System: Nintendo Wii U
Release Date: December, 2013
Developer: Nintendo EAD
It has been an exceptionally long time since a Mario title generated as much debate as has been seen following the announcement of Super Mario 3D World at E3 this past week. Truly, the skeptics are out in droves this time around and the Nintendo die-hards are ready and waiting to defend their beloved company to the bitter end, creating an atmosphere of discontent about the game that no one can seem to shake with ease.
Beyond all of that noise, however, there remains one question: If you can ignore the expectations– the past heights the series has seen– how does this game stack up?
Unfortunately, at its best, the answer to that question is a lackluster “fine”.
The biggest problem I have with 3D World is that on a fundamental level, the game fails to deliver a tight and satisfying platforming experience. Part of this is that it isn’t particularly challenging (with even the level available from world 6 passed by without a hitch) but the other part is that the fundamental gameplay feels ever so slightly separated from the player. A wide-shot camera angle pulls you too far from the action to really feel connected to your in-game avatar in a 3D space, and the eight-axis controls take away just enough of the player’s charge to make the already-distant Mario gang feel just one step too far removed from your input. It’s a strange problem that we haven’t faced too often with the Mario series, and one I hope remains exclusive to this particular entry.
And it’s possible (nay, almost definitive) that the point of this Mario title was not to be an immersive and engrossing experience a la Galaxy or Sunshine, but rather a successor to 2012’s Mario 3D Land with the inclusion of some lighthearted co-op to bring in some of the scream-inducing fun present in New Super Mario Bros.. Unfortunately, this game is teasing a fall short of those markers by a noticeable margin as well. The single-player experience in the demo isn’t as well-refined or meticulous as 3D Land’s (suffering primarily from cursory level design, but also the aforementioned camera angles), and the four-player co-op is too hard to follow– and slightly over-complicated– when put up against the simplicity of the New brand. It’s a respectable experience to aim for on a conceptual level, but the execution here is appreciably lacking.
It’s not all unexceptional though: 3D World introduces the new “cat suit” power-up that allows the four characters to dash up walls, swipe at baddies, and do a new jumping attack to take down enemies. Occasionally this new ability feels somewhat useless and overly complex (I still don’t quite understand the idiosyncrasies of the wall-climbing, for instance), but on the whole most levels feel well-designed to take full advantage of the suit on an extremely basic level, particularly the available boss stage.
Look too deep, however, and you begin to realize that it doesn’t actually feel any better to use the cat suit to traverse a wall than it does to try a wall-jump or to go up the series of platforms around the corner. In fact, it’d be very easy to make the case that the cat suit actually occasionally streamlines the demo of a game series that is already far too streamlined, ruining any sense of pacing that the levels could have potentially had. It would be somewhat akin to Super Mario World giving you a cape to use almost constantly: Sure, you wouldn’t have to skip the fundamentally-fun platforming sections of certain levels, but the game sure it telling you that you damn well should.
The difference between the cat suit and the iconic cape is that the cape provides interactivity and satisfaction because it forces you to physically use your hands in a way you haven’t before. The cat suit, on the other hand, changes nothing about what the player is physically doing with his or her hands. Scrambling up a wall requires you to hold a direction and the run button– the same action you do when running normally. Attacking with your claws requires you to hit the “run” button– the same action you do when using the fire flower. Additionally, the extra attacks didn’t add anything to the demo because you can dispose of enemies just as easily without them. They’re a superfluous gameplay addition that was brought in simply to make the cat-suit seem fresher, but I can’t help but feel as though the game would be better suited without them.
Interestingly, if the cat suit was just a new method of travel (being able to climb walls) it would probably end up being a more balanced and solid addition to the game. Of course, they would have to redesign the levels so that there were places you wanted to climb and explore– on top of redesigning the mechanic so that it was more fun to use (rapidly hitting the “run” button to climb a wall sounds like it’d help)– but they could do it and drastically improve the quality of using the cat-suit, and probably the core level-design as well.
I suppose it sounds a bit like I’m tearing into 3D World unfairly given that the game is well-polished, controls pretty well all things considered, and has that classic Nintendo “sheen” to it. I don’t mean to make it sound as though this game gave me a worse impression than most platformers out there, because it didn’t. I merely want to communicate the fact that it is not as good as its predecessors of any kind (open world, 2D side-scrolling, or 3D-linear), falling more on the level of Traveler’s Tales’ LEGO franchise than that which we’re used to from Nintendo.
At the end of the day, I’m just not sure what’s supposed to “grab” me about this game. Generally with platformers we either see a great atmosphere (as with Jak & Daxter), fantastic level design (Mario 3D Land), addicting difficulty (Mighty Switch Force!) or interesting worlds to explore (Super Mario Sunshine). Super Mario 3D World doesn’t really have any of these elements, though I’m not completely ruling out that the game may surprise us as we see more stages or try the full title. I would be surprised if we saw a drastic improvement, but stranger things have happened without a doubt.
The game works, it’s vaguely entertaining with friends, and if you don’t mind going on auto-pilot for stages at a time you’ll get some satisfaction from completing levels. It’s just probably not going to be a great game. Not if the demo is any indication anyhow.
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