Before Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury, frame rate was never something I'd never thought about in a Mario game. It seemed contrary to the point. Some games dynamically scale their resolution to minimize performance fluctuations, subtly transitioning between lower level-of-detail objects in the distance and higher ones nearby. Mario games just are, existing in my mind as they have since I first picked up a SNES controller to (very poorly) play Super Mario World: perfectly tuned black boxes where button presses went in one end and fun came out the other.
Imagine my surprise when playing Bowser's Fury undocked was finally the thing that made me truly appreciate playing a game at 60 frames per second – or rather, not playing a game that way.
A big part of the fun of Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury is being able to swap between the two games very quickly, so you can really feel how they each put a singular set of Mario platforming principles to fairly different ends. If you're playing with your Switch docked, the visual performance will feel consistent across the two games too. But if you're playing undocked, as I frequently do, you'll notice that the Super Mario 3D World part of the package is still silky smooth in all things: the platforming, the cat fur, the jazz, the frame rates.
Super Mario, side by side
It's no surprise that Switch can run Super Mario 3D World well, since its original version came out on Wii U over seven years ago – and please picture that Saving Private Ryan aging gif as I briefly meditate on that fact and my own mortality – but it feels absolutely perfect. Just like I remember it, but even better now that I can pick it up from the dock and keep playing wherever. The only way it could be better without just making more of that would be if it included the stages from Super Mario 3D Land for 3DS, which was another criminally under-appreciated Mario game.
Next to all that 3D World smoothness, the free-roaming sandbox of Bowser's Fury is comparatively gritty in handheld mode. Not "cat litter" gritty, just "sandy beach populated entirely by cat-eared Goombas" gritty. Everything is cats in Bowser's Fury, by the way, I'm not just extremely into cat-related metaphors all of a sudden.
I'm also not mad at Bowser's Fury for running a little slower when undocked, because it's still a great-looking game. It is, however, interesting that Super Mario Odyssey was able to pull off a stable 60FPS no matter where or how you played it, but it would appear that Bowser's Fury can't. I'm sure there's a good reason for the difference, and I would certainly consider 'we've all been working from home for the past year because there's a pandemic on and it's much harder to optimize a game in those conditions' to be a very good reason.
Still, Bowser's Fury did make me realize that all those solid frame rates from Mario years past were part of what kept the entire franchise squarely in the "it's just magic, let's not question it" part of my brain. Games that aim for 30 frames per second can adhere to the classic movie norm of 24 FPS, but Mario rarely aims for cinematic spectacle – with the exception of that upcoming Super Mario movie set for 2022, I guess.
At its best, Mario feels less like a movie and more like an invitation to a world where everything is fun, and the worst thing that can happen is you lose a life or a few coins then start over. For a long time I'd subconsciously kept "technical things" separate from that idea of youthful, innocent enjoyment, even scoffed at the idea of trying to tease it all apart like that.
But playing Super Mario 3D World on Switch finally made me appreciate how that unimpeachably solid performance is part of what makes Mario feel so magic. Thankfully, all I need to do to keep that part of the magic alive for Bowser's Fury is make sure I play it docked – which is also a perfect excuse to just play more Super Mario 3D World when I can't. I honestly couldn't have planned it better myself.