Review by BringerOfPie

"Cat Scratch Fever"

The Mushroom Kingdom is actually a psychiatric ward. A plumber named Mario went a little kooky on the job one day and thought he was suddenly a great hero capable of saving princesses from giant turtle monsters. But after getting arrested at the zoo too many times for bashing turtles and plants, they took him in. To prevent him from causing further harm to society, the Mushroom Ward lets Mario live out his deluded fantasies by staging fake kidnappings and feeding him mushrooms. Really, it's the only way any of this crap makes sense. But even Mario eventually catches on to the whole “Hey, haven't I been saving the same princess from the same dude like 500 times already?” routine, and Super Mario 3D World is a needed mix-up. It looks the same, but it feels different, and this careful touch makes it one of the more successful Mario titles in recent memory.

Bowser isn't after Peach this time. While taking an evening stroll on the castle grounds, the Mario crew runs into a strange transparent pipe. A winged fairy creature called a Sprixie Princess emerges and pleads for help, crying that the other princesses from the Sprixie Kingdom have been kidnapped by Bowser. Why exactly? No reason is actually given, but one can only assume that Sprixie Princess wings make some really potent drugs or something. Regardless, it's reason enough for Mario and friends to jump down the cross-dimensional pipe and stop Bowser's princess drug business. Peach getting off the hook for once means that she is able to join the journey this time along with Mario, Luigi, and Toad, making this a Super Mario Bros. 2 homecoming.

Multiple characters not only means this is the first 3D Mario game to support co-op play, but even in single-player, you have a choice of characters with varying advantages. Sick of Mario after 30 years? Cool, because you almost never have to touch him if you don't want to. Each character's advantages and disadvantages are very similar to Super Mario Bros. 2, finally giving that black sheep its dues decades later. Mario is the well-rounded one of the bunch with average abilities all around, Luigi can jump highest but has slippery controls, Peach can jump longest but is also the slowest, Toad can run the fastest but has the weakest jumps, and you might even come across some further options as you progress. This variety of choices caters to both newcomers and veterans, and though a few stages do require a specific character for certain secrets, for the most part you can pick who you're comfortable with.

Stage-wise, 3D World appears very similar to 3D Land on 3DS at first glance, which was a love-it-or-hate-it format among fans. For those unfamiliar, instead of taking the more standard 3D Mario route of collecting 120 stars in giant open worlds, these stages are more akin to their 2D counterparts, requiring you to reach the flagpole at the end of the stage while collecting secrets along the way. However, the scope here is much grander than in 3D Land. For starters, you are given free movement on the world map. You can't access further stages until you beat them in the proper order, of course, but the ability to goof around and perhaps uncover a few neat tricks on the world map goes a surprisingly long way. The stages themselves are generally bigger than in 3D Land, both to fit more players on the screen and to hide more secrets. Each stage contains 3 green stars (replacing the star medals) and a stamp which you can share on Miiverse.

This sounds like pretty standard Mario fare so far, but the stage creativity far exceeds any non-Galaxy Mario game in the last decade. No two stages use the same gimmick, as once you have had your fill of circus trapezes or SMB3-style tanks, the game moves on to something equally crazy like riding on the back of a surfing dinosaur or traversing a train armed with Bullet Bills. This variety is helped by the worlds not following any set themes, which might be a letdown to some people, but after enduring 4 or 5 New Super Mario Bros. titles of 2nd world deserts and 8th world volcanoes, I'm okay with this. Many of the green-stars are very well hidden, and you will need to collect a certain amount to progress to each world, ensuring that your bratty little neighbor kid who just wants to plow through the game as quickly as possible will not be able to.

Old favorite items like the Fire Flower and Tanooki Suit return, joined by the Cat Bell and Double Cherry as newcomers. The cat suit has been used at every possible opportunity in this game's promotion, and depending on who you are, it either looks like the most adorable or the outright dumbest thing ever. Fortunately for those of us in that latter category, the cat suit is the most brilliant new Mario item in quite some time. Your character can claw at enemies, pounce them in mid-air, climb walls, and activate spinning switches. In particular, the ability to climb walls really adds to the exploration element, especially since Nintendo has hidden several green stars and stamps on high walls. The Double Cherry, meanwhile, is all about chaos. It creates duplicate characters (up to 5 copies) that control in tandem, and guiding them in unison is quite challenging. You can take out multiple enemies and activate weighted platforms, but there is so much to keep track of that keeping them all alive is very difficult.

The co-op mode is crazy, fun, flawed, and will likely destroy many friendships. Though the objective is to work together, the coordination is difficult, and accidental deaths are aplenty when you are all trying to clear obstacles and keep track of the other players on screen. Although you can adjust the camera at points (most times you will want to stick with default view, though), all 4 players sharing one screen gets disorienting. To remedy this, the bubble system from the New Super Mario Bros. games is used here, with players automatically floating in a bubble if one players gets too far ahead the rest of the pack. The problem is that the camera will constantly zoom in and out to keep track of each player, making it difficult to tell what the “cut-off point” is where the bubble feature will activate, as it often does when you don't want it to. This is most obnoxious when one player has an item needed to obtain a far-away secret but the others do not. In addition, you will find yourself constantly picking other players up accidentally, which is a useless feature to begin with given the presence of the bubble system. I cannot think of one instance where I picked up another player and actually intended to do so.

The subtle brilliance of Super Mario 3D World is the accessibility to every kind of player, whether you've been playing games for 30 days or 30 years. You can play with the Gamepad, Wii Remote, or Pro Controller. The Gamepad is necessary for a few stages that require touch and mic controls, and I found myself so comfortable with the Gamepad that I used it the entire game. But if you insist on using a more standard controller, then luckily for you, the touch sequences are simple enough that you can easily just keep the Gamepad to the side for only the necessary moments. The worlds themselves are also set up for varying experience. A first-time player can easily reach and defeat the final boss. But without spoiling much, experienced players will find that's really only the half the game, with later content being much harder. While much of that later content is the most rewarding, however, much of it is also lazily recycled from earlier in the game, and there unfortunately comes a point where the game does stop surprising you with cool ideas. In fact, you will see every boss this game has to offer less than halfway through the adventure, as you will then fight barely-changed versions of the same bosses for the second and third times from that point on.

Developed by the Galaxy team, they certainly did not skimp on the soundtrack, with a full orchestra returning just like in the Galaxy titles. There is a heavy emphasis on jazz this time, with less of Galaxy's soaring strings to make it more appropriate for 3D World's more down-to-earth (no pun intended) and cartoon-like atmosphere. The cartoon feel transfers over to Mario's 3D HD debut, with environments looking like they're made of plastic, but in a clean way. Gone are any jagged edges, and though the game does cheat the backgrounds a bit with blurring, most of this game is the prettiest Mario adventure we've ever seen. The Wii U is certainly capable of more, but given how Mario games are forever doomed to being abstract floating obstacle courses, it's definitely the best you are going to get from this franchise.

Super Mario 3D World is one of the better reasons to purchase a Wii U. It delivers equal thrills in both single and multi-player, makes every type of player happy with multiple control and character options, and never grows stale thanks to constantly introducing new mechanics. The 4-player co-op has its share of issues, but they're negligible enough that they will not stop you from having a good time. While I would not place it as high as past 3D Mario adventures, especially since it notoriously recycles concepts the further you progress in the game, it's certainly still the best Mario game since Galaxy 2, and leagues above those stale and lazy New Super Mario Bros. titles. It takes 3D Land's engine and expands it tenfold, all while adding some clever new concepts that present a well-worn formula in a new light. Here's to plenty more years in that Mushroom Kingdom mental facility.

Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/02/14, Updated 05/05/14

Game Release: Super Mario 3D World (US, 11/22/13)

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