. You will feel a deep, primal urge to hunt down whoever is in the lead and usurp that smug bastard by hurling him into a pit of fire – and once the crown falls off mid-level, anyone else is free to grab it.
Another major feature of Super Mario 3D World is cats. Lots of cats. You’ll be dressed as a cat. Enemies will dress as cats. Missiles will dress as cats. Bowser (or “Meowser”) will dress as a cat. Being a cat is fun, don’t get me wrong – you can pounce and scratch and climb up walls – but the game has a feline fetish that’s almost absurd at times. Grab that shiny Super Bell and you’ll have a cat onesie in no time, my friend.
There are a host of other new power-ups as well, such as the Double Cherry, which will create a clone of your character who mimics your every movement. These can be stacked; with four of us each picking up a couple of cherries, there were sometimes up to twelve or more characters running around on the screen. Series stalwarts like the Fire Flower and Tanooki Suit also reappear, which gives the experience a touch of nostalgia.
Indulge me, if you will, in a cat onesie montage.
If, like me, you feel the desire to possess a cat onesie of your own, remember that they are, in fact, an actual thing that you can buy and wear without fear or shame.
Visually, the game is certainly one of the prettiest on the Wii U. It’s terrific to finally see the bright, colourful Mario aesthetic brought to high definition; the textures, water and lighting effects are all gorgeous, with a colour palette that explodes off the screen. Every world is distinct from the others, whether it’s a sand-swept desert, glittering ice field or fiery lava fortress. The frame rate never skips a beat either, every character brought joyfully to life with comical, over-the-top animations. Mario games in general set a very high visual standard these days – Nintendo puts so much love and care into the worlds it creates, and it’s evident in every little fanciful nuance.
Super Mario 3D World also takes advantage of the Wii U’s Miiverse, which connects you with people from around the world. Once you’ve beaten a level, you can return to it and see ‘ghosts’ of other players’ run-throughs, which might help you to discover tricks or alternate routes. But easily the best online element is the post-level news ticker at the top of the screen, which shows you messages left by everyone else who has completed it. Nintendo fans are either whimsically innocent or completely mad, but reading some of the nonsense they come up with is pure entertainment value in itself. Whether it’s a somewhat gauche “THIS GAME IS FUN!!!1” or an image of Mario farting on Peach, you’ll be truly inspired by the commentary offered by your fellow gamers.
Since my first four-player session, I have dabbled in some of the levels alone, and I can say that they are still an amazingly enjoyable experience. But Super Mario 3D World is, at its very heart, a multiplayer game. There is a wondrous, sparkling, uninhibited joy in stumbling through each puzzle with a group of friends; in many ways, it’s the sort of innocent fun that only Nintendo could produce.
Playing co-operatively amplifies the experience – it’s faster and more chaotic, bounding and gambolling from each level to the next like an excitable kitten in a cat onesie. You’ll die far more often, but that’s the fun of it – spectacular screw-ups and wipeouts are moments to be treasured with those dearest to you. Completionists will want to collect all the stars, and this may be more easily achieved by themselves in certain places, but those who approach this game as a solitary pursuit are sadly missing out on something beautiful.
Above all else, it’s good to see Nintendo finally find their console mojo. The Wii U has been lacking any real content for the past year of its release, and hopefully 3D World marks the end of a long dry spell for the developer. In any case, this is easily the best Wii U title out there so far. Make sure you grab it this Christmas – and while you’re there, stick a cat onesie in your shopping trolley. Go on, just put it in there. Don’t overthink it. Just do it.