Nintendo’s sequel philosophy is well known throughout the fandom. For a Nintendo game to be worthy of a sequel is less dependent on the success of the franchise and more about the opportunity to create new forms of engaging gameplay. A series like F-Zero, for example, has allegedly not seen a sequel in a long time because the company doesn’t have a vision for how to make a new title meaningfully distinct from its predecessors. Despite this supposed stance on sequels needing engaging new mechanics, Nintendo still makes a whole lot of sequels that don’t really add a lot in terms of moving their franchises forward. This isn’t to say that the games are bad – many of the Switch entries into major series have been the most refined versions of their respective franchises. But there’s a difference between being well-executed and being groundbreaking, and the main campaign of Mario 3D World shows that it doesn’t take much for Nintendo to think a game has enough new mechanics to be distinct from its predecessor.
Super Mario 3D World was the Wii U follow-up to Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. It follows Mario and a group of his friends as they seek to rescue magical fairies called sprixies from Bowser’s clutches. In classic 2D Mario fashion, you’ll traverse eight worlds broken up into a number of distinct levels where you jump and power-up your way through bad guys and platforming obstacles in order to collect stars and rescue the sprixies. I shared a lot about the basic mechanics of the game in my first impressions, so I won’t spend a lot of time on that here. Instead, I want to discuss how this game may be a perfectly solid version of a formula Nintendo has already proven but is held back by using too many familiar mechanics to make sure the title is a safe bet.
Mario 3D World is in essence a 2D Mario game with one major difference – mechanically the character movements more closely resemble the 3D titles. But every other aspect of the game from the number of hits you can take to the level structure to the powerups at your disposal all closely match what you might expect from a New Super Mario Bros title. Ideally the things that would help this game to stand apart would be a broad selection of unique powerups and a variety of new platforming mechanics across the levels in order to make each world distinct. By always giving the player something fresh to keep them occupied, you make the game consistently engaging and give it its own identity compared to the games that came before it.
3D World appears to do this on the surface. If you haven’t played a lot of other Mario titles – particularly if you didn’t play 3D Land – there is certainly plenty here to keep you busy. Powerups vary between offensive options and better traversal, with the fire and boomerang flowers giving you throwing weapons with different trajectories while the cat bell and tanooki leaf each make you more mobile through climbing or floating, respectively. There are plenty of different platform types to keep you on your chose – areas where you have to use your shadow to navigate, platforms that change positions when you jump, ones that disappear and reappear in beat with the music, and even switches on rails that you have to switch between in order to strategically drop to lower elevations in a level. Few mechanics are used more than two or three times and they are generally staggered out, giving you a variety of things to do as you progress through the game.
Unfortunately, as a Mario veteran, few of the things I just described caught me much by surprise. The cat bell is the only new powerup in 3D World. The other items you can pick up to change your abilities are all returning artifacts from multiple previous Mario titles, and none of them have been meaningfully changed or had new challenges designed around them. The cat bell itself, while being a new item, doesn’t necessarily add a lot of new possibilities to the types of platforming puzzles available. In previous Mario games like 64 or Sunshine, Mario could already grab onto grates and climb along them in a similar fashion to what cat Mario does in this game. A lot of the platform types I described in the previous paragraph appeared in Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, meaning that there were few times where I encountered a mechanic that actually felt new or where I wasn’t entirely sure what I needed to do to progress through the level. And because the few mechanics that actually were new only occurred once or twice, it felt like a majority of 3D World was dedicated to retreading old ground.
Now it’s important to acknowledge here that part of my issue with the game was ultimately a misalignment of expectations. Nintendo’s stated sequel philosophy that I described in the beginning is one that gels with me – I rarely want a series to simply regurgitate the same ideas entry after entry. I’ve burnt out on games like Harvest Moon, Assassin’s Creed, and Kingdom Hearts for that exact reason. I’ve been playing games at this point for 24-25 years, and I’ve had plenty of opportunities to experience the same old same old. I am primarily interested in new ideas and fresh concepts, more than I am interested in being guaranteed a certain level of quality. Super Mario 3D World isn’t a bad game, and for people who liked 3D Land who simply want another game that they know is at least that good, this title will certainly scratch that itch. But I’m not looking for more of something I’ve already experienced, and for that reason this game ultimately left me unimpressed.
What I still consider promising is that because I have the Switch version, there is still something potentially fresh that I have to experience. Super Mario 3D World on Switch is packaged with a new game mode called Bowser’s Fury that puts Mario into something more like an open world where Bowser periodically rises from the water and attacks you while you play. It’s a spin on 3D World that takes the ideas which were originally more closely aligned to 2D Mario and pushes them more towards the 3D end of the scale. I’m still somewhat concerned as I imagine that there are still not really going to be new powerups in this version of the game. But there is hope I think for new platforming challenges to navigate, and for the unique structure of this alternative game mode to grab my attention in a way that the main campaign failed to accomplish. Even if Bowser’s Fury turns out not to be as polished, it will likely be of greater interest to me as it represents a new direction more than the standard game mode.