One Giant Leap, 2013: Super Mario 3D World

In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we triangulate the exact halfway point between 2D and 3D in Super Mario 3D World

A few months back, we covered New Super Mario Bros., a game that felt like Mario had lost its creative spark, a game overly beholden to the past. The very next month, we looked at Super Mario Galaxy, a game bursting with creativity and verve. And for the next few years, these two games would define their own halves of the Super Mario series. Galaxy spawned a sequel that went even harder on fun, imaginative gimmicks while NSMB spawned 3 sequels that were Mario Brand Televisual Game Product, except now there’s local multiplayer. But while the Galaxy games were incredible critical successes that still stand out as the peak of the long-running series, the New games made absurd amounts of money. New Super Mario Bros. Wii sold over 30 million copies, while Galaxy and Galaxy 2 sat at a comparatively paltry 13 and 7 million respectively. So, when it came time to make a flagship Mario game for their flagging Wii U console, Nintendo had a proposition; what if they combined the two?

On paper, this is maybe the worst idea anybody’s ever had. The New games are, ironically, throwbacks, overly beholden to the series’ past. And beyond that, they were entirely 2D. How could you possibly make a flagship 3D title in their style? And indeed the tensions are immediately obvious. Having to hold a button to run is already clumsy in a 2D game, but in a 3D game meant to be played with analog controls it just plain doesn’t fit. And since it’s a game in the style of NSMB Wii then obviously it has to have 4-player local multiplayer, but that really doesn’t play nice with 3D gameplay. Traditionally, 3D platforming controls are interpreted relative to the camera (so, you press forward to go in the direction the camera’s pointing, that sort of thing) but with 4 independent players that means that the camera has to be in a fixed position, so that everyone can reliably know what their inputs will mean. But without the ability to adjust the camera, it becomes really hard to judge depth, which makes platforming inherently difficult.1 Even elements the two approaches have in common, like power-ups, wind up serving two masters. Are power-ups a gameplay element, a puzzle solution, something you build entire levels around showing off? Or are they an extra hitpoint that the player may or may not have at any given time? The answer is both, which leaves levels based around specific powerups in a weird space of always needing to include a no-power path and inherently undercutting their own premise.

And yet.

Super Mario 3D World is so good you guys. It’s an incredible game. There’s no reason it should work but it absolutely does. I think it all comes down to exploration. Which, with Mario doesn’t it always? Ever since Super Mario World back on the SNES this has been a series about going off the beaten path and finding every last delightful secret that awaited you2 and 3D World excels here. There are the formalized secrets, the three green stars and one stamp hidden in each level, which often require the player to look carefully at the level and see if there’s a way to go left when you’re meant to go right, or climb up onto something just out of sight. But there’s also joy to be found where you aren’t conditioned to look for it. It’s in the invisible coins on the overworld map that you can just barely make out if you blow into the gamepad’s microphone. It’s in how the slot machine minigame is secretly a rhythm game.3

But even here there’s that tension between the game’s two hearts! There’s so much fun to be had in combing through each level, searching for hidden pathways and little secrets. But you’re under a time limit for each stage, because 2D Mario had time limits so the New games have them too.4 And if you’re playing multiplayer this gets even worse, since the camera you don’t control biases towards the player closest to a level’s golden path. If you try and explore for fun secrets but your friend’s aren’t into it, the game will force you to cut it out and get back on the rails. You’ve heard of the concept of “good bones”, right? Something that maybe isn’t all there but there’s a foundational core that works and can be built on? Super Mario 3D World is the exact opposite, a game with awful, terrible bones but the most succulent meat you’ve ever tasted, like an A5 Wagyu racehorse.5

And, honestly that’s kinda it? 3D World is a game that just straight-up shouldn’t work. Everything about it on a high-concept level is a weird compromise; even its name sucks!6 But the individual details are just so immaculate. The levels have so many creative ideas, and there’s so much waiting to be discovered. It’s one of the clearest examples I’ve sever seen of a game succeeding despite itself. I love this game, it’s one of my absolute favorites7 and also I hope they never make a Mario like it again.

Stray Observations:

  • Everything bad about this game is systemic and high concept and easy to write about, while everything great about it is individual and hard to make a greater story out of. So I’m just gonna list a bunch of great things! Like, Plessie! What a fun riff on Super Mario 64‘s slider levels, complete with a cute little dinosaur.
  • Or the beat block level, with two sets of colored blocks that shift between existing and not existing in time to a beat. I’m always a sucker for adding rhythm gameplay. Or how about the level full of boost pads, where the object is to go fast the whole time, with music directly from Mario Kart. Or the level with those platforms that flip around every time you jump. There’s just so many cool high concepts here!
  • 3D World also has by far the best Bowser theme. It’s got such swagger, with the nasty horns really giving it that extra oomph.
I couldn’t decide which version to link here, so have a compilation of all of them!
  • This game lets you pick between playing as Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach8 and, per series tradition the 4 control differently from each other. I have pretty much always played Peach exclusively, which on first blush looks like Certified Egg Behavior, but on further review I’m gonna give myself a pass there; her hovering power make her by far the best and best feeling character of the group.

Other 2013 platformers of note:

This article was very nearly about Rayman Legends, the followup to Origins. It’s a sort-of Wii U exclusive9 that uses the gamepad in interesting ways, having one player use it to alter the level on the fly for everyone else to traverse. It also does the coolest thing any platformer has ever done by having rhythm game levels. These are entire levels sync’d to a song, where the only way to succeed is the jump and whatnot in sync with the music. It’s amazing, absolute genius.

Next Time: We yearn for a past that never existed with Shovel Knight