Super Mario 3D World brings four-player action to 3D Mario games for the first time (outside of that awkward and not-very-fun multiplayer mode in Super Mario 64 DS). Fittingly, four of USgamer's staff checked it out at E3 this year, and each of us came away with our own take.
Like a lot of people, I found myself a bit underwhelmed at my first glance of Super Mario 3D World. I think most of us expected EAD Tokyo's next project to follow in the footsteps of their Super Mario Galaxy games, upholding the grand, sweeping tradition of Super Mario 64. Instead, we have a game that basically looks like an upscaled version of 2011's Super Mario 3D Land -- a good game, no question about it, but nothing to turn your world upside-down. Alas, Nintendo's strategy this year consists of being as safe and conservative as possible, and the sad reality is that the Galaxy games haven't sold nearly as well as Mario's more downsized adventures. Just be glad they didn't foist yet another New Super Mario title on us.
As soon as I played 3D World, though, my cynicism melted away. Yes, it is basically an upscaled take on 3D Land, but... that's no bad thing at all. Much as with the New Mario games, 3D World may have its roots on portables, yet it feels more complete -- more at home -- on a console. With higher resolution comes broader vistas. With greater processing power comes larger, more intricate level design. And with a shared screen comes multiplayer.
If you've played the console-based New Mario titles, you should have a pretty good sense of how multiplayer works here. Four people can play together to complete goals, with the most impatient player dragging everyone else along; get left behind and you'll find yourself floating back to the action in a bubble, though this time you can pop your own bubble to escape. Your friends are as much a hindrance as a help most of the time, and in fact 3D World promotes backstabbing and infighting by scoring players' performance at the end of a stage, not unlike The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords.
The Wii U's weird lop-sidedness in terms of controllers -- we still haven't seen a game that supports more than one tablet-style Game Pad -- might seem to give the first player an unfair advantage. After all, Player One gets not only a screen but also analog controls, while the other participants are relegated to using mere Wii Remotes. In practice, it doesn't matter. Four-player games are so chaotic and fast-paced that there's no time to look down at the tablet, and the precision afforded by an analog stick has no time to come into play. Knocking other players into Goombas is the great equalizer, as it turns out.
The Mario series has essentially split into three different interpretations of world navigation. The Galaxy games -- fingers crossed we'll eventually see another -- gives players the luxury of roaming freely in 3D spaces. The New Mario titles emphasize horizontal advancement. And the Mario 3D games, it seems, prioritize vertical traversal. It may seem a small thing, but it really does create a clear distinction between these different splinters, forcing players to take on Mario's familiar controls and enemies in different ways. Certainly playing with three other people in 3D World's towering spaces feels distinct from the left-to-right movement of New Super Mario Bros. U: More like scuffling in a playground than competing in a race.
Of course, it doesn't hurt that Nintendo finally remembered that these characters really ought to play differently from one another and that, oh yes, Princess Peach is perfectly capable of holding her own.
And I'd be remiss not to mention the new power-up, the Cat Suit. In fitting with 3D World's emphasis on vertical ascension, the Cat Suit's biggest perk is the way it allows players to scramble up walls. You can even cheese a level-ending flagpole by hopping midway up and scurrying to the peak for a 1UP. In a rare case of Mario borrowing from Sonic (instead of the other way around: See also Sonic Lost World), the Cat Suit changes the rules of Mario in the same way Knuckles threw a twist into Sonic's style.
In short, while I'm not sold on Nintendo's timid, unadventurous approach to its current slate of sequels, this isn't one of the games I have misgivings about. It's familiar, sure, but it's different, interesting, and most of all fun.
I wanted to like Super Mario 3D World. Super Mario 3D Land for the Nintendo 3DS was one of the better Mario titles of the past few years, so upon seeing the trailers, I was elated at the possibility of Super Mario 3D Land HD. Unfortunately, my time with the Wii U game has led me to realize how much I treasure the Mario Galaxy games.
While Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 were fast and precise, Super Mario 3D Land had a slower, lackadaisical feel to it. Bringing that experience to the big-screen just feels slow and plodding. Aiming jumps in Super Mario 3D World to hit certain spots takes a bit more effort than doing the same in the Galaxy series. The level-design is still inspired and fun like 3D Land, but actually traversing those levels feels like a chore.
3D World also adds to the 3D Land experience with a multiplayer mode that draws from past games for inspiration. Like Super Mario Bros 2, each of the four characters plays differently. Like New Super Mario Bros U, the camera focuses on the entire group, zooming out a bit if you separate, but never giving any one player complete freedom. The camera seems designed to snap towards whoever is closer to the level's endgoal, so like Mario Bros U, lagging players may find themselves constantly floating in a little bubble.
In the end, the problem with Super Mario 3D World isn't the game itself, it's what I brought to it. I envisioned a continuation of the Mario 64/Mario Sunshine/Mario Galaxy line of Mario games. I could taste that HD magic on the tip of my tongue. Nintendo brought a steak to the table, and I sat down expecting eat a pork chop. That's less of a problem for them, and more of a problem for me.
I haven't been on the Mario bandwagon for quite a while now. I like the fact that they're tapping into Super Mario Bros. 2, if only for the fact that they'll be including Princess Peach, the first female playable character since Super Mario Bros. 2.
The chaotic 4 player dash for coins and power ups and secret levels was chaotic at first, but I could see myself falling into a groove once the levels are mapped out in my brain. I still don't understand why a bell turns you into a cat, though.
E3 is usually chaotic, so finding an open station with Super Mario 3D World felt like a reward during what was an extremely busy week. I very quickly took a regular remote and chose Luigi as player four, and I played alongside three other attendees that I had never met before.
The demo chose an aquatic stage that began with the four of us on top of a sea monster, about to go for a quick ride down some rapids. The instructor told us that it was necessary for all of us to work together by steering in the same direction to avoid the literal pitfalls in this level.
Since the four of us were complete strangers, there was that inherent shyness shared by many gamers -- no one wants to break the ice, and more often than not it leads to what Larry David defined as shy/asshole confusion. We were all a bit shy (the latter assessment is a bit harsh), and not willing to take the lead or collaborate. Our sea monster began his journey with conflicted navigators, and a real sense that he wasn't making it out alive.
Sure enough, about halfway through the level we led this behemoth of a sea monster -- a monster that must have been 1,000 years old if he lived a day, a monster that must have seen generations of dolphins and whales and children playing along the shore -- we led this legendary monster to his doom.
We killed the monster, and we felt bad.
The group was quick to try again, knowing that communication would be key to making it through the rapids. We started out with one word directives, like "left" or "jump" and we felt like heroes when we passed the part of the stage where our first monster bit the dust. Up ahead, we would see items like a 1-up or a red ring, and we'd quickly negotiate with each other. Some of us wanted to play it safe, others wanted to take a risk, and the risk takers would end up winning the day.
We wouldn't hit all of our jumps perfectly, and some of those secret items were just out of our grasp, but in just a couple of tries, Super Mario 3D World did what very few games can do and it brought four strangers together, giving them a shared experience, and the ability to laugh about their recent aquatic adventure. What else needs to be said?