Nintendo’s Super Mario franchise isn’t really one series any more. It’s split off in a number of different directions, each catering to a slightly different group of fans.
The different subseries have enough in common that someone who just enjoys “Mario games” can get something out of all of them, but each type of modern Super Mario game is clearly designed with a particular type of player in mind. And it really benefits their overall game design.
One of the more recent additions to the formula is the Super Mario 3D series, kicked off with Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS and continued with Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U.
The Super Mario 3D games actually draw influences from a number of earlier installments — there’s the precise platforming of Mario’s older 2D adventures, the sense of exploration from Super Mario 64, and the wonderful atmosphere of Super Mario Galaxy. But they’re distinct experiences in their own right: tightly designed, highly dense games with simple to understand mechanics easy for more casual players of all ages to pick up quickly, but a ton of variety over the course of their complete run of levels.
Super Mario 3D World is one of the best examples of an approach to level design Nintendo takes quite a lot these days: introduce a gimmick in one level, make the level long enough for the player to get comfortable with the gimmick, then move on to something completely different before it becomes in any way tiresome. Sometimes gimmicks are revisited in later levels — much later levels — but at other times, they’re little tricks and quirks of design that you’ll encounter just once in the course of the entire game.
This sort of design keeps you constantly on your toes and helps to maintain the sense of wondrous exploration that Nintendo titles are so good at. You’re never presented with something so completely out of the ordinary for the standard game experience that it feels completely jarring, but at the same time it’s pretty rare to find yourself in a level that is simply a straightforward dash to the finish line. As you progress through the game, you’ll have to make good use of the simple, straightforward controls to overcome a variety of different challenges.
And these challenges are often spectacular, surprising and simply joyful to experience. Whether you’re climbing up a vertical wall in the new Cat Suit powerup, or carefully timing your dashes and jumps in accordance with music-reactive blocks, Super Mario 3D World never, ever gets boring.
Just when you think it might, it throws you something like the Captain Toad levels, which were so well-received on this game’s original release that they spawned a complete (and rather wonderful) spin-off game in their own right.
Or you might want to try your hand at the game’s multiplayer mode, which shifts the entire experience from a precise piece of beautifully designed single-player platforming fun into a chaotic party game in which up to four people can wrestle for control of a coveted “crown” while attempting to make it through the levels. It is, of course, possible to cooperate — and indeed in some levels there are multi-character switches that require more than one player, or use of the new Double Cherry powerup, which temporarily duplicates your character but requires you to control them both with one stick — but more often than not, one person will discover the joy of picking up a “teammate” and flinging them gleefully off the side of the level, and from there hilarity will ensue.
The game’s wonderful, constant sense of inventiveness is complemented by a wonderful audio-visual aesthetic: simple, but effective, and actually one of the best-looking games on Wii U in terms of the overall coherence of its design. Running at a solid 60 frames per second and featuring beautifully rendered character models that wouldn’t look out of place in a straight-up animated Mario movie, Super Mario 3D World is as much of a joy to watch as it is to play.
These lovely visuals are complemented by one of Nintendo’s finest soundtracks to date, featuring a fully orchestrated score performed by real rather than synthesised instruments. The musical styles tend to err on the side of big band jazz more than anything else, but this is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of a Super Mario game, and it’s delightful to hear some of the classic themes performed by real musicians. It’s also lovely to note that in a number of levels, the music dynamically adjusts, remixes and progresses itself according to how you are doing in the level; this is most immediately apparent in the various circus-themed levels, which associate each part of the overall challenge with a different musical phrase, only moving on to the next when you progress past a particular obstacle.
Super Mario 3D World is a big game by Super Mario standards, but it never feels like it’s outstaying its welcome. It partly achieves this by being a game that is particularly friendly to dipping in and out of over a long period rather than bingeing on it in one big Mario frenzy, but this is also part of how the whole experience is structured. You can “beat” the game and have a satisfying experience simply by making it through each level — challenge enough in the later stages — but each level also has three hidden coins to find as well as a stamp that can be used on Miiverse posts. And then on top of that, unlocking the game’s final secret levels is dependent on you finishing each and every level by landing atop its flagpole — easy if you can hold on to a Cat Suit until the end of the level, since this allows you to simply scramble up to the top, but rather more challenging if you don’t.
All in all, Super Mario 3D World is a game that has clearly been designed with care, joy and love by its creators, and this really comes across in the feelings you’ll experience while you’re playing it. It’s a game that it’s impossible to play without a smile on your face, even during the most fiendish levels, because it never feels like it’s being unfair; it wants to challenge you, but it also wants you to have fun in the process. It wants you to see everything it has to offer, but it also wants you to push yourself a little.
Above all, it simply wants to entertain you. This is something that Nintendo has always been good at, and Super Mario 3D World is absolutely no exception to that rule.
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!