Release date: November 2013
Format: Digital download (eShop) and physical disk
Other platforms: NA
Price: ~$70 AUD
Most Nintendo fans have played Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and/or the Super Mario Galaxy games, most of which were generally regarded as being some of the greatest games of their time. As relatively open world 3D platformers, they were a nice change from the standard 2D Mario games which have graced just about every console since the NES. Mario’s latest return to the 3D realm takes place in Super Mario 3D World, though in some ways, it feels more like a 2.5D adventure. If you played Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, you’ll probably recognise its game engine in SM3DW, though the levels are all completely different between the games. Though you can move the camera a little, you can generally only view the level from one side, meaning it doesn’t have that open feeling previous 3D Mario games have.
The story starts with a green Sprixie (a fairy-type creature, I suppose the name is a cross between ‘sprite’ and ‘pixie) appearing before Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad and telling them that Bowser has kidnapped all the other Sprixies. True to form, the big spiky brute shows up almost immediately and kidnaps the green Sprixie as well before escaping. Mario and co. set off after him into the Sprixie Kingdom so they can save all the poor Sprixies. It’s not much of a story, but at least it’s a bit of a refreshing change from Peach getting kidnapped by Bowser.
Following the standard formula for most Mario games, SM3DW consists of eight worlds, each with eight levels (with a ninth world being unlocked once you beat the rest of the game). The environments seem to follow the conventional template, with the first world being green and grassy, the second being set in a desert, the third being water-based and so on, but the individual levels within these worlds vary greatly. You get to ride a friendly dinosaur through a series of water courses, traverse volcanic castles full of monsters, ride on high-speed trains while being pummeled by Bullet Bills, and that’s just in the first few worlds. It all adds a sense of familiarity, but at the same time, the inventive and colourful level designs help make this game stand out from the crowd. There were some mini-boss fights half way through each world that were so easy it almost seemed pointless to have included them; these usually involved killing an enemy who could multiply itself, and most of them can be beaten in about 15 seconds. The boss battles also follow the “find its weakness and hit it in the same way three times” pattern we’re all so familiar with, and though the enemies were varied in their design and attacks, it did feel a bit formulaic.
Most of the levels have their own idea or mechanic that provides a particular set of challenges, but these are generally innovative and don’t overstay their welcome. At least, for the most part. I’ve heard a lot of people complain that hardly any Wii U games made good use of the GamePad, the controller that was heavily pushed as one of its main selling points. While I agree with this, I do also think that it can be a bit gimmicky, and in my view SM3DW does fall into that trap in a few places. Some platforms contain a fan and can only be moved by blowing into the microphone, while some levels have sections made up of blocks that need to be tapped on the GamePad screen in order to move them into the right place for you to use them to get where you’re going. While this is clever and works well in some areas, it can get annoying to have to keep looking down from the TV to the little GamePad screen to move blocks and then back up again to keep playing (if you’re playing off TV and only using the GamePad, this isn’t going to be an issue).
The levels in the early worlds are pretty easy to get through, and even most of the stars are easy to collect. Once you get past world 3 or 4 the challenge does ramp up a bit, and it can be a real struggle to even finish the level, let alone collect the stars. It pays to collect as many stars as you can on each run through a level, as many levels in the later worlds can only be unlocked if you have a certain number of stars. You can play as any of the four main characters, each with their own skills; for example, Luigi can jump higher, while Peach can float with her dress. While it’s possible to get through all the levels as Mario, there are some areas where it’s a lot easier if you play as one of the other characters.
Many existing powerups return from previous games (such as the Fire Flower, the Tanooki Suit and the Boomerang Flower) but SM3DW introduces a few new ones. First is the Double Cherry, which adds a clone of your character every time you pick one up. Some elements require a certain number of characters to stand on a platform to unlock a collectible, so it’s worth keeping the clones alive for as long as you can, which is occasionally challenging when trying to maneuver them over small platforms and past enemies. The second powerup is the Super Bell, which turns Mario and his companions into a cute little cat. In your feline onesie, you can climb up walls and other surfaces that would be impossible in any other form, and you can also lash out with your claws to attack enemies or operate wheels to raise and lower mechanical platforms. This powerup appears in almost every level and could have been overused, but the level designs make it feel like it belongs, rather than something that was thrown in as an afterthought.
SM3DW also has a co-op option. The vast majority of my time with the game was spent playing solo, but when I went to my friend’s house last week, we started a new file on his console just to see how far we could get (and he enjoyed playing alongside “someone who knows what they’re doing” rather than with young children for a change haha). I can see how co-op could be a frustrating experience when playing with someone unskilled or hell-bent on trolling, but for the most part, co-op was just damn good fun.
In many ways, it can help make it easier to complete levels or achieve certain tasks (such as collecting red coins before they vanish after a limited time) and if one player dies, they will be returned to more or less the same place after a few seconds, as long as at least one other player is still alive. The only real issue is that the camera will generally focus on player 1, and if someone else gets too far off screen, they get turned into a bubble and pulled to player 1’s location, potentially making them miss out on whatever collectible they were in the middle of trying to reach. There’s also a competitive aspect, with the player who picks up the most coins and stars and reaches the flagpole at the end of the stage first getting a higher score and a little crown to wear in the next level.
Each world also has one level where you play as Captain Toad. This concept was later expanded into its own full game, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The levels are self-contained, but Toad cannot jump, so he has to rely on sneaking past enemies or moving elements of the levels by touching the GamePad screen or blowing into the microphone. Unlike the main levels, there’s no flagpole to jump on to finish the level; the only way to win the level and exit is to collect all five green stars. Luckily most of these levels weren’t that challenging and I never found myself coming anywhere near close to running out of time.
If you enjoy puzzle platformers, you’ll like these levels and I’d recommend you pick up Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, but if you prefer straight up fast-paced platforming, you’ll probably find these levels more of a nuisance than anything. Unfortunately, the Toad levels suffer from the same issue his standalone game does; the camera can be tilted either by using the right stick or by tilting the GamePad, but there is no way to disable this second option, meaning you have to sit completely still while playing or risk obstructing your own view of enemies or obstacles at the wrong time.
Throughout the levels, you can collect Miiverse stamps, for use in posts to Nintendo’s social media site. These don’t really serve any purpose but they’re something else to collect for those who like to 100% complete games.
One of the things that stood out for me about this game was its soundtrack. Though many of the tunes are recycled from earlier Mario games, there are still plenty of new tracks, and they’ve all been given fresh new life as jazzy orchestral songs. I actually got the soundtrack from Club Nintendo (back when that was still a thing) because I liked it so much (my favourite is probably Shifty Boo Mansion).
While I don’t think SM3DW quite reaches the heights of the Super Mario Galaxy games, it’s still a challenging, fun-filled experience and one of the best games on the Wii U, and it proves that the Mario franchise is a long way off becoming stale. It takes the frantic platforming you’ve come to expect from Mario games and injects it with vibrant HD visuals and a catchy soundtrack, and aside from a few gripes with the camera, it’s hard to find much to fault about it. If you have a Wii U, this title is a must-have.