From its lacklustre reveal at E3 to the ecstatic reviews upon release, Super Mario 3D World has generated strong emotions for months. The initial disappointment that we weren’t getting a ‘proper’ 3D Mario game gave way to some reviewers praising it as the best 3D Mario game, surpassing even 64 and the Galaxy games. I have to wonder if these reviewers were playing the same game as me. Although 3D World is much much better than I initially feared, and is a legitimately great game, it simply does not stand up to its predecessors, and I’m still left craving the epic Mario game that we were promised.
The plot is predictably non-existent, with the kidnapping victims being a collection of small fairy princesses, with Peach this time being spared Bowser’s attention due to her position as a playable character. Mario games don’t need much plot, as we saw in the weird narrative of Super Mario Sunshine, but they hit a sweet spot with Galaxy, which had just enough plot to lend your actions context but without distracting from the core focus of the gameplay.
As the name might suggest, 3D World has most in common with Super Mario 3D Land, its little brother on the 3DS. The style is a hybrid of the linear side scrolling originals and the 3D gameplay that we’ve seen since Mario 64. The addition of four player co-op, with players taking on the roles of Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad, will be a big draw for some but it didn’t seem particularly well implemented to me, particularly when compared to the sublime co-op of Rayman Legends. It all handles very nicely, and the level design is, of course, pretty much perfect, with very few duds in the generous package. There are a handful of Wii U screen poking and blowing gimmicks, but by and large the main use of the tablet controller is for off-screen play. There are a handful of irritations, such as the retention of the archaic and unnecessary timer and life systems, but by and large Super Mario 3D World is a highly slick, responsive and enjoyable game. Essentially, Super Mario 3D World plays incredibly well, and is a hell of a lot of fun, but something about it simply failed to reach me as it’s predecessors did.
I think that the issue is that Super Mario 3D World is, fundamentally, a conservative game. Many reviews have praised this game’s creativity, and although it is bursting with fun and good ideas, the best ones are cribbed from other games. The best levels are the ones that play homage to other games, such as Mario Galaxy, Mario 64, Mario Kart, Luigi’s Mansion and even Zelda. Mario 3D World fails to forge an identity of its own. For all its many, many flaws, Super Mario Sunshine still had a unique character, but 3D World is too reverent to it’s past, something which has effected almost every Mario game in recent memory, scared of forging its own identity. I think that we can thank the massive financial success of the New Super Mario Bros. subseries for this, which has shown Nintendo that a co-op Mario game which nonetheless doesn’t stray far from the traditional series tropes is going to make much more money than a genuinely innovative and bold new entry. I don’t think that many people will disagree with me when I say that Super Mario Galaxy was a better Wii Mario platformer than New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but the latter vastly outsold the former. There was a time when Nintendo used a new 3D Mario game to redefine a genre, as they did with 64 and Galaxy, and even the misfires such as Sunshine were noble failures, but 3D World is not on par with those games.
One area where 3D World does outshine its predecessors is its visuals. To put it simply, 3D World is an unbelievably gorgeous game. The levels are colourful and vibrant, the enemies filled with character, and the water and lighting effects utterly beautiful. For this kind of game, Mario 3D World proves that the Wii U will be able to hold its own against the PS4 and Xbox One. The music is lovely too, although it doesn’t quite match the simplistic charms of 64 or the grandiose orchestra of the Galaxy games.
Super Mario 3D World is a great game, but a new 3D Mario game needs to be more than great. Perhaps my expectations of Nintendo are too high, but they are only that high because Nintendo raised those expectations themselves. If you own a Wii U, buy it. If you don’t own a Wii U, buy one and then buy this game. Just don’t expect the innovative, epic new platformer that you may have been hoping for.