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I wasn’t expecting Super Mario 3D World to wow me like this.

Before you play it, it’s hard not to look down on 3D World. When Nintendo announced the platformer in January, it looked like a quick turnaround of the 3DS’s Super Mario 3D Land. The Wii U was (and still is) struggling, and Nintendo clearly wanted to get another Mario game out to help boost hardware sales. I assumed that 3D World was Nintendo’s quick fix answer to some of those struggles.

And Super Mario 3D World might address some of those concerns, but not just because it has the Mario name. As it turns out, 3D World is better than its 3DS predecessor. In fact, Super Mario 3D World is the best 3D Mario ever made.

What you’ll like

A brilliantly designed platformer with a variety of gameplay

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At its core, 3D World is still a game about running and jumping, but as always, Nintendo has found dozens of ways to spice up those basic actions with fun twists.

You can fight off snowmen with snowballs, jump over bottomless chasms using a propeller helmet, glide gracefully in a giant ice skate, and chase down a rabbit to steal one of the many green stars you need to collect … and that’s all in a single level.

3D World’s levels flow from one mechanic to the next in a way that ensures the player is never stuck doing anything for too long. Levels that do focus on a single concept are often shorter but more difficult, which is refreshing.

Nintendo also employed a great deal of variety within the overworld. 3D World has eight themed worlds and each of those comprise around eight normal levels, a handful of enemy stages, and at least one series of special challenges.

The enemy stages are brief and put the player up against something like a handful of Hammer Bros. enemies. The challenge levels are either a series of fast and difficult platforming obstacles or a special area that puts gamers in control of a toad who cannot jump and has to figure out a puzzle-like pathway to collect the green stars.

Just as each level flows brilliantly from one idea to the next, so does the whole game. It feels like the development team was forced to come up with scores of new ideas, and the producers only kept the awesome stuff.

3D World also (finally) doesn’t kick you back out to the map or a menu after every death. It simply reloads the level in blissfully little time and gets you right back into the action. It’s not as instant as Super Meat Boy or something like that, but it’s much quicker than other Mario games.

The game even has a few interesting callbacks to games like Paper Mario and Mario Kart.

Above: The game even has a few interesting callbacks to games like Paper Mario and Mario Kart.

It’s like the Galaxy team, which also produced 3D World, obviously took every thing it learned making those Wii titles and 3D Land and used that knowledge to make its best game yet. Even beyond the variety, the fundamental Mario gameplay of jumping on enemies, using powerups, and finding secrets is better than ever.

Each main stage contains three green stars you have to collect. This is an ancient Mario trope, but 3D World does it very well. Those stars aren’t always just hidden in the most obvious locations. Instead, they are out of the way or force you to use precise platforming skills. New Super Mario Bros. U had a lot of that, but 3D World is even just a little bit better.

I should also probably talk about the power ups, and the different characters. Again, these are traditional Mario elements that Nintendo has refined.

For the first time since Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo Entertainment System, a Mario game is enabling players to choose to take on Bowser as Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, or Toad for any level, and they each play differently. Luigi jumps higher, Princess floats, and Toad is speedy. Meanwhile, Mario is the average man who does everything well. While they aren’t incredibly different, it’s much more varied than the cast from the New Super Mario Bros. series (Mario, Luigi, and two toads), which all play identically.

Here, the small differences can have a major effect. I was struggling with a particular level on the seventh world. It had a series of jumps on to small platforms that were giving me hell. I probably lost about a dozen or so lives using Mario before I decided to try the stage with Toad … and, of course, I beat it on my first try with the blue little mushroom man. He doesn’t jump as high as the others, which actually helped me maintain control of his movements.

It’s easy to find a favorite and end up defaulting to one character. As boring as I am, I favorited Mario, but I found that the levels played differently (sometimes easier and sometimes not) depending on who I was using.

Finally, 3D World uses powerups very well. It doesn’t just give you something because it’s cool, and the designers didn’t put a lot of secrets in a level without also providing the powerup you need to reach them.

The powerups add to your abilities and are cute —  the cat suit enables the characters to do a swipe attack and claw up walls — but the levels are also filled with obstacles that require that deft use of those capabilities.

Two Marios usually makes things more difficult, and Nintendo uses that to introduce some new mechanics.

Above: Two Marios usually makes things more difficult, and Nintendo uses that to introduce some new mechanics.

Image Credit: Nintendo

Another powerup, the double cherry, manifests up to five Mario doppelgangers. That makes it easy to quickly collect a lot of coins and jump into a herd of goomba, but in a couple of levels it’s actually the cause of Mario’s problems.

One stage steadily fed me double cherries so that I was continuously running around with five characters on screen. I had fun trying to control the flock of Marios as we took on enemies and filed one at a time into a pipe, but the secret goal of the level was to get at least four of these Marios to the end of the stage to activate a switch that would unlock one of the green stars. That meant I had to carefully work my way around while trying not to lose anyone.

It’s one of the interesting ways that the game takes something that at first seems empowering and turns it into an obstacle itself, and I love that.

Multiplayer

Of course, that 4-player switch that gave my multiple Marios such a hard time is a piece of cake in Super Mario 3D World’s amazing multiplayer mode.

For the first time in a 3D Mario game, Nintendo is giving gamers the option to run around and jump on goombas with up to four total players simultaneously. I doubted this would work in 3D, but it does, and I can’t wait to play it more.

I put in a few hours with my wife in two player mode. She took the Wii U GamePad and I took a Wii Remote (ugh). We hopped from stage to stage picking up green stars I missed my first time around. We’re both pretty sensitive to in-game cameras that feel out of sync with what we’re trying to see, but neither of us had any complaints.

Very occasionally we’d try to run in different directions. In these moments, the camera pulls out a little bit while following only the player that is moving the furthest ahead. If a player gets left too far behind, they get snapped up in a bubble and dragged ahead. That only happened to us a couple of time.

This camera system works, and it in no way stopped us having an absolute riot.

Multiplayer co-op works, and it is a blast.

Above: Multiplayer co-op works, and it is a blast.

Image Credit: Nintendo

Very quickly, we got into a groove with each of us calling out who would hit difficult switches, who would go for the kill on tough enemies, and who needed the cat suit the most. Occasionally, one of us would accidentally grab the other one and throw them off a tiny platform, but it’s easy to jump out of that if you want to. I would usually just let her throw me (she swears she didn’t mean it) because it was cracking us up.

I love this mode so much. I actually ordered another Wii Remote to make sure that I have enough for when family is over so that we can play four players this holiday.

The look and sound 

Super Mario 3D World is one of the best looking games on any platform. I think it’s better looking than Knack on the powerful PlayStation 4, and it only can’t keep up with ultra-realistic titles like Battlefield 4.

Otherwise, 3D World is an offensively beautiful game.

Of course, that’s more to do with aesthetics than polygons and graphics engines, but who cares? Nintendo finally has the amount of power it needs so that nothing is holding back its production values. The company’s artists and animators finally have the high-definition canvas so that no details are lost in translation.

The quality of the visuals are apparent from the first stage, but again Nintendo doesn’t hold back with variety. While the game follows the pattern of other Mario titles where the first world takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom, the second is a desert, and the third is an ice world, the levels within those worlds don’t necessarily fall into those themes. Instead, each stage surprises with new design and graphical flares

One early stage that especially stood out has the characters running through a very overgrown jungle with just tiny cracks of light slipping between the branches. It’s something new for Mario, and it really helps to keep things interesting. Another takes place on a tropical beach with gorgeous shimmering water and goombas lounging on inflatable rafts.

Likewise, the final world — which is a surprise — isn’t what you’re expecting, and its levels are one visual treat after another.

Super Mario 3D World’s music is also simply better than everything else.

Nintendo went all out with the orchestra, and the composers found a perfect balance between bringing back nostalgic favorites and recording swingin’ new jams.

I’ve already set 3D World’s theme as my ringtone, and I don’t think it’s left my head since I first booted up the game. It’s not just that the music is delightful, it’s that it fits with the world and the gameplay. Several times I felt like the swells and crescendos of the soundtrack was perfectly syncing with the sounds of my jumps and koopa-troopa kills.

What you won’t like

Pointless time limits and game overs

Mario 3D World isn’t perfect. Time limits very occasionally spoil the fun, especially in multiplayer. I wanted to explore the world with my wife at our own pace, but the timer caused anxiety a couple of times. A few levels cleverly employ a 100-second timer, and I appreciate those, but other levels can feel needlessly stressful when they shouldn’t.

Likewise, getting a “game over” makes zero sense. 3D World saves after every level, and a game over does nothing but bring you back to the stage you were just at and restores all the bonus levels. The game now presents how many times you die right on the main menu. It would seem like that is a much more fun way to deal with death than the occasional game over. Again, this is mostly a problem in multiplayer where you tend to bleed lives a lot faster.

Resorting to using the Wii Remote in multiplayer

3D World barely uses the GamePad’s extra functions. It has some very sparse touchscreen elements and some enemies you can knock over by blowing on the mic, but mostly you’re just using the sticks and buttons. This means you can use any controller to play. In multiplayer, this meant that I gave my wife the GamePad because I didn’t want her to struggle to control a character in 3D with a Wii Remote’s garbage directional pad.

I don’t have a Wii U Pro Controller, and I doubt that many people have three of them. That likely means that, like me, someone is gonna get stuck using the Wii Remote in multiplayer, and that really dampens the experience.

The tight movement controls become sloppy when using the d-pad. It’s also nearly impossible to use the crouch button (which is necessary for the long jump and back flip moves) since it sits awkwardly on the back of the controller.

I happily suffered through it because the game is so good, and I don’t think the one or two times I’ll play this game with a group of people justifies spending $50 on even one Wii U Pro Controller, let alone $150 to get three. Instead, people will just continue to fight over who gets the GamePad, just as they do with all Wii U games.

Conclusion

I love Super Mario 3D World. As a single-player experience, it’s on the same level as either Galaxy game or the memories I have of playing Super Mario 64 for the first time. In many ways, it’s a more refined game than any other 3D Mario.

It is beautiful. It sounds amazing. Its controls are perfect. It love you with its pacing and variety, and it never wants you to get bored.

The multiplayer takes all that and pushes 3D World into a category all of its own. It’s not just some gimmick; it is a whole new way to experience Mario. It feels so integral that I can’t imagine a future Mario that doesn’t include co-op play.

When taken as a whole (the single-player refinements, the visuals, the music, and the multiplayer), Super Mario 3D World is my favorite 3D Mario and the best game I’ve played in 2013.

Score: 97/100

Super Mario 3D World is out Nov. 22 for Wii U. Nintendo provided GamesBeat with a downloadable code for the purposes of this review.

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