It's a double cherry all the way.
At E3, Super Mario 3D World seemed like a fun romp, but nothing particularly special. I had the chance to play the game again last week, and my expectations were completely realigned. In one word, the game is playful, with a level after level of creative construction and an attention to handcrafted level design that left me laughing and smiling.
The first big surprise, Mario 3D World includes a 3D map, but this time you can run around the worlds as if they were standard levels. There are even secrets built right into the map for you to find. Though you’re not in The Mushroom Kingdom, the world sequence seems to follow the standard Mario progression the first world is a grass land, the second is a desert, etc.
It’s abundantly clear that the game’s designers had a lot of fun, making great use of the unique situations that the levels could provide. Inside of 2-3: Shadow Play Alley, light projects dictated that certain areas were played by navigating in the shadows. Secrets can be found by looking for inconsistencies in the patterns of light. In one humorous area, what looks to be a Toad being terrorized by Bowser turns out to be simply a clapboard shadow projection.
The great news is that there are several new power-ups and items beyond the Cat Suit (and in 1-3: Mount Beanpole, even the Goombas are wearing them), which are some of the most interesting and amusing in years. The craziest and most nefarious is the “Double Cherry,” an item that clones your character, which is introduced in 2-5: Double Cherry Pass. Both of your characters move at the same time, which means herding (cats) into the same place requires careful use of walls. Think Binary Land or the Mask-Mimics from Link’s Awakening. The Double Cherry item is stackable – find another one, and you’ll have three Marios, find another and get four, or five. Couple that with fireballs, and if you can keep them all alive, you’ll have a formidable army. Some areas can only be reached by the cooperation of multiple characters.
Another item expands on the box-on-head idea from Mario 3D Land. A Cannon Block lodged itself on my head, and I could blast spherical shots at enemies and even charge the cannon. Pots with sleeping piranha plants can be picked up and serve a similar purpose to Yoshi – the carnivorous plant eats anything that stands in your way. The Tanooki Suit, Boomerang Suit, Question Block, and Propeller Block from Mario 3D Land return as well. And that’s not all. There’s a new ice skate version of Kuribo’s Shoe, a Goomba hat, and who knows what other outlandish power-ups.
Perhaps inspired by the curious exploration provided by the Cat Suit, the levels are full of fun areas that can be explored from a variety of angles. Coins and items are hidden as expected, but non-game Easter eggs are scattered throughout as well. Though the Mario self-referential levels seem to be toned down compared to Super Mario 3D Land, after crawling up a wall, I did find a hidden animated squatting Mario sprite that appeared to be a reference to the Japanese Kintamario/Unkomario meme combo.
With Princess Peach playable, in further shades of Super Mario Bros. 2, Bowser’s imprisoned Sprixie, rulers of a kingdom neighboring The Mushroom Kingdom. Yes, Bowser is the antagonist, but as you approach him in the first castle, he comes parading in on a Wario-esqe purple armored Cadillac. Driving along the top of his castle in Bowser's Highway Showdown, he throws soccer-bombs that you have to deflect back at him (there seem to be several sports-themed weapons in this game) and spews molten lava.
The second battle I fought wasn't as compelling, where you face off against a Super Mario 3D Land-style Boom-Boom who can turn invisible. The road to get to Boom-Boom was another cool Mario 3 throwback, Bowser's Bullet Bill Brigade, an auto-scrolling tank level full of projectiles and marching soldiers, but this time in isometric 3D. Playing this level made me miss the stereoscopic 3D of Mario 3D Land since jumps were harder to judge.
In addition to the three green stars that you can find in each level, there now resides a hidden stamp. Collecting stamps in levels unlocks an uncolored stamp within a stamp book. Players can use the collected stamps to customize Miiverse postings.
Of course, multiplayer turns everything on its head. The cooperative-competitive nature means that it’s a brutal free-for-all, and just wait until Double Cherries are thrown in the mix… The field of view doesn't expand too far, which means there can be a lot of time spent floating in bubbles, depending on how close together your rivals decide to travel. A new feature gives the player who earned the most points a crown to wear in the next level. Other players can try to stomp the "king" and steal the crown, but if the original bearer can hold on to it until the end of the next level, they'll receive a bonus.
Pretty much my only complaint about the game so far is that the Cat Suit fur for some inexplicable reason, looks more like Styrofoam than fur. Otherwise, everything looks great, and there are plenty of cool atmospheric and water effects. Also, I’m a little worried about the lack of difficulty, though the only levels I had a chance to play were from the first two worlds, so I can’t make a judgment call there.
My latest play session of Super Mario 3D World laid to rest fears that Nintendo is allowing Mario to become stale. Mario and company’s latest escapade is full of creative new powers, humorous situations, and a relaxed treatment that more clearly than ever says, “this is what a Mario game is meant to be.”