Super Mario 3D World is a game of exceptional craft, of painstaking focus on the minute details that are integral to making it feel special. The pace at which you're thrown from one ingenious concept to the next as perspectives, tempos, and mechanics change would choke a lesser game, but here it's done with a seamlessness that makes such rapid inventiveness look easy. This is a game where every level is a golden nugget of heavenly platforming joy, where ideas are rarely repeated--and if they are, they're given such a twist as to make them feel new again.
Those ideas start with the cat suit. Once you're over the outrageous cutesy appeal of seeing Mario paw around on all fours, the new abilities it offers are intriguing. You can slash at nearby enemies instead of stomping on them, leap through the air with a swift dash attack, and scramble up walls. It's the latter that pushes you to think about new ways of solving puzzles, and to explore the extremities of a level. Bare walls that stretch up into the vertical distance are no longer the barriers they once were, with curious climbs revealing hidden pipes, paths, and glowing green stars at their peak.
Elsewhere, you're asked to paw at cogs, revealing tall towers for you to climb that lead to special precision platforming sections atop puffy clouds. Purple boxes transport you to timed zones, where brisk climbing and coin collecting reward you with more green stars, while flagpoles that once required a well-timed jump to earn a gold flag can be scaled with Mario's grippy paws. Some games would build an entire experience out of the cat suit alone, clever as it is, but 3D World steadfastly refuses to dwell on one idea for long.
Some games would build an entire experience out of the cat suit alone, clever as it is, but 3D World steadfastly refuses to dwell on one idea for long.
One moment you're riding on the back of an aquatic dinosaur, skimming it over the surface of a waterfall to collect coins and bouncing it off the backs of squishy puffer fish to reach stars, and the next you're using cleverly angled shadows and silhouettes to spot hidden power-ups, and blowing on the gamepad's microphone to move platforms. Another new power-up, the double cherry, creates a clone of Mario, with multiple pickups creating up to four of the portly plumbers. Puzzles start simply, requiring you to push two switches at once, but the challenge is in keeping the group alive long enough to activate platforms that need multiple characters, and to do so in the right order to reach the exit.
The game flows effortlessly from one ingenious idea to the next, the levels intelligently designed to gently guide you toward their concepts without the need for a heavy-handed tutorial or swathes of help boxes. More importantly, 3D World's levels are some of the most fun a Mario game has dished out in years. No, they don't quite reach the lofty heights of the sublime Super Mario Galaxy games, but the sheer joy of exploring the sharp, vibrant levels, solving puzzles, and simply leaping from one platform to the next, backed by the game's surgical precision, is exuberant.
A top-down world map, similar to that of the classic Super Mario Bros. 3, guides you from one level to the next, ensuring that you're never left wondering where to get your next dose of platforming action. The twist is that you can deviate from the set path and explore the wide-open space of the overworld. Bonus slot machines spit out coins, Toadstool huts bombard you with power-ups, and challenging secret levels with yet more green stars to earn are all ripe for discovery.
There are some unique and wonderfully designed puzzles in the form of Captain Toad levels too, which challenge you to guide the funny fungus around a rotatable 3D maze, all without the power to jump or stomp on enemies.
The fact that these lovely little asides are optional has always been a strength of the Mario series. Defeating Bowser and rescuing the adorable Sprixie fairies is an attainable goal for all but the most ham-fisted of players, and even then, the golden tanooki suit always ensures there's a path forward if you get stuck. But if you want to push the limits of your skills, to explore levels that drop you onto fierce rotating platforms, and in front of fiery, cog-filled paths, the option to try to attain all the stars and collectible stamps and gold flags on every level is there.
The most challenging levels in 3D World prove to be some of the most creative and off the wall, effortlessly balancing intricacy and design elegance. The imagination that's on show across the game's level design, its gorgeous visuals, and its wonderful soundtrack is intoxicating, constantly pushing you to discover new ways of playing. Even the boss battles, while adhering to many of the series' tropes, are fresh and exciting as a result of some clever mechanics and some wonderful visual trickery. You can also share the experience with four-player co-op, which is a more compelling proposition than before thanks to individual high scores and the brag-worthy addition of a shiny gold crown for the leader.
Sure, co-op play is hardly a game changer, but when so much of 3D World is so successfully built upon a bevy of brilliant ideas, this can be forgiven. Everything that you can see and do within its enchanting levels is so bright, colourful, and full of wonder that it's impossible not to be taken in by its charms. Mario has always had that uncanny ability to cross the boundaries of age and gender, to bring a smile to the face of every player who crosses his path. Super Mario 3D World is no different. This is a dazzlingly inventive game that brings the fun in spades, and will leave you grinning like a loon from start to finish.