Mario games are filled with branching paths, letting players pick between the obvious route or the more challenging one, and the series as a whole has seen a similar divergence. While the Galaxy series went in an incredibly rewarding and complex direction, Super Mario 3D World (and its predecessor, Super Mario 3D Land) chose to simplify the franchise in favor of a wider appeal. That seeming step backwards chafed at first, but 3D World reminded me that one of Mario’s greatest strengths--beyond his impossibly muscular legs--is his ability to go mainstream without sacrificing creativity or quality.
Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the for-once-not-kidnapped Princess Peach are pulled into 3D World to save the magical Sprixies--seven spritely princesses that are… yeah, basically Peach--from gaming’s reptilian king, Bowser. The story is told in brief, dialogue-free cutscenes that quickly set up the scenario and then immediately get out of the way of the dozens of ingenious Mario stages ahead. And the straightforward setup for the inconsequential plot leads to some rather straightforward but elegant level design.
The stages continue 3D Land’s style of relying on colorful blocks and a clear layout of platforms, but 3D World finds ways to incorporate fresh concepts into traditional level architecture to take things deeper. Staples like rotating fire wheels and vanishing planks are all there, utilized in intriguing new ways--such as icy platforms now playing like skating rinks--that work long after the novelty wears off. The same goes for the dense wardrobe of costume power-ups. Whether that means frantically climbing walls while wearing the new Cat Suit, or floating on the breeze with the established Tanooki Suit, the power-ups are fun to use and add nuance to how you will explore any given stage. It’s all a smart expansion on where 3D Land took the series, but playing the previous one is hardly a prerequisite.
3D World doesn’t have online co-op, but the Miiverse does offer a few amusing online distractions. First are the collectible stamps that you can use to illustrate posts in 3D World’s Miiverse community. Even better is the Mii ghost data which--much like the ghosts in Mario Kart--allow you to race against a previous player’s run of a level in a time trial that serves to boost the already strong replay value.
That familiarity is also advantageous for its briefer stages and slow rising difficulty curve. 3D World is clearly meant to be more inviting to newer players; as a result, it'll initially feel too easy for many platforming veterans. You’ll still enjoy the accessible introductory worlds even if you blast through them, and you’ll eventually wish that some of the post-game content eased up on you a little. Plus, searching out each world’s many collectibles--some of which are necessary to proceed in the campaign--adds challenge to even the most basic levels.
A handful of brilliant moments are peppered across the game, often providing some surprise that defies your expectations, or a new technique that's so clever you can't believe you'd never seen it before. Stages that take place in a Japanese castle or entirely in silhouette are wonderful, but they make the other levels feel dull by comparison. After you see some genuinely neat uses of the GamePad--like blowing on the mic to knock back Goombas---you'll be bummed that only a few levels feature such exciting opportunities. Those examples of excellence make the game better, but they also made me somewhat disappointed that the game wasn’t operating at peak performance at all times.
Also disappointing are 3D World's boss battles, which rarely rise to their potential. Most are the predictable sort that have one gimmick and die in three hits, and some are annoyingly reused over the span of multiple worlds. Unlike almost everything else in the game, bosses' minimal challenge borders on boring, and the lack of memorable battles is even more frustrating when a couple very fun skirmishes against Bowser pop up near the end. Where was that creativity when the rest were being designed?
But Mario's new approach to multiplayer is the polar opposite of disappointing, because it finally, finally has co-op platforming that actually works. The New Super Mario Bros. games had wide-open stages that could make for frantic, shallow fun, but 3D World proves that the third dimension was always missing from the equation. Now, everyone has space to maneuver, be they the hardcore older brother or the confused great aunt, so good times can be had by all. Additionally, Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Peach all possess a unique play style that makes players feel more invested in their character of choice. It creates such quality couch multiplayer that most won’t notice the lack of any online options.
The solo and cooperative play are supported throughout by impressive visuals that retain the uniquely Mario aesthetic. After living within the confines of the Wii for so long, Mario and his friends embraces HD graphics with childlike glee. Sometimes this is done with modesty, as impressive water effects and reflective surfaces add a subtle but noticeable tinge to the presentation, while fancy-looking fire creatures fly straight into the camera to provide more a blatant look at 3D World's gorgeous visual flare. It may not be the best-looking game EVAR, but it is the prettiest Mario title I’ve seen, so those flourishes are noticeable. And even if your eyes grow accustomed to 3D World's visual beauty, your ears will scream with joy at the standout soundtrack, which uses live instrumentation to amazing effect.
Whether you prefer playing in groups or you're a friendless hermit, 3D World might appear to complete within eight hours--but only if you foolishly skip out on all the extra content. Beyond the post-game unlockables (seriously, push yourself to get those Green Stars no matter what it takes), there are wonderful challenge rooms hidden all over the world. Of special note were Captain Toad’s 3D puzzles, an exploratory minigame about shifting perspective that’s strong enough to be its own separate release.
Super Mario 3D World represents the series' continued catering to the mainstream, on its own terms and with creativity to spare. Even at its lowest points (which are few and far between), it's a superlative Wii U title, and that’s discounting the many dazzling moments and stages throughout. And by finally figuring out multiplayer, it ranks as one of the best Mario games to date. Ultimately, you or I shouldn’t be afraid of the branching paths in Mario’s 3D worlds, because titles like this one prove you’ll find something great no matter which direction you take.