The Wii U hasn’t been able to gain much traction at all in the year it has been on the market, with sales so poor that Nintendo was forced to cut the system’s price prematurely in an effort to encourage new adopters before the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 hit the stores this November. Even New Super Mario Bros. U wasn’t enough to help long-term growth, and with Rayman Legends — initially announced as an exclusive for the platform — making its way to not only other current generation systems, but next-gen as well, questioning the early purchase of a Wii U shouldn’t seem unreasonable. Pikmin 3 was slightly underwhelming to me, delivering a solid experience that left me wanting more from a title that had been delayed months from its initial release date, but I knew I was really just biding my time until the next 3D Mario game was released. Luckily, Super Mario 3D World does not disappoint.
For the first time in several years, Mario is finally saving someone other than Peach this time around. Small creatures called Sprixies have been captured by Bowser (of course) and are trapped inside glass jars at the end of the game’s initial seven worlds. Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad are all available to tackle the game’s massive collection of stages, and their attributes are almost identical to those in Super Mario Bros. 2. Mario is the most balanced character, Luigi can jump the highest, Peach can jump the farthest and Toad can run the fastest, but the choice is largely just player preference; I personally found myself alternating between Mario and Luigi the majority of the time, but those are also the characters I’d usually use when playing Super Mario Bros. 2. In addition, an extra character can be unlocked after completing a few of the game’s bonus levels, which are made available after completing World 8. This character — who shall remain nameless to avoid spoiling the surprise — uses a special spinning attack that makes defeating groups of enemies easier and allows players to reach platforms following a botched jump.
Make no mistake: while Super Mario 3D World is an enormous game, it doesn’t revolutionize the series like Galaxy did on the original Wii. Instead, it acts as a successor to the excellent 3DS title Super Mario 3D Land, with a flagpole at the end of most stages and similar mini-bosses on the last stage of each world. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however. While the basic layout of 3D Land remains largely intact, the levels are mixed up enough to keep it from ever feeling monotonous. “Captain Toad” levels force players to collect several stars without ever jumping, while special challenge stages force players to collect five stars within ten seconds of each other. These stages are some of the best in any 3D Mario, as I found myself on the edge of my seat, determined to not miss a single star. One has players rolling down a ramp to throw a giant baseball at a star before they fall over the edge, while another utilized jump pad and a “POW” block, with almost no room for error making it a white-knuckled affair.
Level design is also a sharp and creative as it has ever been, with awesome throwbacks to games like Super Mario Kart and Super Mario World mixed with towering areas that make fantastic use of the game’s signature power-up, the cat suit. This allows Mario to slash at enemies, pounce from the air, and, most importantly, scurry up vertical walls. Many of the game’s stars are only accessible with the cat suit, making it a must-have for quite a few levels. Other power-ups include the new “double cherry” which allows Mario to duplicate himself multiple times, as well as a few returning ones like the tanooki suit and the boomerang suit. I absolutely loathed the double cherry, as I found it far too difficult to control more than one Mario at a time, especially since it’s very easy for them to get separated from each other.
Perhaps the highest praise I can give to Super Mario 3D World is that it takes the two worst parts of any Mario game — water levels and Ghost Houses — and actually makes them fun. No longer are players forced to swim through an entire level, crossing their fingers that an enemy comes for them just as they had started swimming in the wrong direction, and one level that used moving blocks of water was one of the best in the entire game. Boo and his buddies still pull some of their old tricks, such as disappearing doors and fake blocks, but these are much less prevalent than in the past, and a later level involving a headlamp power-up gives Mario a little bit of revenge for how annoying the Ghost Houses have been over the years.
Unfortunately, Nintendo has still shown very little reason for why the Wii U Gamepad is a necessity for fans of its classic first-party titles. A few levels make use of the touchscreen and the microphone, but these feel like tacked-on gimmicks. Blowing on the controller to make a windmill device spin doesn’t exactly validate my purchase. Moreover, 3D World is a successor to 3D Land, a game that took its title from the fact that it was on a system that actually had 3D technology. This means that gauging jumps can be quite frustrating, and if it weren’t for the addition of four-player cooperative play on a big screen, there would be no reason for the game to not be on the 3DS instead.
Super Mario 3D World is the best exclusive on the Wii U, without question. It’s an excellent example of how Nintendo can bring unique design to the Mario formula, and although we’ve seen bits and pieces of this greatness in the past, never before have they come together quite like this. Also, you get to see Bowser dressed up as a kitty. That should be reason enough to buy it.