Nintendo's 3D Mario games are rare and precious things, carefully crafted as showcases for the platforms they were released on. Everyone remembers their first steps across the lawns of Princess Peach's Castle, or the first time they explored the gravity-defying underside of a Mario Galaxy planetoid. Even the hub world of Nintendo's under-appreciated Mario Sunshine, the sun-bleached stone plazas and loose sewer covers of Isle Delfino rattling beneath Mario's shoes, has burnt itself into our collective consciousness.
There was a certain amount of pressure, then, for Mario's 3D Wii U debut. Unfortunately, it fell a little flat. Its announcement was already expected, its delivery was pre-recorded and there were no on-stage appearances from Shigeru Miyamoto wearing a Goomba hat. Instead, Super Mario 3D World simply popped up in the opening spot of Nintendo's E3 broadcast. It wasn't a huge new Galaxy-style game - that much was immediately clear. Nintendo hadn't upped the scale further. What was presented, in a nutshell, was a sequel to a very good 3DS game. Would a "full" 3D Mario follow to round off the presentation? No, it did not. Huh.
Thankfully, playing the game - and playing it with others - provides a far more promising experience. 3D World evolves the concept set out by 3D Land: a half-way house between Nintendo's aforementioned full 3D games and the 2D New Super Mario Bros. series. It has more intricate levels, four-player multiplayer and new toys to play with - such as the adorable cat power-up.
Each character can don the cat suit: all-rounder Mario, speedy Blue Toad, hover-jumping Peach and the skittish, floaty-jumping Luigi. Suited up, players can scamper across and up levels, scaling vertical walls and even the ending flagpole with ease. As Cat Mario you can leap further and even pounce on enemies, an alternative tactic that's similar to the Tanooki suit's tail-swipe. But while describing these positives is all well and good, it's difficult to explain the suit's real attraction unless you see it in motion - until you see Mario's portly dungareed-self transformed into a lithe, streamlined feline. From the animations and the simple paw-scratching actions of idle characters, it's clear Nintendo has spent a lot of time staring at Miyamoto's cat.
From the animations and the simple paw-scratching actions of idle characters, it's clear Nintendo has spent a lot of time staring at Miyamoto's cat.
The suit is both a safety mechanic for the more inexperienced players and an opportunity for veterans to climb and reach off-screen secrets. It allows for some ingenious level designs and, even with four players on screen, plenty of alternate paths for you to investigate. Where sessions with New Super Mario Bros.' four-player mode often became confusing - the screen crowded with characters and only so much level available on screen at any time - playing with a second, third and fourth character feels more natural here. The camera is more accommodating, pulling out to widen the visible play area as characters wander off, although you can still get left behind on the faster moving stages.
Levels continue to follow 3D Land's largely A to B structure, although there are a greater number of distractions to find along the way. Jump into a warp pipe or discover a secret room and you'll find more of 3D Land's time-based challenges. One example sees players attempting to highlight all of an area's floor tiles before a counter runs out, armed only with your feet and a couple of tennis balls to kick around. The mechanic of having three hard to reach golden coins per level is back, too, although this time they're replaced by Galaxy 2's green stars.
3D World's levels hold a number of new surprises, as well as noticeably different structures to accommodate Cat Mario's climbing. The transparent warp pipes seen during E3 are a clever addition, for example, and allow for some light puzzle gameplay. When inside the pipe you can change direction at a junction by holding that direction on the analogue stick, allowing you to chase moving power-ups or escape from enemies. One section sees you navigating through a pipe maze to reach a Power Star so you can then burst through the line of foes blocking your escape.
Nintendo has yet again crafted something different, a 3D Land-style hybrid that it obviously hopes will appeal to all types of Mario game fan.
Playing with the GamePad is probably the optimal experience, and it gives the holder a distinct advantage when adventuring with others. As GamePad-wielder you hold access to the stock of spare power-ups visible on the device's touchscreen and can effectively become the leader of the group, responsible for marshalling struggling friends close by so you can dole out help. You can also play using the Wii Remote, held horizontally, or via the Pro Controller.
Unlike the party game atmosphere of New Super Mario Bros., 3D World does a better job of encouraging players to work together. Nowhere is this more evident than in a level where all players hop onto a friendly, oversized dragon and guide him down a rapid-ridden river. Every player helps control the beast, which means lots of verbal coordination and fighting over what route to take. Dissenting parties of river travellers will find themselves simultaneously tugging both left and right and, believe me, that doesn't end up anywhere good.
I've never particularly been a fan of multiplayer Mario games, but this is by far Nintendo's best effort yet. I was looking for a huge, deep Mario platformer to be announced at E3 - and while some will say that 3D Land doesn't quite match the scale of previous games, Nintendo has yet again crafted something different, a 3D Land-style hybrid that it obviously hopes will appeal to all types of Mario game fan. After E3 it was easy to write off 3D World as just another great Mario platformer, something less than the series' standouts. But after actually playing it, it's clear this will be another experience to remember.