Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Wii U Review: Super Mario 3D World

Gosh darn it, I really want to love Super Mario 3D World.  It gets so much right.  But I just don't like it.  I trudged through the whole game and it just never clicked for me.  The sequel to Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS and the Wii U's first big flagship Mario title beyond the New Super series, 3D World has largely received glowing critical acclaim the internet over.  But there's always gotta be the outlier who differs from the popular opinion and, much to this Mario fan's dismay, it's me this time around.

Much like it's 3DS predecessor, Super Mario 3D World is a hybrid of 2D and 3D Mario series gameplay.  While movement is in full 3D and similar in nature to titles like Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy, the levels themselves are short and linear, usually providing a fairly straight-forward obstacle course to navigate on the way to the standard flagpole finish.  The requisite set of standard hidden collectables return in each level, with green stars and stamps now filling the roll of star coins or medals.  Fans of Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D Land will recognize most of the gimmicks and ideas used in the levels here, though 3D World does do a good job of mixing them up from previous games.  A bucket full of new ideas are brought to table as well, though they tend to show up for only a level or two at most and don't noticeably shake things up too much.  The game is basically 3D Land on steroids.  It uses a lot of the same kinds of ideas but bigger and bolder and with much more variety.

The two main features of 3D World are multiplayer and cats.  The multiplayer is very much like that of the New Super games, allowing four players to chaotically fumble through the levels together.  As in the New Super games, you'll be working together to collect hidden goodies one second and tossing each other into pits the next.  Though it's arguably a cooperative mode by design, the game encourages a little bit of competition with your fellow players by ranking each player's performance based on their score and awarding a crown to the one who gets the highest score, which can then be stolen by other players during gameplay.

A fun new wrinkle to the formula is the return of the playable roster from Super Mario Bros. 2.  Mario remains the most balanced, controlling more or less the same way he did in 3D Land.  Luigi gets a higher jump but slippery handling, as always.  Princess Peach is a bit slower but can glide through the air for a while, and Blue Toad is really fast.  The characters all generally play similarly enough that you can switch between them without much difficulty, but they're still unique enough to feel distinct from one another.  It's a good way of making the multiplayer a little more interesting and it's also fun to have the option to play the single player mode as a character other than Mario if you choose.  Ultimately, multiplayer didn't do much to increase my enjoyment of the game, but just like the New Super games, 3D World could easily be riotous fun if you got the right group of players together to have at it.

Cats are the other main focus of the game.  The Cat Suit is a clever new power up in the same vein as the Tanooki Suit, but with some very unique properties.  First, it turns your character into a cat, complete with quadrupedal movement and cat noises.  Depending on your personal preferences, listening to Mario and company "meow" their way through levels will probably either come off as adorable or horribly obnoxious.

The Cat Suit also provides some interesting new abilities, including the ability to claw swipe enemies, pounce through the air, and clamber up walls.  Much like 3D Land's obsession with Tanooki tails, cat tails are also bestowed on numerous enemies as well, given them new appearances and cat-like abilities.  The cat focus is much more successful in execution than 3D Land's Tanooki focus however, because it's a power-up so unlike any previous Mario power-up, and it doesn't just feel like Nintendo trying to force some heavy-handed Mario 3 nostalgia on the player.

From and audio and visual standpoint, 3D World is extremely solid.  Being the first 3D Mario game to feature HD visuals, 3D World does not disappoint.  The game doesn't ever really try to impress with it's graphics or show off any flashy HD effects, but all the standard Mario visuals have been polished to a level of perfection never before seen in the series.  It lacks the striking visual impact of the Galaxy games, but everything about this game just looks really really pretty and it's almost kind of refreshing that Nintendo chose not to flaunt the visual detail in the face of players as many HD games tend to do.  The soundtrack is among the best to come from the Mario series since the original Galaxy.  Loads of fantastically catchy new tracks are served up regularly throughout the game.  A lot of familiar music returns as well, but instead of straight up recycling music this time, most of the old tracks feature new fully orchestrated arrangements that make them sound better than ever.

Like I said at the beginning of this review, Super Mario 3D World gets a lot of things right.  It's got a level of creativity and polish that has been sorely lacking in most main series Mario games since the original Galaxy.  But I just didn't have that much fun playing it.  Occupying the middle ground between being a 2D sidescroller and a full 3D adventure means that 3D World doesn't really work that well as either.  The levels are extremely linear, usually with a fixed camera showing the level from an angled view, which tends to introduce a lot of depth-perception issues not found in other 3D Mario games, including 3D Land.  The act of jumping on a Goomba is surprisingly hard in this game, as it's often challenging to figure out exactly where the Goomba is in relation to the player.  Despite rarely having similar issues in previous 3D Mario games, I lost a lot of power-ups and died regularly thanks to misjudging distances, hitting the sides of enemies when trying to jump on them, or simply missing ledges entirely.  The game wants to be a 2D game so badly that the inclusion of 3D space usually just gets in the way.

This becomes especially apparent when the game does occasionally try to appease fans of the more open levels of past 3D Mario games.  Simply put, there's nothing to do in them.  A few levels, most notably World 5's Sprawling Savanna, do give you a little more breathing room to run around, but there's just no reason to do so.  There's still only the same few secrets to find in every level, so most of the open space is empty.  There's no need to explore.  And, frankly, that's a bummer.  Since the game doesn't ever justify having open spaces to explore, it usually doesn't.  Which really begs the question, why is this game 3D in the first place?  Despite being called 3D World, it never feels like you're exploring a coherent world in this game.  It's just a collection of abstract obstacle courses strung together.  I constantly found myself yearning for the more open environments of 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy that actually had things to find if you explored the nooks and crannies.  3D World is not one of those games.  It's a 2D game masquerading as a 3D game, and that result is a bit of a clumsy hodgepodge of both styles of gameplay.  3D Land had a similar identity crisis on the 3DS, but it's noticeably more apparent here.

For the most part, Super Mario 3D World is about as good and polished as the current Mario series formula has ever been, but it's nothing more than that.  Its scope is small and its ambitions are modest.  This is not a generation defining game as previous Mario games have been.  This is a sequel to 3D Land that mixes in more elements from the New Super series, especially multiplayer, to create a simple but silly romp.  If the somewhat awkward blend of 2D and 3D gameplay doesn't sound problematic to you, this very well could be one of your favorite Mario games of all time.  But that blend is problematic for me, and it prevented me from really enjoying myself the entire game, both alone and in multiplayer.  Even at its best moments, I couldn't shake the notion that 3D World could be so much bigger and better if it wasn't trying to be both a sidescroller and a 3D adventure at the same time.  3D World is by no means a bad game, but my criticism that Nintendo needs to keep the 2D and 3D Mario games more distinct from each other still stands.

Now, honestly, if I have to say the phrase "2D" or "3D" one more time today I'm gonna lose it...

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