After 28 years of making marvelous Mario platform games, you’d think Nintendo would run out of ideas. But Super Mario 3D World defies such logic and creatively sets itself apart – in good ways – from its outstanding recent predecessors, Super Mario 3D Land and Super Mario Galaxy 2. The characters and levels all showcase an unbridled sense of joy; the soundtrack crisscrosses between trendy jazz and orchestral arrangements of familiar Mario tunes; and even the surprisingly adorable cat suit managed to melt my stone-cold heart. But, most importantly, Super Mario 3D World nails something that the New Super Mario Bros games could not: it gracefully switches back and forth between a fun solo game and great competitive co-op play.
Of course Mario games have seen their share of vibrant hues and stylized art direction, but Super Mario 3D World outdoes the simplistic visuals of New Super Mario Bros. U by substantial leaps and bounds. There’s a surprising amount of texture detail stitched into these worlds, along with subtle lighting and effects that accentuate each onscreen action beautifully. And then there are the little things: Mario and crew leave tiny puffs of smoke with each step and, after you’ve run for long enough, the trail explodes into a smoke trail. A random pattern of stars popped out each time I pounced on an enemy. These tiny whimsical details add up, and Super Mario 3D World’s overall visual design captures a youthful energy that flows into the expertly made levels themselves.
Obviously, Super Mario 3D World isn’t a sequel to the ingenious Super Mario Galaxy 2, but the overall design feels every bit as informed. Traveling through the clear pipes constantly reminded me of propelling through the galaxy between planetoids. The pacing also gave me flashbacks as I reveled in the sheer brilliance of how much energy and gameplay mileage Nintendo has packed into every world.
Played alone it’s amazing, but multiplayer stands as one of Super Mario 3D World’s greatest accomplishments. Unlike the constant frustration of bumping into other players in New Super Mario Bros., here the other three characters (Luigi, Toad, and Peach) aren’t obstacles, but rather competitive buddies all vying for first place at the end of each level – and the privilege of wearing the crown in the next stage. I love how the crown, which is functionally meaningless – paints a bullseye on a leader’s back. In each co-op session I played, we’d all gang up on the leader to keep him from repeating his first-place showing. But a smart player realizes that the key to keeping the coveted crown lies not in wrestling over it with friends, but rather from getting in front of them with another excellent performance. Grabbing Green Stars and hidden Stamps becomes a key strategy in the race to dominate other players, so its best to keep ahead of the pack and make every move count.
The unique character abilities helped each character of Super Mario 3D World stand apart and provided another layer of variety to the experience. Whether using Peach’s float jump or Toad’s extra speed, I found that levels were designed so that I could exploit these traits to find more stars and occasional hidden exits. And in co-op play these abilities set up interesting situations, like when Luigi could reach higher areas quicker than rest of the team. The only catch is that the camera becomes a slight obstacle in four-player multiplayer games. If you’re not travelling as a tight-knit group, someone is bound to get dragged along as a bubble in some sections. When dealing with two or even three players, though, it’s not as big a deal.