Review: Super Mario 3D World for Wii U

A whole new world…

Much like The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, this one is long overdue, though I’ve been wrestling with a similar but different problem. Whereas that review was gushing with praise and very little negative to say about it, I have a lot more negative to say about Super Mario 3D World.

However, and I cannot stress this enough, I do love this game. It might just be one of my favorite Mario titles, and though there are indeed parts which just rub me the wrong way, it really feels like Nintendo is going in a very positive direction with the series and I would still very strongly recommend it to anyone. Most of my ill-will surrounds one aspect of the game (and if you’ve played either console iteration of New Super Mario Bros., you can probably guess which), and even then, it largely depends on the situation… in fact, depending on how you intend to play, it could even be a complete non-issue.

Read on, and I’ll explain more.

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The best place to start is with the story: Mario and Luigi are joined by (a?) Toad and Princess Peach as they’re all on a walk near Peach’s castle one night, watching fireworks. They come upon what appears to be a strange clear pipe which seems to be damaged. People lament/jest that the Mario Bros. never do any plumbing, but they waste no time in breaking out the tools and fixing this mysterious fixture, leading to a blast of various items from its opening, followed by a sprite-like Sprixie Princess. No sooner than she explains what Bowser has done to her fellow princesses than the Koopa King himself emerges from the pipe, trapping her in a glass bottle as though she were a faerie from The Legend of Zelda and retreating.

In a unique twist, it’s not Mario who gives chase– at least not initially. Rather, Peach is the first one in pursuit of Bowser, quickly followed by Mario and the others as they take in the strangeness around them while traveling through the clear pipe to the Sprixie Kingdom, where they intend to put a stop to Koopa’s caper and free the Sprixies.

I realize I’m unique in that I actually give more than a fifth of a damn about story in Mario games (I still feel like New Super Mario Bros. 2 was a huge flop in this regard). This one isn’t particularly deep, nor does it need to be, but it does what is necessary to set the stage for not only a new adventure, but a bit of a different one as well.

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It’s about the little things, which can go a long way. For instance, by moving things away from the usual Mushroom Kingdom romp (even though parts of the Sprixie Kingdom still look largely similar) and giving Bowser a new objective, it’s freed up Princess Peach to be a playable character again, rather than the usual MacGuffin or butt of the billionth joke about wanting to be captured or having terrible security or whatever your poison may be. Having her be the first one to go after Bowser actually adds something to her character besides joke fodder. (Side note: Yes, I know all about Super Princess Peach and others, but many others don’t; having this take place in a “core” Mario title helps a lot overall.)

The narrative and setting aren’t huge points here, but they do go a long way in showing that the developers care about what they’re making, rather than paying lip service to designing an obstacle course for Mario to run around in. What’s more, by not having this be another mission to rescue Peach, it not only makes Mario feel a little more heroic again (rather than video gaming’s longest running gag), but makes the adventure itself feel a bit bigger as well.

I’ve been over the whole “Bowser kidnaps Peach” bit before, and while I’d still love to see a new antagonist (or the return of an old one) instead of Bowser for a change, I have to admit that I’m okay with what we have here, particularly as his new M.O. is revealed as you go. Of course, the awesome Bowser Mobile helped win me over as well– why wasn’t that thing in Mario Kart 8?

In all, it’s not the biggest change they could have gone with, but what they have changed up here is quite refreshing.

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That brings us to the player characters. As noted, we don’t just have Mario and Luigi this time out, but for the first time in a 3D Mario title, Toad and Princess Peach as well. Some characters you just always see as a team: The Fantastic Four, the Dinobots, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And for me, Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess were such a unit, from the worlds of Super Mario Bros. 2 to The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3, plus numerous comics and storybooks. It’s been 25 years since the four have been seen working together as a unit, and the reunion brings me a considerable amount of joy.

Players can choose from any of the four, and each has their own stats and abilities to bring to the table: Luigi jumps the highest, Peach can hover in mid-air, and in lieu of Toad’s strength from Super Mario Bros. 2, they’ve chosen to emphasize his speed instead. Meanwhile, Mario himself is the best all-around character, good at everything but excelling at none of them. Upon meeting certain requirements, a fifth character becomes available in Rosalina, who comes equipped with the spin move the Mario Bros. used in the Super Mario Galaxy titles, now available at the press of a button, so long as you have no other power-ups equipped.

Each is fun to play as for different reasons, allowing you to explore different areas as well. Toad in particular is great for this, especially when he equips the new Super Bell item to become Cat Toad. Each character has certain areas only they can access as well.

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Unfortunately, one grievance I had with Super Mario 3D Land, which this game feels very similar to from a gameplay perspective, was that while it tried to marry the concepts of 2D and 3D Mario, the controls for Mario felt more like they came from 3D Mario, meaning horizontal certain jumps and movements didn’t quite feel “right” to me, leading to me taking more damage or dying from not making leaps that it felt like I should have been able to.

This is perhaps best embodied in trying to reach the top of the flagpole from the top of the stairs. In 2D Mario games, new and old, a solid run and a great leap was all you needed; here, the same sort of leap will bring you up much shorter on the pole, if you even reach it at all. Instead, Mario needs to make a long jump or a rolling jump to have any sort of real hope of hitting the top that doesn’t involve floating across with a Tanooki Suit or just climbing the pole with a Cat Suit. This discrepancy between how they played in other games versus this one can be felt across the board.

Well, with one exception: This is Rosalina’s first appearance, and interestingly enough, she just feels the most like I’m controlling someone in a 2D Mario title. Of all the characters, she just feels “right” to me, which makes it a bit of a shame that she’s not available sooner. That said, the others still control and play well, so long as you’re mindful of their limitations within the 3D space.

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Incidentally, if you’re the sort who played Super Mario 3D Land better with the 3D on, you might have some trouble here. Against the snake boss Hisstocrat and his minions, you have to jump from one plate atop a minion’s head to the next until you’re able to jump on the leader’s head. I don’t know why, but I could not land a single hit, always jumping off of where I was trying to go. For what it’s worth, my wife had no trouble at all, though using Peach might have helped. To that same end, some of those jumps have me missing some of the invisible walls and artificial barriers from past games.

This isn’t to say that the controls are bad, however, just… different. Perhaps more so if you’re like me and have the feel of the past 2D games ingrained within you. For the vast majority of the game, I had few if any problems, but in certain scenarios, things would creep up. It’s something to be mindful of, though if you’re newer to the franchise, you might not notice anything and have far less trouble adapting.

Of course, that’s just speaking for single player…

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Multiplayer, on the other hand, is another can of worms entirely. Super Mario 3D World is the first 3D Mario title to feature a more standard multiplayer– that is, everyone controlling a regular on-screen character, rather than Super Mario Galaxy‘s use of a second Wii Remote to grab coins and manipulate objects for the first player. And if you’ve tried this in New Super Mario Bros. Wii or New Super Mario Bros. U, then you know exactly the kind of frustration to expect here.

My wife and I played through the game together, just the two of us, and the further we got into it, the more ill-suited it often felt towards multiplayer. One stage featuring a series of thin walkways with speed-boosting tiles was rough enough with just one player, and it’s difficult to imagine two, three, or four managing it without a lot of deaths, or just a ton of trouble. Auto-scrolling stages are similarly dreadful, and while the game gives you the option of riding out these sections in a bubble while one player does the legwork, it constantly forces the bubble near the active player, leading to them busting you out when you don’t want to be.

The way some stages are set up, it almost feels as though the game doesn’t want you to do multiplayer: “Your friends are a liability, and you should leave them behind if you ever wish to get anywhere,” it seems to tell you. It’s entirely too easy at points to be left in the dust if you’re investigating something, or just not in perfect synch with the other players. If someone gets ahead, or enters a pipe or door, the other players are given practically no time to finish what they were doing before being warped to the speedier player’s location. Hope you didn’t need that item you just found!

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The camera doesn’t help matters much, either, especially considering what I mentioned above. While single players get some control of the camera, it remains fixed in multiplayer. Worse, it’s fixed in an isometric perspective, making it more difficult to judge width and depth. Again, most of the time it’s not a bad problem, but it does prove to be a bit of a nuisance. Some stages are well-built for multiplayer, but others are absolutely dreadful, made all the worse by the fact that while you can hop in at any time, you can’t drop out unless you return to the map screen.

Beyond the camera, just interacting with other players can be a pain. Sometimes they can be helpful, but the game sets you up to screw each other over all too easily. For instance, if you press the run button, you’ll pick up another player if you’re near them– even if you’re not facing them. This means if two of you are too close together and someone tries to run, they’re going to wind up carrying the other player. As a result, accidental pick-ups happen all the time, making a mess of things. The characters also do a small sprint when picking up another as well, and if you’re near a ledge… well, you can guess the rest. Overall, I think the New Super Mario Bros. titles handled the picking up of other players better.

There are other “friendly fire” accidents waiting to happen as well, be it from the Piranha Plant you can pick up that doesn’t distinguish between friend or foe, or the new Cannon Boxes, which fire cannonballs that will explode to take out your foes and your friends. At least there’s a handy trick for building up extra lives in a hurry, so that the constant killing of companions isn’t too damaging. It would be nice if there were a way to turn “friendly fire” off so that multiplayer feels more cooperative, like in Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze, Rayman Legends, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land, or pretty much any other recent multiplayer platformer out there, made by Nintendo or anyone else.

Overall, the multiplayer in Super Mario 3D World feels… questionably implemented, if not sloppily. When it works, it shines– and that’s often enough, thankfully– but when it doesn’t, it feels like a mess and you’d have to be Nintendo-level “toss Luigi from person to person without letting him touch the ground” good for four people to do some of these. It’s almost as though there were supposed to be levels for single player and levels for multiplayer, like two different modes, and they just all wound up smushed into the one main game. At least the final battle works well with four players going at once.

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There; with my biggest grievance out of the way, I can go back to gushing about the game. As frustrating as some of that stuff was, it never ruined the game for me, which is good: There is just so much to see! The game never, or at least rarely feels repetitive, as each level has its own hooks, twists, and turns. One level will have you climbing walls in the Cat Suit, another will have you facing off against a parade of Bowser’s tanks. One stage will have you riding inside a giant ice skate, while another has you riding atop a dinosaur named Plessie. You’ll visit ghost houses, ride on trains, and more.

Even the map itself is fun to play around on. Ever since Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced a map screen to the series, I’ve always wanted to run around freely and explore, and now it’s finally possible. You still have to make actual progress stage by stage, but in between, you can run and jump around the map to hit blocks, discover extra lives and coins, find hidden stages, and even talk to Miis who leave messages via the Miiverse. It’s a blast.

Speaking of progress, you’ll find that you have to have collected a certain number of green stars along the way to progress. Fortunately, this was never really a problem; just by playing normally, we usually had the required number (or close to it) whenever we came to a barrier, with the only exception being at the end of the game as we approached Bowser’s doorstep.

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The GamePad gets a bit of a workout in this game, too, albeit a purely optional one. You can play using any control set-up available for the Wii U, from the Pro or Classic controllers to a Wii Remote and Nunchuk, or even just the Wii Remote itself. But it’s with the GamePad that you get to experience certain features and, more than that, certain levels.

By touching or blowing on the GamePad touchscreen, you’re able to do a variety of things, from revealing hidden blocks (which give off an almost Predator-ish shimmer) to messing with enemies to shattering the purple crystal blocks found throughout the game. This can be done by a regular player using the GamePad, or handed off to a fifth, similar to how it’s used in New Super Mario Bros. U, or the Co-Star mode in Super Mario Galaxy.

Certain levels can only be played when the GamePad is in use, including a cool and unique Japanese castle-styled stage, wherein certain features of the environment (such as doors) must be triggered by touching the screen. Others are the “Adventures of Captain Toad” levels, a great way to earn green stars by taking control of Captain Toad, who must make his way through a small single-player obstacle course to obtain all three green stars located therein. The only thing is, he can’t jump due to being weighed down by his backpack, forcing you to think your way through. This includes using the GamePad’s gyroscope to maneuver the camera, which can unfortunately be a bit of a pain in this instance.

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The game is just filled with so many different neat moments and touches, it’s difficult to name them all here. There’s always something new waiting just around the bend, enough to keep you hooked all the way to the end. Among the other touches are just the amount of different animations and graphical detail involved. The grass looks lush and the sunsets beautiful, while the effects of rainfall make Mario and friends look like they never have before.

One favorite detail is when you knock a Koopa Troopa out of his shell and take it away; he’ll give chase, but once he realizes it’s a lost cause (such as, say, when you kick it out to sea), his head and arms will droop with a defeated sigh. It’s adorable enough to make you feel bad… and possibly want to do it again, if you’re mean like that.

The music is fantastic, too. The use of live bands to perform the music is very noticeable, giving it a very high quality sound. The tunes feel very fitting throughout, with the main theme being very upbeat and adventurous. By the time you’re done listening, you’ll be wondering why Nintendo has released it on CD in Japan, Europe, and Australia, but not here.

At the end of the game, you’re given an awesome final battle that I won’t spoil here, except to say that it’s not a very challenging encounter, but acts more as an exciting showpiece to cap off the adventure. It’s a spectacle, and one worth seeing at that.

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There are a couple of other items I’d like to note, which didn’t really fit anywhere else here. One is the introduction of Miiverse stamps, a series of collectible items found in stages throughout the game which present you art that you can “stamp” into Miiverse posts. These black and white images are in the classic drawn Mario style Yoichi Kotabe popularized so many years ago, featuring a mix of classic and original pieces. The only downside is that some are quite big (such as Bowser), and there is no way to scale or flip the images as you would like, thus limiting your options.

Another is that this time out, Nintendo seems to have become a bit stingy with the time limits in some levels. I’ve yet to die as the result of a time over, but I have seen it hit the 100-second mark with the accompanying speed increase for the music on numerous occasions. While some levels feel like you have just enough time to reach the end safely, others feel as though there is a considerable surplus of ticks on the clock. As you might imagine, it does kind of stink when you reach a Bowser battle and he seems to wise up and avoid making the move you need to defeat him, allowing the clock to tick down.

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Super Mario 3D World is an incredible game and an incredible experience. In a way, it’s almost upsetting how all the good stuff seems to be saved for the 3D games; it took until New Super Mario Bros. U just for us to get giants back, and that wasn’t even for a whole world! I’m going to be wondering what it would be like if this game’s developers at EAD Tokyo made a 2D Mario game now.

Though the game does have a few things I feel it got wrong, the things it got right far outweigh it. I don’t know if I can say that this game is better than Super Mario Galaxy, but that’s mainly because despite both being Mario games, they both do so many different things. Either way, Super Mario 3D World ranks among my favorite Mario titles, and one can only hope that Nintendo will give us another that builds on this and brings us an even greater experience.

i_40625Super Mario 3D World was released for the Wii U on November 22nd, 2013 at a price of $59.99.

A review copy was provided by Nintendo of Canada.


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About the author

David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.