Don’t let the name fool you; it may say Super Mario World on the box, but there’s no sign of Yoshi here and no cape either. While Mario’s Tanooki form made a crowd-pleasing return in this game’s closest relative, Super Mario 3D Land, there’s no trace of that billowing yellow strip of magical fabric, which remains Mario’s greatest-ever power-up. Taking its place is a bell that turns our hero – or Luigi, Toad or Peach, all of whom are playable in both single- and multiplayer mode – into a cat. Finish a stage while wearing this costume and the standard celebratory cheer is followed by a cloying miaow. Despite the name, on early evidence Super Mario 3D World isn’t aimed at fans of a SNES classic, but furries and GIF watchers.
Claw a little deeper into the power-up’s moveset, however, and you’ll find that it empowers a greater level of fan service than even the cape could. As soon as you botch your first leap for the top of an end-of-level flagpole and watch as Cat Mario scrambles up it for the maximum score, it becomes clear that Tokyo EAD’s mission is to subvert 30 years of Mario tropes, poking gentle fun at what we’ve come to expect from gaming’s most recognisable figure. And in this, the year of Luigi.
Jump at a wall and you’ll stick to it; press up on the left stick and you’ll clamber up the sheerest of inclines, beyond which secrets often lie. There’s no gradual slide back down to Earth as gravity takes hold unless you try to climb too far up a wall that leads nowhere, but when you do, you’ll leave claw marks in your wake.
This feline form is a useful offensive tool, too, with a two-handed attack that will knock back even the hardiest of enemies, deflecting Bullet Bills – the homing variety of which sports some adorable pink-lined ears of its own – off course. Hold down the attack button in the air, meanwhile, and that swipe will be followed by a dive move with a brief slide at the end that takes out ground-based enemies. It’s a flexible power-up, then, and while it might not match the cape for the simple thrill of locomotion, it’s got it licked in visual terms; in cat form, your protagonist trots around on all fours, head turning in curiosity at nearby objects of interest.
It’s far from the only toy here, though. Our four playable characters have an embarrassment of wearable riches at their disposal, with the Super Bell joining the Super Leaf, Fire Flower, Super Mushroom, Propeller Box, Boomerang Flower and coin-spewing Prize Box in the 3D World wardrobe. It doesn’t end there, either, with a host of fleeting appearances from power-ups whose purpose, again, is to subvert. You’ll head into a Ghost House or two with a head-mounted torch that can, for the first time in Mario history, banish a Boo back to the afterlife. You’ll put on a hat that looses off cannonballs. And you’ll carry your very own potted Piranha Plant that gobbles up enemies and has a ludicrous effect on an already chaotic multiplayer mode.
Then there’s the Double Cherry. While its design most readily recalls gambling machines, its effect is plucked straight from pinball. This is a Mario multiball, spawning a clone that follows you around. Get more fruit and you’ll end up with another clone, and another, until half-a-dozen identical characters are responding to your inputs, throwing half-a-dozen fireballs at once, letting out six “wahoo”s in unison as you long jump for the flagpole. The Double Cherry’s perhaps a little underused – you’ll need clones to hit two switches, or use four of them to make a platform move that would otherwise only activate in multiplayer – but it’s another sweet addition to 3D World’s already bulging playset.
These tools are put into use across a world map that looks more like it belongs to the side-scrolling New Super Mario Bros games than a 3D Mario. But, in another subversive touch, you can now move freely around it, running and jumping where you please, rather than being bound to a fixed path. The number of stages varies from world to world; some have a boss halfway through as well as at the end, while others will involve a single-screen fight with an enemy or two that’s blocking your way on the map. There are no secret exits here, sadly, though surprises do pop up on the map as you collect green stars. Each stage contains three of these twinkling prizes, and your progress through the game will occasionally be blocked until you go back and collect a certain total of them by rinsing the worlds you’ve already visited.
Worlds contain familiar distractions – Toad Houses yield items, while a gigantic four-reeled fruit machine that spits out extra lives fondly recalls Super Mario World – plus a few new touches, too. Mystery Houses build on Super Mario 3D Land’s Mystery Boxes, ten-second challenges that demanded speed of thought and reflexes and offered up a Star Medal in return. While Mystery Boxes are still found in 3D World’s levels, the Houses occupy their own space on the map, and string five or ten such challenges together. Fail the tenth and you’ll have to do the first nine all over again.
There’s much greater variety than on 3DS, though. You’ll have to do plenty of precise running and jumping at speed, of course, but elsewhere you’ll guide a ball through a maze of platforms whose layout changes when you jump, and take out crowds of out-of-reach enemies with a well-placed baseball throw. They’re a fantastic change of pace, distilling Tokyo EAD’s obvious design talents down into a string of perfectly formed, ten-second snippets of fun. It’s one of the few things in 3D World that feels truly new for the series, even if its inspiration comes from within Nintendo’s existing stable. This might as well have been called Mario Ware.
Yet 3D World’s biggest leap forwards is apparent within seconds of loading up the game, when the plumber and friends gambol about the title screen in their impossibly fuzzy catsuits. New Super Mario Bros may have dragged Nintendo’s mascot into the HD era, but laying eyes on a 1080p 3D Mario for the first time is like scales falling from your eyes. Super Mario 64 and the Galaxy games are some of the best ever made, but you needed a little of your own imagination to get the best out of them. You had to pretend not to see those sharp edges; you learned to look past the pixellated planets. Now, finally, Mario has the visual fidelity to match the brilliance of his designers.
It’s beautiful, and it’s little wonder to see some of the Mushroom Kingdom’s longest-standing inhabitants revelling in it. Goombas loll about in crystal-blue waters, held afloat by striped inflatables. A trio of Koopas goes for a beachfront stroll, lit by screen-corner god rays from an unseen sun. Series staples – burntorange sunsets; dark, dank caves; ice-white snowscapes and burning-hot lava – take on new life. And in the middle of it all is Mario, gaming’s most graceful mover, his locomotion and moveset refined over decades.
Mario’s not alone, of course. You can change characters at the start of a level, but neither Luigi’s higher jump, Peach’s longer one, nor Toad’s greater walk speed provide incentive enough to do so. Mario, after all, has a backflip, long jump and run button, so his cohorts’ abilities aren’t anything special, and the minute you switch to someone else is the minute 3D World stops feeling like a Mario game. In multiplayer, those who don’t play as Mario will readily blame their poor end-of-level leaderboard placing on who they used, and they may well have a point. The setup itself doesn’t help, being perhaps a little too frantic for its own good, the camera tracking whoever races off ahead and punishing those who want to ferret out secrets or explore. An option to randomise characters at the level start screen goes some way to alleviating the problem of who gets to be the title attraction, but all it’s really doing is spreading out the frustration.
In singleplayer, what little frustration there is comes not from difficulty, but repetition. While some stars are hidden behind devious puzzles and tight platforming, the levels that surround them are forever the same. Thankfully, you’ll only have to backtrack a handful of times, mostly late in the game, and the rewards are well worth it. This may not pull quite the same endgame trick as Mario 3D Land, but suffice it to say it’s a generous package, one that keeps on surprising and revealing new challenges long after the credits roll.
It seems odd that Nintendo should release a Mariohelmed game at all in a year supposedly devoted to his brother, let alone one that should prove to be Wii U’s best game to date. Yet there is more than fraternal rivalry at stake here. In the same month that its platform holder rivals debut their new hardware, Nintendo has issued a timely reminder that it is games that sell systems, while also setting a new visual benchmark for the most treasured series in gaming. This is Mario like you’ve never seen him before, and unlike so many of his next-gen rivals, he nips along at an effortless 60fps. If the true measure of new hardware’s worth is how stark the difference is between it and what came before, then this is the most next-gen game that 2013 has yet produced.
Super Mario 3D World is out now in Japan, releases November 22 in the US and November 29 in the EU.