Cartoony chaos. Nintendo has redefined how we experience console Mario games by implementing anything-goes multiplayer amid the side-scrolling hijinks. Navigating death-defying leaps with friends in tow has transformed the precision Mario was founded upon into something more akin to slapdash zaniness. It's a combination that has largely worked in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U because even slower players can keep pace in such a small playfield. Nintendo has now expanded this cooperative madness into three dimensions with Super Mario 3D World. It's a strong departure from Mario's previous forays into 3D, but is it a direction that should be embraced?
3D World borrows heavily from Nintendo Tokyo's latest adventure in the Mushroom Kingdom. As in Super Mario 3D Land, you navigate through modest-size environments in search of a flagpole that will transport you to a new level. Stages allow enough freedom to let you stretch your investigative muscle without giving you so much space that you get lost within the happy-go-lucky scenery. It strikes the delicate balance between pure action and careful exploration, always giving you a new place to poke your portly nose into without overwhelming you with the sheer breadth of content. But it's this combination that's particularly scary.
3D World is a bigger version of 3D Land that fully embraces the craziness that has always defined the Mario franchise. Donning a cat suit lets you scurry up dirt walls, ferreting out hidden goodies hidden on high-up cliffs. Slash at a patrolling goomba when he meanders nearby, and then continue your ascent to where no feline Mario has gone before. Enter warp pipes to see what has been hidden inside them all these years. Pipes are clear in 3D World, and once inside, you navigate through the hairpin turns to nab power-ups while avoiding the evil baddies who float with malicious intent. It's a joyous adventure that captures Mario's innate appeal almost immediately.
But that easygoing entertainment has a wrench thrown into its spokes when more players enter the mix. On your own, you adventure forth where and when you see fit. Spend your time trying to reveal hidden blocks to reach higher ground if you want, or sprint toward the exit while leaping on every koopa you meet. It's your choice. With friends, though, things play out quite differently. While you're spending time trying to leap to a secret area, your friends are busy rushing to the exit. And before you can make up the ground between you, you're offscreen, trapped in a bubble, waiting for someone to pop it so you can continue playing.
This disjointed flow is multiplied by the different abilities each character has. Taking a page from Super Mario Bros. 2, the game lets you choose Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Princess Peach. Mario is the all-around superstar, Luigi can jump extremely high, Toad is blessed with super speed (for some reason), and Peach floats through the air. These different traits let you tackle levels in new ways. For instance, Luigi can wall-jump off a cliffside to reach an area far beyond the reach of the average character. You can see how different routes can unfold depending on which character you choose, but seeing all of those variations materialize in real time as everyone goes their separate ways is disconcerting.
There's an odd feeling of helplessness when you simply cannot keep up with your friends, either because they can more skillfully navigate this 3D environment or their play styles are different from your own. And it almost feels as if the multiplayer is overshadowing the core appeal of this adventure. Nintendo Tokyo is well versed in creating delightful Mario games, and it certainly wasn't afraid to go nuts with the level design in its newest offering. But appreciating the varied creations while bumping against friends is mighty tricky. You need all of your concentration just to keep up.
Super Mario 3D World is a difficult game to digest, especially within the demanding confines of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. It contains the undeniable charm and sheer weirdness that has been a part of Mario's games since the very beginning, and even adds a few power-up wrinkles to the expected formula. But the cooperative play is so chaotic that it turns the gung-ho leaping into a mess of blurs and mushrooms and leaps and deaths. Time will tell if this new direction has improved the Mario formula or just added to the frustration. For now, just take a deep breath and breathe.'