Super Mario 3D World Keeps Catching Me By Surprise

I recently made the journey from the city where I live now to my hometown to visit my family. It was the weekend of Halloween and my youngest sister is close in age to my own child, making them the perfect trick or treating buddies. The timing also worked out because my grandma and I both had birthdays the week right after Halloween. We celebrated with a joint party for the family. We had the works: my mother cooked a nice meal, there were two cakes and plenty of ice cream, and gifts were given as well. I’m very privileged to have family members who still enjoy giving me gifts at age 30 and my list for this year included a few different video games I was interested in checking out. One of those games was Mario Party Superstars, the latest entry in the party game series which features boards and minigames from Mario Parties past. As it turned out though, Mario Party Superstars became the source of a bit of a misunderstanding. My grandfather – not being much of a gamer himself – saw a package with Mario on it and assumed he was getting the right game. It, uh, was not the right game. Instead I ended up with my very own copy of Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury! It’s an understandable and honestly kind of hilarious misunderstanding that has given me the opportunity to try out a game that I otherwise may have never played on my own.

Super Mario 3D World was originally released on the Wii U and is a sequel (as much as a Mario game can be a sequel anyway) to Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. It is neither in the style of the New Super Mario Bros games – a modern multiplayer reimagining of the classic 2D Mario formula – nor is it a fully 3D Mario title along the lines of Super Mario Odyssey or the games in the 3D All Stars collection. Instead, you platform your way through relatively small and linear 3D levels. Structurally the world map and level structure from 2D Mario is used and the characters have a limited number of hits they can take based on their current number of power-ups. But you can move in three dimensions and have lots of movement options that exist in the 3D titles such as wall bouncing, the side somersault, and the long jump. It’s a blend of both styles that serves as an interesting and experimental middle ground for what a Mario platformer can be like.

My first impressions here are based on playing through all of the levels in the first world. I’ve played as each of the game’s four playable characters for at least one level to get a feel for their different playstyles, and I’ve also gotten to experience a couple of the special level types in the game (although I anticipate more types as I get deeper into the game). The basic loop of Super Mario 3D World is to choose a level off of the world map and then to progress from the beginning of the level to the end. For most level types, this means reaching the flag at the end of the stage and jumping onto the flag pole to slide down. Most levels have three green stars that provide “optional” challenges to overcome. I say “optional” in quotes because a certain number of these green stars are necessary to break locks on major levels like the Bowser Castle at the end of each world. While the completionists among us may wish to get every single green star as they progress, the fact that there are more of them than you realistically need means you can pick and choose which ones to prioritize. If a particular star or even an entire level gives you a lot of trouble, you can skip it for something that comes more easily to you.

Most levels have a pretty similar structure: make your way through a series of platforming challenges and enemies to reach the end. Three stars will be available for you to try your luck at along the way, as well as a sticker that can be used in photo mode. When making your way through a level you can run, jump, and ground pound by default. Various powerups change the nature of how your character can move or give them new abilities to bring to bear. The “main” powerup of Super Mario 3D World is the cat bell, which allows you to climb up walls, claw enemies and switches while on the ground, and do an air dive that sends you forward with your claws out while in midair. There are also mushrooms to make you normal sized again after being made small, as well as the familiar fire flower which allows you to throw fireballs into enemies and damage them from afar. The light from the fireballs can also reveal hidden blocks, and certain objects or obstacles are flammable. Occasionally you’ll also find a mega mushroom that makes you giant, allowing you to crush everything in your path as you stomp around. And of course the invincibility star makes a return as well.

While all of the characters share the same basic movement options and use power-ups in the same way, each one has something that makes them stand out and play a bit differently from the others. Well, I suppose you could say Mario is an exception to that. Mario is the balanced character of the group with good ground speed and jump height as well as normal gravity. The game is balanced to how Mario plays. Luigi has less traction than Mario and his jump lasts longer due to a sort of flutter, giving him more distance at the cost of making closer jumps a bit trickier. Peach is slow on the ground but holding down the jump button allows her to hover briefly in the air, which is a great safety option for those moments where you misjudge the distance or direction of a jump. Finally there’s Toad, who loses jump height in exchange for the fastest ground speed. Personally I kind of prefer to just play as Mario rather than deal with the gimmicks of the other characters. Peach is my second preference, followed by Luigi, and Toad last. Having bad jumps in a platformer is not a good look.

You might be concerned that having a similar moveset along with relatively familiar powerups may mean that there’s not a lot of variety in terms of the challenges offered. This is where each level’s unique shape comes in, with different mechanics or types of obstacles presented depending on what level you are currently navigating. Some platforms move or spin while you try to move between them, others temporarily fade out of existence or become dangerous to touch. These various unique mechanics help to make levels feel a bit more distinct even if the levels within a given world can kind of start to blend together. If you’ve played other titles in the Mario series, the environments won’t be too surprising in terms of the visual style or what kind of enemies you’ll find there. But the potential monotony is broken up somewhat by the special levels that change up the formula by asking you to move through the level in a different way or even make you into another character entirely.

There are two examples from the world I have explored so far. The first is a level with a familiar face from the Mario universe: Captain Toad. The Captain Toad levels allow you to play as the titular explorer using mechanics very similar to his own game (I think chronologically, these challenges came first and then the spinoff was created based on the popularity of these puzzles). You navigate a diorama of sorts where Toad cannot jump, but you can rotate the camera to find hidden passages and figure out how to safely get around enemies and obstacles to reach green stars. At least in the first world, this puzzle has more green stars than other levels but you have to get all of them to finish the level and reap the reward. It changes up the gameplay a bit and adds a new type of challenge by requiring you to collect everything. The other special level type involves riding Plessie the dinosaur through a water level. Plessie cannot stop moving or backtrack, so the challenge comes from managing your speed and momentum while also keeping a lookout for hidden goodies. Plessie can jump a little bit but gets the biggest jumps from hitting speed up ramps or bouncing off of enemies, so making sure to aim for those opportunities is key. In my case I ended up running the Plessie level multiple times whereas most levels can be finished in one go.

So far I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Super Mario 3D World. It’s not a game I expected to receive and I didn’t figure I would get much out of it, but the first world has been a good reminder of what works about the Mario formula. Right now there’s not much to write home about in terms of challenge and of course the story is a wash, but it’s perfect for short bursts and Mario titles typically amp up the difficulty later on as well as having secret challenges for those looking for a more trying mechanical experience. I also haven’t done much in terms of experimenting with Bowser’s Fury, so in the future I’ll be giving that mode the ole college try and seeing if it does anything to freshen up the formula.

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