Mario, despite himself, has diversified his income over the years. In addition to master plumber, he’s become a championship series go-kart racer, a tennis superstar, a baseball MVP, and he’s even thrown a few massive parties. This drive to explore as many professional avenues as possible has even split Mario’s platforming into two distinct areas of expertise: 2D side-scrolling adventures and 3D worlds we’ve come to know and love. Unfortunately, the expansive, free-roaming trial-by-fire style that gamers expect of Mario and Nintendo on every new home console wasn’t present at launch.
Sure, New Super Mario Bros. U arrived day and date with Wii U, but for Nintendo’s first high-definition console I don’t think anyone was completely satisfied by the 2D platforming recently plumbed in New Super Mario Bros. 2 on 3DS. Thankfully, Shigeru Miyamoto and company have readied a new 3D Mario game for Wii U’s second holiday season at market. While Super Mario 3D World might not be the open-world game you were expecting, it perfectly translates the shoebox level design that made Super Mario 3D Land a breath of fresh air on 3DS, and it brings four-player co-op to the forefront of that winning formula.
Mario’s tried-and-true equation acts as a double-edged sword in 3D World. With the mascot's games consistently dictated by a world-to-world structure, you might feel like Nintendo’s developers continue treading the same ground by fault of design, but a few key differences between NSMBU and 3D World help the overarching map stay fresh. In 3D World, you and up to three friends can run around the world map together, bounce your heads on item blocks, and uncover secrets. Further, the structure is less inspired by Super Mario World than NSMBU’s map.
Obviously, if you’ve played Super Mario 3D Land on 3DS, this new Mario game on Wii U will feel all too familiar, but whether that’s good or bad is up to you. Entering any given level drops Mario and friends into a fully explorable 3D space, but “shoebox design” (as I like to call it) still reigns on Wii U. What I mean by shoebox design is that often 3D World’s levels belie their actual size by putting players on a set roller-coaster track. There’s a specific path through every level, even if it might seem like these 3D worlds offer more freedom than a 2D level. Players still have to start at the same point and end up at the goal pole regardless of whether they discover secret items and hidden pathways on the way.
Where 2D and 3D games diverge is in the sheer volume of hidden secrets waiting for you. It’ll take curiosity and a few errant bounces to reveal every hidden item block or alternate path to the end of a level or a treasure trove of golden coins. Mario games have always had mysterious stuff like this, but 3D World goes out of its way to help you actually discover its best secrets. A misdirected fireball might reveal a Question Mark box by casting a box-shaped shadow or a purposefully placed power-up will encourage you to head in a direction you weren’t able to seconds prior.
Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy offered players a hub world connected to many different thematic worlds that offered several challenges in exchange for stars, but 3D World sticks to select levels, each with three hidden stars to collect. Mario and company are guests in the Sprixie Kingdom, but this new locale seems a lot like past Mushroom Kingdoms. There’s a desert world, an ice world, and a cloud world. Some levels are set on trains; others, on lakes of ice or of fire. Move around the world map and you’ll be able to check off every item on the list of places Mario likes to jump, almost to the title’s detriment.
If it weren’t for the inventive level design and power-ups, 3D World would feel too similar to very recent Mario games, like the designers have run out of creative juice. Power-ups that clone Mario and company to double, triple, or quadruple stomping power, power-ups that give all four heroes a cat-suit and versatile attacks and climbing abilities, and even new classic power-ups like the Mega Mushroom or Boomerang Flower keep levels exhilarating and fresh. Regardless of retreading ground, this new Mario presents a wealth of fresh ideas, especially for Nintendo fans who don’t have a 3DS and haven't played 3D Land.
If you have played that 3DS Mario game, then multiplayer will provide the innovation you seek in graduating to Wii U. The shoeboxes Mario and company explore are wide enough to accommodate four players, but the same challenges you find in the NSMB series rear their head when turning friends into frenemies in 3D World. Playing as Toad with two friends as Mario and Luigi, I wanted to shout at them to get out of the way before I died or got attacked by a large fish in an underwater level. I wanted to steal valuable stashes of coins before they could get to them.
Some levels seem more appropriate for single-player, like dinosaur-sliding levels, while others seemed tuned specifically to competing with others, like race levels that give you just 100 seconds on the clock compared to the 400 seconds levels typically start with. Thankfully even these co-petitive levels provide challenge to lonesome single players too as 3D World adds ghost times from players around the world after you've beaten a level once. I also appreciated that even in single player you can choose the character that plays to your strengths.
At first, I figured classic Mario was the best way to play 3D World, but after trying the others I settled on playing as Peach for the rest of the adventure. It sounds like a small thing, but I have to applaud Nintendo for allowing us to forgo Mario and rescue a foreign kingdom as the Princess. I haven’t mentioned the secret world, the hidden characters, the warp pipes, the hidden bonus levels, or Captain Toad whose levels play out in puzzling 3D fashion. I also haven't gushed about the incredible soundtrack.
While I’d still like to see a proper 3D Mario game on Wii U, 3D World does so much right that it’s hard to bash the formula, especially when it veers off course so often. There’s a big, satisfying adventure for fans young and old in this package and multiplayer, replayability, and the possibilites for DLC down the line make it a worthy piece of software for prospective Wii U buyers. Sure, this Mario game has claws, but it’s plenty friendly so don’t worry about getting scratched.
Download code provided by publisher. Exclusive to Wii U.