In the past few years, Nintendo has clearly had to dig deep to keep the Mario series fresh. "Super Mario 3D World," the first 3D multiplayer Mario game, strikes a good balance between cooperative and competitive play. This Wii U game also draws all the right inspiration from the series' recent and distant past. However, in going from 2D to 3D, has this $59 game lost some of its perspective?
Nintendo took more than a few notes from "Super Mario 3D Land" for the 3DS in crafting "Super Mario 3D World," for better and worse. For those who have grown tired of the arguably iterative nature of the Mario series over the past few years, "Super Mario 3D World" mixes up the formula quite a bit. For one, this is the first 3D multiplayer game in the series, and it handles up to four players on screen at once (with mixed results). Players can run, jump and stomp as the same four characters found in 1988's "Super Mario Bros. 2": Mario, Luigi, Peach and Toad. (You can play as "Super Mario Galaxy's" Rosalina later on in the game.)
"Super Mario 3D World" brings the brilliance of its mobile predecessor's level design to the living room in a big way. In lieu of the delightful exploration and surprise that came with last year's "New Super Mario Bros. U," this season's Mario game focuses on intense challenges and multiplayer madness. For instance, it's refreshing to be truly taxed when collecting the three green stars found in every level. As the game progresses, some of these collectables — a few of which are required to access bonus levels and Bowser's many castles — are especially tough to get your gloved mitts on.
However, rather than having access to a freely controlled camera found in most other 3D Mario games, players can only shift the camera a few degrees to the left or right in "Super Mario 3D World." This wasn't a problem in "Super Mario 3D Land," as the 3DS is much closer to your eyes. (The glasses-free 3D effect was helpful, too.) But when you're sitting several feet from your television screen, depth perception becomes a challenge all its own. This problem is exacerbated when fellow players venture too far from the center of the screen. We can't count how many times we fell to our death (in the game, of course!) due to a jump that was just a few pixels too short across a chasm. Thankfully, losing a life isn't nearly as taxing a penalty as it has been in previous Mario games, since progress is saved on the world map after each level.
"Super Mario 3D World" introduces a number of new power-ups, namely the Cat Suit. This item transforms players into a cat, empowering them with the ability to climb up walls, scratch enemies and perform a mid-air dive attack. The Double Cherry creates a duplicate of your character, and each subsequent Double Cherry eaten in a level adds one more clone to the mix. Couple this with a few buddies and the aforementioned depth-perception issues, and things quickly get hairy. (Depending on your outlook, that chaos might be what draws you.) Finally, the Tanooki Suit returns to a console Mario game for the first time since 1990's "Super Mario Bros. 3." While players can't fly with this version of the power-up, they can still float and spin their tails to thwart enemies.
Nintendo also went to great lengths to incorporate the Wii U GamePad's unique capabilities. For example, you occasionally have to blow into the controller's microphone to move platforms and reveal hidden items. At other times, you must draw out recessed blocks using the touch screen, and enemies can be stunned with a tap. While these additions were fun to toy around with, reaching for the touch screen and quickly switching back to manual buttons isn't exactly a comfortable way to play.
All things considered, the varied levels and interesting boss battles —especially with a burrowing snake known as Hisstocrat — in "Super Mario 3D World" are a treat. The challenge in collecting every single green star is a welcome one, too. But while Nintendo's efforts to do something new with the GamePad are admirable, it falls a bit flat on execution.
The Mario series, outside of the "Paper Mario" and "Mario and Luigi" games, isn't known for grandiose storylines with deep character development and shocking twists. As it's always been, the story in "Super Mario 3D World" merely sets the stage for the fun to come.
Since Princess Peach is a playable character this time, Mario and crew must rescue a number of magic fairies, known as Sprixie, that have been captured by Bowser. Players will explore what's known as the Sprixie Kingdom — not the Mushroom Kingdom — to find the captured fairies, though the game doesn't bother explaining the difference, if there even is one. Frankly, you don't need much motivation to run and jump around with Mario and friends, and Nintendo knows this.