Nintendo is making platformers for folks who have been playing them since the 80s. Which is a fine way to carve out a niche, and a dedicated niche at that. Probably even a huge niche consisting of people with Nintendo hardware. A niche that might not even know what they’re missing because they haven’t played Rayman Legends or Tearaway or even a Ratchet & Clank game. A niche that will no doubt adore the comfort candy traditionalism of Super Mario 3D World. But what about the rest of us?
After the jump, outside looking in
If you’ve sampled a wider range of platformers, and if you don’t have an inherent predilection for Mario worlds, Super Mario 3D World will proceed like a pleasant enough curiosity. It’s a bit like hearing oldies on a radio station. It’s familiar and safe. Then it’s over and out of your head entirely, leaving you room to discover new and better music.
There is occasional spectacle, but absolutely zero ambition in the artwork and gameplay. This is a solidly made game, pieced together with the confidence of people who could probably craft these things in their sleep. There isn’t a lot that’s new, or even newly refined. This is basically a Super Mario Galaxy with a cat suit instead of a sci-fi wrapper. A lot of the level design is clever, and it’s as colorful and lively as you’d expect, starring the usual suspects. But there is no sense of place or theme beyond “a bag of Nintendo stuff”. Discrete levels, based on simple and almost always familiar concepts, are over barely before they’ve begun, making it easy to move along to whatever’s next. An overworld invites you to run around and sample different tidbits, the platforming equivalent of tapas or dim sum.
The 3D gives the levels a lot of breathing room, although it’s rarely used for anything more than wiggle room. These levels are so small — intimate really — that it sometimes feels like a 2.5D game. You’re almost never going to have to fuss with camera controls, for instance. The butt stomping can be difficult to line up. Otherwise easy boss battles can sometimes be challenging because you can’t see around whatever giant animated rock or turtle shell you’re fighting. Good luck jumping on those plates on the snakes’ heads. The 3D comes into its own with little puzzle dioramas, in which you guide a character who can’t jump, turning the scenery as he goes to figure out where to go next. These are easily the cleverest part of Super Mario 3D World.
The 1-up, a relic from the 80s of coin-fed machines that should have no place in the modern world outside bald score chases, is a foundation for Super Mario 3D World. Nintendo refuses to let loose of the antiquated and occasionally frustrating concept of limited lives. It is more than happy to punish you if you can’t keep from falling off a ledge. Every now and then you’ll pleasantly ding your 100th coin and know you’re one step farther from ever having to replay the first half of a difficult level.
Not that there are many difficult levels. The challenging stuff — the speed runs, the more punishing levels, and the green star grinding — are reserved until late in the game, at which point you know whether or not you feel like grinding away at a Mario platformer. The really challenging stuff doesn’t show up until the main game is over. Better stock up on 1-ups.
I can respect and sometimes admire what Nintendo is doing, and they sure do it well. There are some gratifying moments in here. But like videogaming itself, I’ve moved on.
(For more detail, read the Super Mario 3D World game diary, which starts here.)