Super Mario 3D World was released on the same day as the PlayStation 4 made its bow in the UK - but the famous Italian plumber is no less significant to the arena of gaming because of it. Indeed the release marks the day the Wii U became more than "that other console". This is the game that Nintendo fans been waiting for.
We are huge fans of Mario and his many adventures over the years. But while we loved the plumpy plumber’s initial 2D outing on the Wii U console in New Super Mario Bros U, it wasn’t on a par with Super Mario Galaxy or its sequel. And although 3D World can’t quite reach the stratospheric heights of its more recent three-dimensional forerunners, it is by far and away the best platformer we’ve played in the last couple of years. Is Mario the Wii U's saviour?
Nintendo vs next-gen
Mario 3D continues Nintendo’s theme of multiplayer, as found in the New Super Mario Bros games, offering some excellent invention on same screen co-operative play, but we have to say that we found it as much fun to play through in single player too.
For a start, it is gorgeous. We have had to fit our Wii U play time in among next-generation titles on PS4 and Xbox One that we have also been reviewing. The Sony and Microsoft technology may well be deemed to be the future of home entertainment, yet Mario 3D World looks just as good as anything we’ve seen from the launch line-up of the PS4. It's got its own style that just works.
It’s not overblown on detail - it doesn’t have to be - but there are some clever lighting techniques, sharp lines and sumptuous colours that make the whole game look like you are playing an actual cartoon, even though it is running at only 720p upscaled to 1080p. It's enough to make you just want to reach in and squeeze each and every character.
Add to that the fact that it offers the most amount of invention you’re likely to see on a game this year, and there is a variety to add to the visual feast. The soundtrack is great too. As good as they are, though, these elements are still only mere sideshows to the gameplay, which is joyous every second of the journey.
Like many former Mario games, Mario 3D's levels are split into worlds and segments of each. You get the traditional mini-map which you can run about on and then jump into a level. Each level offers a number of secrets and stars to find as you aim to finish them to unlock the path to the next section.
Not only can they offer a different type of foe or theme, but different levels can offer different gameplay styles too. There is one on the first world, for example, that switches from the platform genre to a ride down a waterfall on the back of a dinosaur named Plessie - who can be controlled by another player, if you are in co-op mode.
The main gameplay style is otherwise familiar, certainly if you’ve played Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS. There are coins to collect, alongside the aforementioned stars, traditional Mario baddies to conquer or avoid, pipes to enter for secret rooms and end-of-level bad guys - including, of course, Bowser.
However, this time around you also get a couple of interesting new game mechanics in clear plastic or glass pipes that you can travel through - with some offering additional tasks, such as coins to collect down alternative routes and spiked bombs down others.
Mario in a... catsuit?
And then there is the catsuit. Oh how we love the catsuit. What you're possibly thinking right now materialises in a very "Mario" way, but of course. This new power-up - activated by picking up a bell symbol which will adorn your character in a cute and fluffy catsuit - adds the ability to scratch enemies as you run around on all-fours. But better still is that you can use your claws to climb walls. No nine lives to be found here though.
Naturally, this means that there are some areas in levels that are accessible only to someone in a catsuit. They won’t be essential, as the entire game is able to be finished no matter which power-ups you use, but they will often award bonuses and the odd elusive green star. You’ll also need as many green stars as you can gather as they will unlock some of the more important sections of the game.
If you miss green stars on a level, you can always go back and do the section again to get them all. It’s a tried and trusted method to both encourage repeat play and reward the more vigilant of player, but again you don’t have to have all the stars to finish the game.
There are other collectables to look out for too, most prominently rubber stamps which will give you art you can use in Wiiverse postings.
Mario and Luigi
In Super Mario 3D World, co-operative play has been tuned to enhance the game dramatically. And while we don’t think you’ll like the game any less in single player, you will have such a giggle if you get some friends or family playing along too. Not only can they all choose different main characters from the Mario pantheon - including Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad, each of whom adds a different additional ability - but they can play using any controller.
The Wii remote with or without Nunchuck, Wii U Pro Controller and, of course, the Wii U GamePad itself can all be used to control characters in the game. It means that a friend who just owns a Nintendo Wii can pop around with his or her controller and use it just fine. There are no barriers to multiplayer and you’ll certainly want to give it a try at some point.
While, for the main part, the levels play the same and you are trying to finish them as a unit, there is also a competitive element to the proceedings. Whoever scores the most in a level gets first place at the end and is awarded a crown. The crown itself is meaningless in gameplay terms, but you soon want it nonetheless. Therefore it becomes a bunfight to ensure that you collect more coins, more stars, and extract more enemies than your peers. And this in turn can have you falling about laughing.
New Super Mario Bros U had its moments of hilarity when played with friends, Super Mario 3D World is almost a constant giggle. It reminds us of the times we had playing the original Super Mario Kart Battle Mode – those were, indeed, the days.
As we said before, there are also moments for pure co-operative play, where working together will help collect all available items. And in every instance, for every level, you can only but marvel at the genius in game design.
However, four-player multiplayer can often find one of the characters being dragged along in a bubble as they’ve ended up off-screen. The screen real-estate isn’t a massive playground and four players are a lot to keep up with on the one screen. But that's such a minor gripe to be inconsequential to our love for this game.
Super Mario 3D World is an ideal example of what makes Nintendo great. Yes, it might be struggling to sell its Wii U console in significant numbers - more so now that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 major players have joined the party - but Nintendo has always been the master at crafting the most playable, inventive and downright fun games.
The company always said that the problem it had with the console is that there were not enough of its first-party titles out there for gamers to play. Pikmin 3 was perhaps the first that made people sit up and take more notice, Super Mario 3D World will nigh-on sell consoles on its own - and deservedly so. Then we’ll have Mario Kart 8 come early 2014.
Nintendo might not have intended to release this chapter in a never disappointing franchise on the same day as the PlayStation 4, but in doing so has served a reminder that it is not the power under the hood that is most important in games design, it is invention. And Super Mario 3D World is an exceptional title that shows the next-gen big boys a thing or two.