The feline theme of Super Mario 3D World rubs up against your legs the moment you load up the game. The title, decorated with a paw-print and a tail, looks down on a 3D collection of familiar Mario level set-pieces that looks something like a jungle gym. A little yellow Mario-cat scampers about, clearly having the time of his life. This franchise has aged enough to enter its crazy cat lady stage, and it’s going all the way.
In fact, sometimes this feels more like a game about cats in a Mario skin than the other way around. You’re introduced to the tinkling bell power-up at the very start of the first level, and it reappears frequently from then on. In the Sprawling Savannah level, you chase a rabbit across those truly sprawling plains for the sake of a green star. In cat form, closing in on your prey beneath a sun-reddened sky, you could almost be playing Simba in a 3D, HD update of The Lion King. It’s one of the best moments of the game, not because the rest is bad but because it’s such a surprise that you’re likely to forget about the time limit and just spend a few moments running about in childlike (or kittenlike) joy.
These cats are just as they should be: bounding, pouncing, clawing, meowing bundles of fun. They run on all fours, can scratch at an enemy from the side or pounce from above, and are far more agile than their human counterparts. Much appreciated is their ability to vault up the Goal Pole, and to scramble up vertical walls. This latter ability has clearly influenced the level design; where Super Mario 3D Land (3DS) took the kinds of levels found in 2D Mario games and expanded them horizontally, Super Mario 3D World has a strong interest in the vertical.
The design is still familiarly cuboid, but the game’s designers have had much more space to play with, and it shows. Particularly noteworthy are those levels – like the Savannah – that dare to veer away from the typical ice/water/lava themes that we’ve come to expect, though those have been somewhat refreshed by the introduction of things like a giant ice skate in which to ride around.
Some of Super Mario 3D World’s levels are just plain beautiful, and while that’s sometimes thanks to static background images that draw your eye when you’re forced to stop moving for one reason or another, it does serve as a strong reminder that this stylised HD will age better than attempts at photorealism.
Aside from the HD treatment, perhaps the biggest benefit Super Mario 3D World has over its 3DS brother is that the Wii U permits local multiplayer. As in New Super Mario Bros. U, up to four players can assume the roles of four different characters, though here each has a different set of skills, which makes things more interesting. Princess Peach, for instance, is particularly useful thanks to her ability to float a little at the end of a jump (which she even does as a cat, cutely clawing at the air). Besides, although it seems the game has just swapped one damsel in distress for seven Sprixie princesses, it feels good to play as Peach and imagine that she’s taking revenge on Bowser for years of abuse.
While the single-player experience doesn’t feel like it’s missing much, this is another game clearly designed with multiplayer in mind. The levels often have multiple paths, close enough to minimise the chance of one character falling off the edge of the screen, though all that does is bring them back into play in a bubble they can pop themselves. It might be easier to wander away from the centre of the action than it is in the two-dimensional Mario games, but that also means that it’s easier to avoid stepping on each other’s toes as you compete for the highest score, which nets you a technically useless but visually impressive crown to wear in the next level.
If your friends fail to be swayed by the promise of feline fun and you’re forced to play by yourself, another new power-up provides a way to feel less alone. The Double Cherry clones your character on the spot, giving you two of them to control, and the effect is addictive if you can find more. However many clones you have, they’ll all react the same way to your button presses, which is particularly useful when you can sweep a large group through a bunch of coins to collect them in much less time, but it gets tricky when there’s danger about and you want to keep them all out of harm’s way. More than some of the other power-ups, the Double Cherry is useful in a variety of situations, like if you need four characters to stand on a platform in order to make it move but you couldn’t convince anyone to play with you that day.
Other power-ups are more single-purpose tools, like the Light Block that can dispense with ghosts, or the Goomba Mask that lets you mingle with the enemy. There are quite a few to keep track of, but you can store a backup on the GamePad to be released when needed, though the game seems to prioritise some over others. If you’re in Tanooki form, for instance, then releasing a saved cat power-up and trying to pick it up will just send it back to the GamePad. If you’re in cat form and you pick up a Fire Flower, you’ll transform into a pyromaniac and that little bell will be saved for later.
Besides storage, and general control for player one, the GamePad is also used to occasionally move platforms, some by tapping on them and some by blowing into the microphone. But although it’s a blessing in a way that the first player has to use the GamePad to play, since it saves you having to buy an extra Wii Remote, it feels like the game could have used it more. Some might prefer the opposite, that the GamePad was used only as a standard controller, but either way this middle ground makes it feel like these touch- screen features were poked in at the last minute, which seems out of place in such a carefully designed game.
One benefit to this lack of innovation with regards to use of the GamePad is that if you’re playing alone it’s easy to do so without the TV, since the image on the GamePad screen is almost exactly the same. Apart from the fact that you can’t wander too far from your sofa, playing Super Mario 3D World in TV-Off Mode almost feels like you’re playing on 3DS. It’s useful, but for some the ease of that comparison is made will leave them cold. For them, HD graphics and multiplayer are not enough; it’s not Super Mario Galaxy, and that’s all that matters. But take Super Mario 3D World for what it is, and not what it isn’t, and there’s no denying that it’s a world class platformer. The levels are as well-designed as you’d expect, introducing the new skills you need so gradually and clearly that you barely realise you’re learning, and balanced such that you rarely feel frustrated. The extra space compared to the 2D games can make some levels seem easy, but there are still secrets to be found, and challenges that will require more skill.
If there’s anyone out there who’s getting into Mario for the first time with the Wii U, this is a great example of an alternative kind of game to New Super Mario Bros. U. For the rest of us, Super Mario 3D World might not be a “game changer” like Super Mario 64, but it’ll always be remembered as the one that let the cats out.