It’s been easy to forget about the Wii U lately, with this month's high-profile launches of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. In fact, it’s been easy to forget about the Wii U in general; Nintendo's console has sold poorly since its release last November, and truly exciting software has been all but non-existent. Until now.
Super Mario 3D World is the best game on the Wii U by far, and arguably the best game to come out this holiday season on any platform. It sees Nintendo finally firing on all cylinders again, at a time when it's needed the most. It's Nintendo at its creative, playful, unhinged best.
Nintendo typically uses its 3D Super Mario titles as a showcase for new hardware, so the design of Super Mario 3D World could have been cause for concern. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, it draws most of its influence from 2011's Super Mario 3D Land, a fantastic 3DS title that took many by surprise. Both games share the same isometric perspective and simple eight-way directional control; by limiting camera and player movement, the two come off as an accessible hybrid between previous 2D and 3D Super Mario releases. While the formula is proven, some will certainly feel slightly disappointed that the Wii U isn't seeing an all-new blueprint.
But Super Mario 3D World blows that notion away within minutes of its opening sequence. Even if the overarching design is something we've seen before, almost every individual stage is bursting with invention. As with the head-spinning Super Mario Galaxy games, Nintendo is more than happy to introduce a completely new gameplay concept only to discard it after a single level, and it's this momentum that ensures Super Mario 3D World is never predictable and never boring. You’ll ride white-water rapids atop a friendly dinosaur, learn to match your jumps to shifting platforms that appear in time with a disco-funk soundtrack, and guide Mario around a Super Mario Kart-inspired track that plays like nothing as much as an early Sonic the Hedgehog game. And that’s without spoiling some of the crazier stages in store.
Tight controls and level design are a given with Super Mario, though; the series' most successful games are the ones that best apply new, recurring elements to the existing template. On that count, too, Super Mario 3D World is a resounding success. You play the game as one of four protagonists — Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad, harkening back to Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES. Each has subtle differences in control: Luigi has a slightly more powerful jump than Mario, and Peach's ability to hover in midair makes her perhaps the strongest character. But the quartet can be controlled by up to four people at once, bringing the New Super Mario Bros. games' riotous multiplayer into 3D for the first time.
Almost every individual stage is bursting with invention
The new power-ups are also instant classics. Cat Mario is both the cutest and one of the most powerful abilities the Italian plumber has ever attained, letting him scamper up the side of walls, claw away attacking Goombas, and scale the top of the level-ending flagpoles for maximum points. Double Mario, meanwhile, is a mind-bending addition that sends clones to run alongside your character and mirror their every action. It’s sometimes a boon, but often sent me into paroxysms of rage as I failed to wrap my head around controlling as many as five Marios at once.
Nintendo has specifically designed certain levels to provoke that sort of reaction, and I found myself gently cursing Kyoto for bestowing this "power" upon me. Still, letting one of them die doesn’t count as a lost life, and it does feel more fair to take on the Hammer Bros. when there are two of you. The power-up is also a neat way to handle some of the levels that were designed for several characters; although Super Mario 3D World occasionally feels a little lonely for the solo player, I rarely felt that the level design suffered from Nintendo’s collaborative focus.
One thing that Super Mario 3D World is not is a showcase for the Wii U's signature feature, the tablet-style GamePad controller. While there is the occasional stage that requires you to manipulate objects with the touchscreen, these are few and far between, and for the most part Super Mario 3D World is entirely playable with a regular controller. I actually found it far more comfortable to play with the underutilized but excellent Wii U Pro Controller most of the time. You can also play directly on the GamePad without the need for a TV, though I wouldn't recommend it; the camera angles tend to be too zoomed-out to be comfortable. And relegating Super Mario 3D World to the low-resolution GamePad screen would be a shame, because it's a stunningly beautiful game.
The Wii U isn't a graphical powerhouse next to its new competitors from Sony and Microsoft, of course, but Nintendo knows how to use it. Super Mario 3D World shows Wii owners exactly what they missed out on after Nintendo chose to sidestep HD visuals back in 2006, and the Wii U's extra power turns out to provide the perfect canvas for the Mushroom Kingdom's vibrant art style.
The Wii U isn't a graphical powerhouse, but Nintendo knows how to use it
With its colorful lighting, cute characters, and delectable textures, it's difficult to imagine how much better Super Mario 3D World could look on a more powerful machine. It runs at a smooth 60 frames per second, and though it's not as technically demanding a game as the likes of Killzone: Shadow Fall, the results are gorgeous. The brilliantly diverse soundtrack also deserves a mention; it’s not quite as majestic as Galaxy’s orchestral score, but it’s a huge improvement on the jaunty retro tunes found in most recent Mario releases.
Super Mario 3D World won’t save the Wii U alone. The 2D New Super Mario Bros. games routinely outsell their 3D counterparts, and Nintendo already blew that chance with the mediocre New Super Mario Bros. U a year ago. But alongside the equally superb The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds — which also comes out today — it’s a reminder that Nintendo is one of the best developers in the world when it wants to be, and that the Wii U will no doubt receive further titles in the future with the same unparalleled attention to detail lavished upon them. It’s taken over a year, but the Wii U finally has a must-play title to call its own — and Nintendo has two instant classics this holiday season.
Super Mario 3D World is out on the Wii U today.