For a fat Italian plumber, Mario gets around. From cobbled castles and dank underground tunnels, to floating ships that sail through the clouds, to conquering entire worlds, to vacationing on tropical islands, and all the way into the vast cosmos. So with all that under his suspenders, one might wonder where’s next on Mario’s list. The answer is apparently a little of all of the above, but nowhere particularly new. The sense of familiarity in SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD is welcoming for fans of past exploits, yet at times the safety of now well-worn themes takes some of the sparkle from an otherwise highly polished experience.
When SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD was announced there seemed to be a divided reaction. While some were disappointed that the next major Mario game was cut from the same cloth as SUPER MARIO 3D LAND for 3DS, lamenting that something more like SUPER MARIO GALAXY would be a better more “epic” fit for a console, others celebrated the possibilities offered by expanding upon the new 2D/3D hybrid gameplay on more powerful hardware. Having put in lots of play time with SUPER MARIO 3D LAND and enjoying the game immensely (in spite of a few shortcomings) I found myself in favor of revisiting the format. 3D LAND felt like the first 3D Mario game to really capture the original feel of the side scrolling Mario titles, and although I also have a fondness of the more open ended nature of SUPER MARIO 64 and SUPER MARIO SUNSHINE as well as the twisting turning anti-gravity layouts of the Galaxy games, it was nice to see an attempt to bridge the gap between the NES and SNES classics and their modern successors.
As a direct successor to 3D LAND it’s hard to find any overt fault with 3D WORLD. At the very least you safely know what you’re getting into. The core gameplay remains overwhelmingly similar, with some minor tweaks and additions. The main differences, beyond the obvious graphic and audio upgrades, are a multiplayer component complete with up to 4 players simultaneously and a handful of new powers. The most notable ability to make its debut is the cat suit, allowing Mario and company to swipe, dive, and climb up walls. There’s also a new cherry power up which creates multiples of your character, all of which you control simultaneously, which can lead to some hilarious results as errant clones run into obstacles or off cliffs, and it only gets more insane in multiplayer.
I played the game primarily in single player, but dabbled with multiplayer enough to say that although the concept seems obvious, it is probably the most overt innovation in the game. The feat of creating a playable 3D platformer that can accommodate four players on one screen while retaining the integrity of the single player experience is a feat that shouldn’t be taken for granted, and EAD Tokyo has pulled it off with enough panache to make it seem easy. I found myself wondering from time to time however if practical considerations for multiple players hadn’t limited the complexity of certain areas.
Although SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD is inarguably carefully constructed there’s something that comes across a bit pared down. In the best instances the trim nature of each level imparts a sense of focus and immediacy. Everything has a specific place and purpose, and there’s little bloat. Unfortunately that same quality can also come across as minimal or basic, and if you’re seeking meatier exploration elements or genuinely divergent paths 3D WORLD comes up short, even compared with the occasional free roaming levels of SUPER MARIO GALAXY 1 & 2, which were already scaled back from the more involved sprawls of SM64 and SMS. I had hoped that in expanding upon the 3DS game the developers at EAD Tokyo would take advantage of Wii U hardware to extend the scope of levels, even if free roaming gameplay was relegated to a stage or two per world, but there’s no such attempt. And even accepting the fact that unabashedly linear gameplay is the order of the day, the sense of scale doesn’t ever extend beyond that of its handheld predecessor, which feels like wasted potential.
Graphically, the game is consistent albeit a bit predictable. Nintendo entered the HD realm a bit behind their competitors, and the boost in image quality paired with modern shaders and more dynamic lighting give 3D WORLD a newfound sense of solidity. Because of the fixed camera angles which snap into place at 45 degree increments, the overall effect is reminiscent of a toy filled diorama, an impression that is reinforced by the plastic sheen on objects and enemies and an exaggerated depth of field effect. At times this limits the sense of grandeur the game can evoke, but it gels perfectly with Nintendo’s philosophy which often stems from a more toy like aesthetic than their competitors.
The themes, as mentioned, are expected. Like 3D land before it, 3D WORLD sticks to a tried and true set of environments familiar to anyone who has played the series, and especially those who have played any of the NSMB titles. A slightly more perplexing new wrinkle in the presentation is that the individual themes of any level only occasionally match to the world that they exist in. You might be in a desert world, but you’re just as likely to encounter a jungle area or colored blocks suspended in a cerulean sky as any other world. Levels with the same theme which to all outward appearances would be logically grouped together instead crop up at irregular intervals. Perhaps the idea is to keep things varied, but ultimately the game still settles on a handful of major themes and rotates amongst them without rhyme or reason. The somewhat uneven difficulty curve, which is punctuated from time to time by an unexpected spike before reverting to a mellower pace, also begs the question whether the levels were designed to be played in order by like theme and later separated, or if the intention was always to divvy them up between different worlds.
The music, while pleasant enough to remain unobtrusive, is quietly understated, and lacks the memorability of other recent efforts. The tunes are softer and more restrained than the soaring symphonic arrangements of the Galaxy titles, or the bouncy ragtime of earlier games. Even the remixes of classic tracks feels subdued, which takes away some of the drama out that a truly great soundtrack can provide. A few tracks are notable, nothing is offensively bad, and there’s none of the obnoxious chirping of the NEW SUPER MARIO BROS. series, but the overall impression the songs leave is underwhelming. The sound effects are generally more appropriately iconic, and anyone who has played MARIO KART games in the last decade should know what to expect of the squeaky voices, which ride a fine line between sweet and saccharine, but can’t help but make you laugh time to time either way.
If in breaking the game down point by point this review comes across as unduly critical given the sheer amount of craft on display (which is considerable), it’s because SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD is a title that stands on the shoulders of giants. As I played through it I came to some realizations. Mainline Mario console games have always been the gold standard for platformers, and on a purely technical level any of the faults of this newest iteration seem like nitpicks. There’s an abundance of courses, lots of clever ideas, and an admirable amount of polish. The game runs at a rock solid framerate, and everything about it smacks of pure functionality. Therein lies the rub however. SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD is a sequel without rough edges or idiosyncrasies. It’s utilitarian to a fault, and while it’s extremely well conceived and executed moment to moment and part by part it lacks a sense of freedom or discovery that the franchise has imparted many times in the past. A pervasive sense of déjà vu hangs around 3D WORLD, which saps away some of the joy from an otherwise exceptionally well put together experience.
If you’re looking for a game packed with finely honed by-the-numbers platforming SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD is a cornucopia of tightly designed bite sized challenges. The caveat is the diminished sense of discovery, and outside of general world themes it’s hard to identify any coherent thematic progression. It’s like getting your favorite band’s best of album. Sure, most of the songs are great, but it lacks the flow of the individual albums from which the songs are derived. The dichotomy between inherent quality and a lingering sense of what might have been make SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD a tough game to put a score on. Taken on its own merits it’s a tightly put together platformer, and at its peaks reaches heights that most in the genre only aspire to. In the pantheon of Mario platformers it’s not quite as close to hitting the mark, not because it’s badly designed or incomplete, but because it lacks a fundamental sense of freshness that has for decades defined the best of the series. That said, it still poops baby goombas on almost any other 3D platformer in recent memory from winged heights.
Final Score: 8.5 out of 10