After decades of Mario games, some good and others incredible, Nintendo has proven it can consistently publish a solid Mario platformer every year or two. It's practically a given when you consider the formula: a likable cast of characters that rival the best Disney has to offer, backed by top-notch level design and responsive controls. Usually, it's new Nintendo hardware that sparks groundbreaking elements for the series, leading to genre classics such as Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy.
2011's Super Mario 3D Land could have been another milestone, and though it was a great game, with refreshing elements derived from the capabilities of the 3DS's display, it wasn't revolutionary. Thus, my hopes for Super Mario 3D World were modest. I expected more of the same, and initially it seemed my expectations were correct. But, I was relieved to find that my slightly cynical expectations had no bearing on the experience of actually playing it. The smattering of "rehashed" elements didn't matter; despite them, I was still having fun. Through a handful of small tweaks, Super Mario 3D World managed to exceed my expectations, just enough. Against all odds, Mario felt fresh again.
Looking back, most levels in 3D Land were death traps for undisciplined players, necessitating the inclusion of the invincible tanooki suit and easy-to-earn extra lives. This time around, you not only have the freedom to control the camera in some levels, but in many cases, the perilous cliffs have been pushed outward by generous swaths of land, giving you a little more room to move about. With all the extra space, it's sad to see that the triple jump remains absent. Instead, Nintendo chose to upgrade the dash from Super Mario 3D Land, from one to three stages of boost.
Of course, Super Mario 3D World is also the first multiplayer 3D Mario game, and the first co-op game to feature all four main characters. Each of the fab four has the same advantages and disadvantages as in Super Mario Bros. 2: there's classically balanced Mario, high-jumping Luigi, floaty Princess Peach, and speedy Toad.
Within the strict confines of a 2D Mario game such as New Super Mario Bros. U, four-player co-op often felt clumsy, rather than truly cooperative, but for Super Mario 3D World, Nintendo turned the co-op "issue" into a feature. Now, every co-op participant is awarded a unique score at the end of a stage. Whoever has the most points earns a crown. The wearer gains no advantages other than bragging rights, and it's not hard for so-called "teammates" to steal it in future levels, be it by fireball or butt-stomp. It's not a game-changing element, but the crown establishes a line between teamwork and trolling. Plus, the added space of a third dimension makes inadvertent collisions rare.
The new power-ups lend a unique quality to Super Mario 3D World as well. If you've followed this game since E3, the cat suit will sound familiar; wearing it lets any character run on all fours, scramble up most walls, and slash-attack nearby enemies. I found the cat suit fun in practice, but nowhere near as remarkable as another new power-up: the double cherry.
A first for the series, the double cherry creates a clone of your character, and based on one level I played, you can do this up to four times. These clones appear near you initially, but as you move through the level, controlling all instances of a character at once, certain obstacles will begin to separate the group. Learning how to manipulate your squad within the environment is the key to solving some puzzles, which usually leads to alternate paths with elusive star medals and stamps, the latter being a hidden item with a purpose that remains secret for the time being.
Most unexpectedly, the overworld maps have experienced an outward expansion of their own. 3D Land's layout is completely linear, while some other Mario games have a top-down map with branching paths. Super Mario 3D World keeps the branching paths in spirit, but for the first time, you can deviate from the path and into the open space of the larger-than-normal overworld. Nintendo's Bill Trinen assured us that exploring the map would yield discoveries, but he was unable to elaborate beyond that brief detail. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to man the controls on the world map, let alone film it.
For a game that appears so familiar from the outside, Super Mario 3D World has a lot of surprises in store for quick-draw critics. Still, despite these surprises, it's hard to see a future classic in Super Mario 3D World. It plays like a great platformer, but will it have the same impact, relative to its time, that Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy did? My initial experience with the game says "no." Of course, if Super Mario 3D World has taught me anything thus far, it's to reserve judgment of a game until you've played it. With only five levels under my belt, there's a lot left to play, and hopefully a lot more to discover.