Beneath the warm familiarity of 3D World lies one of the strangest Mario games in years - and that's wonderful news.
The best theory I've ever heard regarding the mysterious way that Mario games get made runs like this: deep inside Nintendo's development structure, there are people working on Mario stuff all the time, irrespective of specific games. They're just toiling away in the Mario mines, churning out endless ideas for anything and everything - bosses, collectables, enemies, traversal gimmicks, ghost house hallways, the works. Mario is always being made, and practically any idea can lie within its remit. Mario is games, and all games - all toys, all play - can eventually be folded into the mix.
That certainly explains a game like Super Mario 3D World - yet another Mario title where each new level can be trusted to throw in a one-off idea that's forgotten seconds later. 3D World has a story, but as ever, it drifts into the ether the moment you take your first jump. It has world themes - desert, ice, grasslands - but they're largely ignored as you hop between pools of bizarre brilliance that defy easy categorisation. Autumn, water parks, the circus: each level takes you somewhere different, while every minute of play spools outwards in a friendly 60fps jumble of nutty concepts - perhaps nuttier here than ever before. And yet! And yet that famous Mario coherency still rules - because everything you encounter in a Mario game reminds you of something else you encountered in another Mario game. Because Mario is games.
Exhibit A: We need to talk about the goomba shoe. You know, the goomba shoe from Super Mario Bros. 3, a single-shot power-up that appears only in level 5-3, where you find a goomba stomping around in a large green boot - a boot you can steal.
Hardly anybody remembers the goomba shoe, but, behind the scenes, Mario's custodians were playing the long game. Nintendo was just biding its time, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for the perfect moment to remind everyone about that weirdo footwear. And the perfect moment - outside of the odd cameo in the RPG spin-offs - is level 3-1 of Mario 3D World: a snowy playground in which you move through pine forests and over deep drifts before venturing onto a frozen lake where a goomba awaits, turning dreamy circles in an ice skate. An ice skate you can steal.
There are a couple of reasons why this is noteworthy. Firstly, it turns out that a goomba in an ice skate - serious, self-contained, frowning with lofty pride as if all too aware of the vital role he plays in Bowser's master plan - is actually the single funniest thing you will see this year. Secondly, the goomba ice skate is an elegant reminder that even when a Mario game looks a little underwhelming on paper, even when some have suggested it seems a bit phoned-in, well, even then it's still best to reserve judgment.
3D World is an endless freewheeling treat of a game, and it starts with what feels like one of the greatest Mario power-ups of all time: Cat Mario
Like Super Mario 3D Land, then, 3D World is an endless freewheeling treat of a game, and it starts with what feels like one of the greatest Mario power-ups of all time. Cat Mario is a near-perfect blend of all Nintendo's skills: its animations reveal attention to detail condensed by a wonderfully childlike level of abstraction, its lock-on swipe attack solves the problem of close-up combat in complex 3D spaces, and that skittering, claws-out scrabble allows you to scale the steep walls that would otherwise have hemmed you into these compact level maps. Like Yoshi or the cape in the original Mario World, Cat Mario makes you feel powerful. You can do astonishing things when you wield that fluffy uniform, but you're vulnerable too, and you'll wince with fury when you lose your new toys fumbling over a stupid risk.
Cat Mario's the stand-out, but the double cherry, another 3D World debut, may be the craziest power-up ever. Double cherry chucks in another Mario every time you eat one, each new addition moving in sync as you race across a map. You can chain double cherries until you're wielding a little Mario dance troupe, and you can split them up and fan them out by bumping them, tactically, into the environment. Everything you could hope for Nintendo to do with this concept is well and truly covered. Control four of them and you'll find they create a strangely socialist image: a quartet of punchy little comrades bobbing along in braces.
The cat and the cherries mingle nicely alongside old friends like the tanooki and the fire flower, the boomerang and a scattering of new weirdo asides that are too good to spoil in advance. They're all slotted into a game that offers a kind of antic, hyperactive cheekiness - from a level that hides its first collectable behind the starting point to others that drop you into the middle of the action with only 100 seconds on the clock.
With shortish stages - for the most part - and lots of 'em, 3D World is a creative blur. This is a game that's thought of as many ways for you to scale that end-of-level flagpole as it has levels that end. Halfway through the whole adventure, you'll suddenly realise that, in the midst of this chaos, somebody's quietly altered the way Mario accelerates, offering a kind of two-speed gear change with a burst of nitro in the middle.
It's typical of Mario's designers, really. Pick a level at random, and you get astonishing blink-and-you'll-miss-it invention. One stage I've just chosen more or less blind offers a power-up that turned my head into a cannon, a glimpse of some goombas relaxing in rubber rings, and a frog that expels huge gobs of coins when stepped on. Moving outwards, the chunky snooker-felt-and-hard-plastic overworld maps that bring these levels together are filled with lovely details that go beyond mere hidden trinkets to search out. Listen hard in World 2 and you'll hear cats singing along with the whistling sands. In World 3, your feet ring out a musical tinkling effect as you shift from running on snow to racing down frozen train tracks.
It's beautiful as well as busy, too. While Nintendo came to HD textures late, it's benefited more than most - probably because it has rendering interests that go beyond rust and gunmetal. Mario's world has always been scattershot in its materials, but 3D World really revels in sending you from an assault course built of quilting to another made from cake batter. It's gorgeous stuff.
Other nods to the specific strengths of the Wii U - whatever they may turn out to be - are relatively few. There are a couple of levels where you have to prod the GamePad screen to smash crates and raise or lower platforms (or move them about by blowing), and there's off-screen play and Miiverse integration. You can share ghost Mii runthroughs, Trackmania-style, and you can also draw on the screen to highlight things for other players (or to annoy them).
By and large, though, you'll have just as much fun with remotes and nunchucks or pro controllers - more fun, in fact, as multiplayer is once again nestled right near the heart of the whole experience, allowing you to pick between the line-up from Super Mario Bros. 2 (Peach still has that hover move, although it's been reined in a little) and turn each level into a ceaseless, primary-colour barroom brawl where life expectancies are measured in seconds rather than minutes. The implementation's as straightforward as you could hope for: it's essentially the multiplayer systems of New Super Mario Bros. Wii brought into three dimensions. The game camera struggles a bit when it's really hectic and you're all headed in different directions, but it doesn't matter as much as it might due to a range of levels that offer large, open spaces at the beginning or end. Multiplayer Mario's about hilarious disasters more than precision team-work, anyway. It's about the plummet as much as the jump.
Beneath the warm familiarity of 3D World lies one of the strangest Mario games in years... and that's a very good thing
If there's an overarching theme to a game as nutty as 3D World, though, I suspect, like Mario 3D Land, it's to do with variation. Mario's glorious 3DS outing would interrupt the normal flow of programming every now and then to tilt the camera down and saddle the plumber with the mechanics of Zelda, say, and there's a similar impulse at work here. This still isn't a grand reinvention in the style of Galaxy. Instead, there's a more ad-libbed drive to see how stretchy Mario can be, and to explore how many different situations he can be squashed into without changing the basic rhythm of play. There's a level that employs stealth mechanics, for example, and another where you're cast, from time to time, as a Mario shadow-puppet. There are rhythm action sequences, lock-and-key tasks, and Captain Toad levels where you can't jump at all.
Stealth! No jumping! Mario, inevitably, copes with everything thrown at him, while each stage still manages to stuff in the requisite collectables - in this case, three green stars to help open up progress gates, and cute little icon-printing stamps you can use in Miiverse posts. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is arguably the series' greatest yet - and that's including Super Mario Galaxy 2. It's as lavish and quick-changing as the agenda: Ealing Comedy one minute, risqué 70s gameshow the next. The mournful, yawning strings of a ghost house feel like a true series highlight - this is pastiche at its most skilful, its most panoramic.
Compact by the standards of the Galaxy adventures but still loaded with bountiful secrets, beneath the warm familiarity of 3D World lies one of the strangest Mario games in years - or at least one of the most random in its influences and its moment-to-moment indulgences. And that's a very, very good thing. The Wii U sees Nintendo's mascot racing into venerable middle age by going wonderfully loopy - by dialling up the energy, even if the end result is often absolutely insane. After all these years, who could blame him?