Sometimes, it's the little changes that make the biggest difference. After the so-so New Super Mario Bros U, and the hardcore-oriented misstep that was New Super Luigi, it was obvious that Mario needed a change - only this wasn't perhaps the one people were expecting. Squeezing himself and perennial love interest Princess Peach into a cat suit (that's cat suit, not catsuit), Super Mario 3D World takes the four player fun of New Super Mario Bros, and adds an extra dimension, turning the 2D left-to-right levels into more open, more free form worlds. It's a decision that may seem like a no brainer, but it's a change that's given Mario his mojo back, and gives anyone who hasn't bought one yet the perfect reason to pick up a Wii U.
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While much here will feel familiar to those who've played the previous Mario games - it's still more fun in four player co-op, there's still a mad dash to the flag pole at the end of the level, and there's still regular mini-Bowser koopaling boss fights spread throughout each world - Super Mario 3D World is much, much more than an incremental upgrade. Taking everything that made New Super Mario Bros great, and building on it, Mario 3D World arguably works better than any co-op Mario game that's come so far - and considering how great the Wii's New Super Mario Bros was, that's a pretty high accolade.
Even the choice of characters is more interesting this time round. With a selection of Peach, Luigi, Mario, and most importantly, the slightly annoying blue mushroom-thing Toad, each character has been tweaked ever so slightly to give them a different feel. While Mario is an all rounder, Luigi can jump higher than the rest, Toad is slightly faster, and Peach has been designed for beginners, with a slightly slower run, and the ability to hover in air making jumps that much easier to time. With one player using the GamePad, and the rest needing only Wii Remotes, it's easy to get set up and playing.
While the goal may still be to get from one end to the other, collecting coins, bouncing on baddies, and finding the three collectable stars in each level as you go, each world feels much more open than in the games that have come before, and there's so much more variety, so much more to see and do, and so many things that'll leave you with a massive grin on your face that even coming a cropper never feels too frustrating. Whether you're donning the aforementioned cat suit and scrabbling up every wall in sight in the hope of finding a secret passage, chasing a rogue bunny through the level in the hope of claiming his green star, or making use of light and shadow to spot the baddies in the underground levels, 3D World is anything but repetitive.
In a nice bonus, the added dimension actually makes it slightly easier to play together in co-op, too, as rather than accidentally jumping on your friend's head and sending them plummeting to their doom, as used to happen in New Super Mario Bros all the time, you now have room to simply jump and land next to your friends, rather than on them, helping prevent any awkward moments. Of course, it you still feel the need to stir thing up, you can still pick your friends up and chuck them off the nearest cliff - but that would be mean. Wouldn't it?
While you'd expect the larger levels, and the switch to 3D to make co-op more awkward, it's a testament to how well the game's been done that you'll never have to touch the camera yourself. Constantly adjusting itself to try and keep you and the rest of the gang on the screen, the camera works tirelessly, but does a more than admirable job of keeping everyone in view. It's still possible for someone to get left behind off screen, of course - in co-op, if one player makes it to the top of a platform, but the others don't, the ones who lag behind will get cut off (there's only so much a camera can do, after all), but usually they'll simply be swallowed by a giant bubble, before floating back into view, ready to rejoin the level at the touch of a button.
As is almost obligatory for a new Mario game, Super Mario 3D World also comes packing a whole host of new power-ups - most of which seem to have been designed to be daft as much as anything. From the Mega Mushroom that turns you into a huge, tree destroying, block smashing version of yourself (particularly terrifying when used with Toad), to the Cannon box, which you can wear on your head, effectively turning you into a portable tank, and even the Double Cherry, which lets you multiply like bacteria, turning your single Toad into two, both of which are under your control (perhaps more sinisterly, this power up even stacks, letting you create an entire army of mushroom men...), experimenting with how best to put the power ups to use, and how to use them to find hidden secrets will keep you coming back for more.
But it's this re-found sense of humour, and less rigid structure to each of the levels that makes the game so much fun. Some levels don't even involve much in the way of platforming - one instead sees you and your co-op buddies going river rafting on the back of a giant dinosaur, leaning left and right in sync in an effort to steer the gargantuan (but really very friendly) thing, others instead let you each jump inside an ice skate and slide around the levels, bashing into the baddies, while others still, like the Captain Toad Adventure levels see you doing nothing in the way of platforming at all. A strictly single player experience (although verbal support from the rest of your team certainly helps), these see you instead rotating the camera around a small, square level, making use of the perspective to guide the plucky (but incapable of jumping) explorer, Captain Toad to collect each of the five stars. Something that would feel more at home in a puzzle game than a platformer, they're nothing if not a refreshing break from the action.
But with that being said, there are a few things about Super Mario 3D World that put a slight downer on the overall experience. While an effort's been made to help ease new players in, the level time limits range from being overly generous to incredibly tight, depending on the level and how much you feel like exploring. As they only really existed in the first place to artificially inflate the difficulty (and encourage you to replay the levels, as you don't have time to see everything the first time round), perhaps it's time for Mario to say goodbye to these. More awkward, and daft, though, is the use of the GamePad, which has been shoehorned in like motion controls were shoehorned in to most Wii games.
In a platform game, you'd imagine there's not all that much you can use the Touch Screen for, but seemingly, whoever it was at Nintendo who decided that the GamePad must come with a Touch Screen and a microphone has twisted some arms behind the scenes to make sure their pet features get used - and the only problem is, it makes the few levels they're used on a lot more awkward. Sometimes, you'll come up against a wall made of recessed blocks, with the only way to make the blocks come out being to give them a quick poke on the Touch Screen.
The only problem is, they all come out individually, and we don't have thumbs that are long enough to cope. Forcing you to first switch your gaze from the TV to the GamePad, then stretch your thumb more than it was ever meant to stretch to poke the first block, you've got to change to the analogue stick, move your character, press the button to jump, then switch back to trying to tap the next block before the one you're standing on slinks back into the wall. It's about as awkward as it sounds - and a "feature" that should arguably have never made it past the testing stage. The same goes for the lifts that you have to blow in order to make them move. The kids may find it funny, for the first few times, but it soon begins to grate.
Luckily though, in Super Mario 3D World, those two things are about the only things that do. Stepping out of his comfort zone, and trying something that feels genuinely original, Super Mario 3D World is a fine showcase of the Nintendo magic that people were beginning to worry had been lost. Putting the fun where it really always should be - first - it's a game that'll have you smiling from start to finish (bar a few awkward-to-line-up jumps), and best of all, it's a game that everyone can enjoy together. Forget the next-gen - with this, LEGO City Undercover, and Pikmin under its belt, not to mention Mario Kart on the horizon, if you're looking to buy a new console this Christmas, it's the Wii U that has the strongest line-up by far.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U