I'm sure that Mario means different things to different people. For me, though, the essence of the series boils down to two things: Spot-on controls and an unrelenting sense that despite the fundamental familiarity of the characters and mechanics, I'm always doing something new.
Super Mario 3D World may look like a fancier version of 2011's Super Mario 3D Land -- basically, it's 3D Land combined with the character assortment of Super Mario Bros. 2 and the simultaneous four-player action of New Super Mario Bros. Wii -- but despite those well-worn aesthetics 3D World looks to partake of the tradition of cheerful unpredictability, a feature common to the best Mario games. In the course of a five-level demo last week, Nintendo showed off a bumper crop of elements that, despite essentially being reprises of existing ideas, felt totally fresh, effectively new, and often completely wacky.
By far the most ridiculous of these (and by "ridiculous" I mean "fun") was a special stage which featured a new power-up, the double cherry. While visually a callback to Mario 2 (from which 3D World takes quite a few cues), the cherry has a totally different function here. Rather than collecting five of them to earn a Star power-up, in 3D World picking up a cherry clones your character. Suddenly, you're maneuvering two Toads or Luigis through the stage at a time. The more cherries you find, the more characters you can have on-screen at once -- sort of a cross between "multi-ball" in pinball and the Options of the Gradius games. By the end of the level, I'd managed to build up an army of five Toads; Treehouse director of product marketing Bill Trinen, who was demoing the game for me, claims there were actually a few more cherries than that to be found.
It's hard to imagine something more insane than five Toads storming a stage. Your clone characters all control with the same inputs, meaning they'll all toss fireballs when you hit the Y button, and they all move in the same direction. However, minor factors like the slope of the stage pitch or getting snagged on a wall cause them to drift apart as you play, and I found myself gently nudging them all into corners to reunite them and keep them from wandering off into danger (honestly, it should be a familiar experience for anyone who has ever worked as a manager before).
But yeah, there is something more insane than five Toads storming a stage. If you play the level with other players, you get to enjoy multiple duplicate characters on top of the three other player characters running around with you. With eight characters (or potentially more) on screen at once, Super Mario 3D World breaks down into glorious chaos. It makes the five-player parts of New Super Mario Bros. U feel tame dull by comparison. It also makes you hate your fellow players, especially since the person who scores highest in a given level gets to wear a little crown in the next stage (though you can steal it by butt-stomping near them and knocking it loose).
That level certainly wasn't the only place my 3D World demo felt a little out of control. Another stage featured bomb dispensers that barfed out explosives that Mario and pals could freely kick around. Punting bombs into walls in the distance served to break open new paths and reveal secrets. And when Bowser brought out his big purple sedan -- which I'm pretty sure he stole from Wario -- kicking bombs back at him proved to be the key to victory. No, after all this time, Nintendo villains still haven't learned not to use weapons and attacks the heroes can reflect back at them. Did you guys learn nothing from Agahnim?
Even the world map feels different from usual here. While 3D World makes use of the classic level map seen in a number of Mario games beginning with Super Mario Bros. 3, here you can move freely around the map. ("Even Mario's gone open world," I joked, to no one's amusement.) Trinen says exploring the map will reveal power-ups and other bonuses. And, as with any good Mario game, every stage contains lots of little hidden spots and out-of-the-way corners where you can find extra collectibles. One level ends with a small hill-like tower structure with linked doors, similar to some of the levels in Mario 2. If you duck behind the structure, there's just enough space for Mario (or whoever) to run through a narrow gap and collect coins. And if you're wearing the cat suit power-up, you can climb the structure to the top and hunt for bonuses up there, too.
The cat suit comes in to play in a number of ways, including special platforms that require you to spin valves with the suit's paws. The ability to climb walls that the suit confers changes your relationship with stage layouts, not unlike the Cape in Mario World, though it's liberating in a different way. Scrambling up walls creates a unique play dynamic for Mario, not only granting you access to normally inaccessible spaces but also giving you the ability to save yourself from potentially fatal falls off the edge of a platform -- a handy trick, given the verticality of many of the game's stage layouts.
And the game cheerfully plays with franchise conventions. One underground stage I played featured portions consisting of silhouettes, which apparently is a mandatory gimmick in platformers now. But 3D World put a twist on it, with the silhouettes caused by both rear and front lighting. After playing through a few portions with backlit silhouettes, your reach a Toad crying because his shadow is being menaced by the silhouette of Bowser -- even though there's no physical Bowser standing near the Toad. But walk forward into the camera and you'll reveal a hidden area where a Paper Mario-style wooden standup of Bowser lit from in front is casting its shadow onto the same wall as the Toad's shadow. Topple the Bowser and the Toad gives you a Star in gratitude.
The four-player design of 3D World introduces lots of amusing little minor details that have never come up in a Mario game before. Like the playable Toad interacting with generic Toads (what makes him so special, you have to wonder?), or what color Princess Peach's dress becomes when she collects a Fire Flower (white with red highlights), or what happens when eight characters and clones shoot fireballs at once (the game handles it fine, but the human brain maybe can't). It's Mario, but in a format that switches up Mario conventions in interesting ways. Just because Nintendo EAD Tokyo is working in the style of Super Mario 3D Land doesn't mean they phoned it in, and by all appearances the same creativity that made their Galaxy games so good is in full effect here.