Super Mario 3D World: exquisite, essential 3D multiplayer update or mere stopgap?

Super Mario 3D World allows you to look around its environments by moving the GamePad. The feature, which turns the camera through roughly 270 degrees in any direction, is designed to afford you greater freedom to view Mario’s handsome new 3D landscapes, but ironically draws more attention to the fact that the game plays fast and loose with the promise made by its title.

There’s nothing in our demo to suggest that 3D World will be anything less than a fine Mario outing, but even the most ardent series fan will find it difficult to play down the sense of disappointment at being served up on Nintendo’s most powerful hardware to date what feels like a spiritual successor to 3DS’s Super Mario 3D Land. That said, this is an exquisitely enhanced successor, certainly looking the part even if it doesn’t necessarily play it.

The game’s stages are vibrant and pleasingly chunky, everything imbued with that particular solidity that Nintendo artists have somehow made their own. Standing on a viewing platform during one of the stages pans the camera down and to the right, showing you in the hazy distance the towering obstacle course you’re about to tackle, and hinting at a more open world. It’s a moment that draws some surprising parallels with Fez, and not just aesthetically.

Like Fez, the ostensibly 2D gameplay doesn’t preclude multiple routes. The three stages Nintendo has demoed so far have all manner of alternative paths and secrets, some only accessible with the new Cat Bell powerup and others teased out by rubbing and poking at the landscape through the GamePad’s touchscreen. Some of those secrets are obvious – a patch of grass or flowers, for instance, that throw out a coin or two when rubbed – but most aren’t marked. Searching every inch of the level just in case quickly becomes tiresome, but there is smart use of the GamePad elsewhere, such as the jump pads that are triggered by tapping the screen.

The alternative routes aren’t simply there for show, or even replayability – that branching design in a 3D space provides more room to breathe in multiplayer, reducing the claustrophobic chaos of the New Super Mario Bros games. Spread out, and the camera draws back; fall behind, and you’ll be whisked back to the main group in a bubble.

Despite the name, the most obvious touchstone here isn’t Super Mario World but what we know in the west as Super Mario Bros 2. Twenty-five years after release, the game’s four cast members feel fresh in their new context, their differing playstyles adding both variety and an added sense of cooperation in multiplayer. Peach’s floating ability makes crossing wide gaps a breeze, making her the natural choice for newcomers, while Luigi is slippery to control but can leap much higher than his comrades.

Although packed with paths, the first level we see – a trek through the verdant green Mushroom Kingdom – provides little opportunity for any meaningful cooperation. Another, which links its islands with tangles of transparent pipes, makes better use of all four players. You can choose which direction you flow through the various junctions, and work together to remove blockages faster, avoiding marauding enemies as you go. The giant Yoshi on which you ride in a brief water-based slalom can leap higher if all four players on its back jump at the same time.

The new Cat Bell powerup dresses the cast in lurid catsuits – Mario’s, oddly, is yellow rather than red – and adds a swipe attack to the characters’ moveset, as well as the ability to climb up walls. It allows for 3D World’s vertical assault courses as well as alternative routes, and provides access to many of the game’s secrets. If you retain it until the end of a course, you can even scamper up the end-of-level flagpole for the maximum bonus.

The suit won’t get you out of every bind, though: try to grip a surface while falling too fast and you’ll slide down it, leaving claw marks as you go. Cresting the lip of a cliff or the top of a large enemy often feels awkward too, your natural instinct to jump throwing you away from the surface, forcing restraint in a series that revels in having none.

Super Mario 3D World is clearly being sold on its multiplayer – this is, after all, the first 3D Mario game to offer it – and we were relieved to see that Nunchuk support has been added in this second hands-on with the game. At E3, those not using the GamePad were forced to navigate 3D space with the Wii Remote’s D-pad. From what we’ve seen so far it’s tempting to view the game as an awkward hybrid: an interesting experiment in multiplayer that lacks the boundless creativity of its creator’s previous efforts.

How Nintendo EAD – the team behind both Mario Galaxy games – designs this familiar world for four players will be the key factor in whether Super Mario 3D World is received as an essential entry in one of videogames’ most revered series or simply as a stopgap designed to plug a hole in an under-populated release schedule.