Somewhere in the latter portions of Super Mario 3D World, you'll encounter a stage where you have to travel through a dark mansion while controlling your characters from an unconventional top-down perspective. I say "unconventional," but savvy Mario fans will recognize this concept from Super Mario 3D Land, the 2011 3DS game from which 3D World draws much of its inspiration. And yet, the stage, like the game it belongs to, is no mere reprise.
In 3D Land, the top-down stage existed as a way to show off the 3DS's pop-out visual effects (while tossing in an amusing Zelda reference or two). Here, however, the point of the birds-eye view is meant to show off the game's lighting effects. Covered in inky darkness, the stage can only be navigated by your characters' narrow field of vision and the illumination thrown off by fireballs. In each game, these individual stages break from the standard Mario point of view in order to show off a technical feature. However, each plays differently, with a unique set of challenges and hazards -- 3D Land's top-down stage was more about avoiding traps and making use of uneven terrain, while 3D World's equivalent level challenges you to navigate safely in the dark while platforming across pits and pressing switches in sequence.
I can think of no better way to sum up the essence of Super Mario 3D World. Once again, Nintendo EAD Tokyo has managed to rework the familiar and the known into something new -- unexpected. Throughout the course of the game, you'll constantly stumble across ideas or elements you recognize from previous Mario adventures only to find their role in this particular context utterly defies your expectations. Throw in a handful of genuinely new concepts and powers and you end up with a game that never ceases to surprise and amuse. 3D World consists of dozens of stage -- every time you think you've conquered the final world yet another one appears, even after the credits roll -- and while some of them share common fundaments, each of them has its own personality. Most stages have a unique gimmick or element, some of which appear only once or twice in the course of the entire game.
The great thing is that 3D World's sprawling variety never conspicuously calls attention to itself. Not only is there a decided lack of hand-holding, there's no overt tutorial information whatsoever. Aside from a few interface tool tips to explain specific functions of non-standard challenges (like controlling the camera in the self-contained puzzle stages which place you in control of a defenseless Toad explorer in search of Green Stars), 3D World leaves you to discover things on your own. Every new wrinkle, every fresh addition simply unfolds as part of the whole. You may go from wandering through a wide open beach smashing up sand sculptures of Bowser to navigating perilously narrow platforms in the space of a single stage, yet the transition flows gracefully thanks to excellent level design that gently guides players and encourages them to experiment with their characters' skills.
And what a set of possibilities you're given this time around. Unlike previous multiplayer Mario games, 3D World hearkens back to Super Mario Bros. 2 to differentiate the playable cast with unique abilities. This comes in addition to -- not instead of -- a variety of powers ranging from the familiar (Fire Flowers) to the game-specific (the new Cat Suit) to the fleeting (various sports balls laying around that let you interact with enemies and environments). Rather than playing like Mario, the alternate characters have their own distinct traits: Luigi has higher, floatier jumps; Toad is fast but not so great at jumping; and Peach (returning to action at long last) is essentially "easy mode," capable of hovering briefly when she jumps in order to help correct misaimed leaps.
You'll certainly experience your share of those. Another element 3D World brings over from 3D Land is a fondness for fixed camera angles and limited visual perspectives. That one dark, top-down stage in the later worlds strays from the usual Mario point-of-view, but its reliance on a locked-down viewpoint is hardly atypical for this game. While 3D World doesn't rely quite so much on isometric angles as its predecessor, it does have a tendency to force you to work within certain camera constraints -- sometimes to the game's detriment.
I found myself missing occasional jumps here that I would have made in 3D Land with no trouble, because 3D Land benefitted from its platform's 3D screen, which helped you more easily judge distances and positions. A number of other levels -- including the "final" stage -- saddle players with agonizingly slow auto-scrolling or cameras zoomed in so far that you can't see (or react to) threats until it's too late. These moments, often scripted, feel frustratingly out of place in Mario, which has always emphasized organic challenge over trial-and-error or memorization. They ring false, and often put a damper on the otherwise high-spirited action.
These rough patches might not be so severe if 3D World put more substance behind the lip service its structure pays to freedom. While the world map may let you roam around at will, level-to-level progression is restrictive in the fashion of the New Super Mario Bros. games rather than working like the hubs of Mario 64 and Galaxy. You may occasionally have a choice between two levels instead of one, but despite the occasional side excursion it's still a very narrow and rigid path you have to take in order to save Bowser's latest kidnapping victims (creatures called Sprixies, hence Peach's being free to play the role of co-protagonist).
Still, these flaws prove to be incredibly minor in the grand scheme of things. While you'll occasionally find yourself bottlenecked by annoying stages you'd rather skip, the worst of them (including the slippery auto-scrolling Plessie stages) are usually optional; you can often buy your way into a less irritating challenge if you've collected enough Green Stars along the way. And the rest of the time, you'll find yourself so caught up in the overall exuberance of 3D World that you'll quickly forget about its annoyances.
Above else, practically every single element of 3D World works together in concert to create a feeling of unfettered joy. The brassy music -- fully orchestrated -- brings a big band vibe to the action; imagine the ragtime tunes of Super Mario Bros. 2 performed with the grandeur of Super Mario Galaxy and you should be able to conjure up a pretty good mental image of what 3D World sounds like. The tunes, as so often is the case for Mario games, syncopate with the on-screen action to create a cartoon world as lively as it is vibrant. Enemies behave with their own exaggerated logic as your protagonists don ridiculous costumes, skid to a halt like the Roadrunner, kick up dust and flames as they dash toward the flag, and emit comical sweatdrops in the face of danger. I remember being stunned all those years ago by Super Mario 64's resemblance to a real live interactive cartoon, but 3D World makes that world look like a cave painting by comparison.
3D World's greatest strength lies in the boundless creativity on display. Each level offers a new challenge, a fresh surprise, an unexpected twist on the Mario formula, and there's vastly more content to the game than you'd think at first glance. I could enumerate at length the many ideas and inventions that characterize the game's stages, but the joy is in discovery. My advice: Experience it for yourself.
A spot-on exploration of what Nintendo really does best: Create varied and surprising twists on concepts and ingredients you thought you knew inside-out. The fact that 3D World remains lively and interesting despite calling back to so many well-loved classics serves as a succinct reminder as to why Mario remains successful after so many years and so many games: At its heart, the series is ultimately just about having simple, unpretentious fun.
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