Getting Back Into Mario

Published: 2022/12/24

Last updated: 2022/12/25

Having written the Super Mario All Stars retrospective earlier this year, I realised that I hadn’t actually played a “newer” Mario game in a very long time. In fact, my last 2D Mario was New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS, and my last 3D Mario Super Mario 64 DS (and the original before that, to a lesser extent). That means I passed over four consoles’ worth of mainline Mario titles. Finding myself curious to see what I had missed, I decided to look at the most recent generation of games and found that Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury seemed like a pretty good place to dive in.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Super Mario 3D World

I’m told this game was the sequel to a game trying to bring Mario Galaxy’s wonder to the small screen, and that it seemed pretty baffling to then bring that to the slightly-bigger screen but without the 3DS’ trademark stereoscopic vision gimmick. However, despite it being in such an odd place, I found myself overall really enjoying the game. Truthfully, I was actually blown away. This game is smooth.

Right away, you’re hit with just the sheer well-practised veneer of the initial cutscenes, minimalistic and yet really stylish. It actually reminded me a lot of the manual-provided story of Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA), both because the same four characters were involved and because of how dream-like the trip to the Sprixie kingdom was. The fancy glass pipe used to transport them was really eye-catching in particular, and I was honestly delighted to find out that it was part of normal gameplay as well, where it proved to be a really welcome thing in how it could be used to get from point A to B without disrupting the flow of the game for even an instant; the ability to control your character in transit is used later on for some very tight action-puzzle sequences too. On starting the actual gameplay, I noticed right away that the goal is to collect three green stars and a stamp and found myself a bit surprised; in 3D titles these are traditionally mission-based, but I saw no missions — this is because you can get them all in one run, without interrupting anything. No dances, no fanfare, just a little gimmick room or extra bit of effort and there you go. Like I said, just pure smooth every step of the way. This extends to the soundtrack as well, which was just wonderful all the way through, even from level 1. I was particularly impressed with the haunted house theme, which sounds like a mix of something out of Young Frankenstein and Super Mario World, and the beat-heavy song used for levels with blocks that phase in and out of reality on a timer; it fit perfectly and was extremely useful for synchronising movement. It was also really neat how the overworld song in each world tended to feed into some of the levels, and how the songs tended to slowly morph as you went from world to world. I don’t think there were any bad songs in this soundtrack at all. My only real regret is that the luxurious, happy song used for Sprixie houses is wasted on said houses, which do nothing more than hold a freebie stamp and are then sealed off forever upon exiting them. Absolutely tragic.

Refinement aside, the most important question with every game is about how good the gameplay is. What I found is that this game strongly reminded me, above all else, of Super Mario Bros. 3 — it’s chock full of relatively short, punchy levels that are just overflowing with ideas, remixing elements from every mainline game in all all-stars collection of its own. Surprisingly, this even included a level that is just a big tribute to the SNES Mario Kart, as well as several levels clearly inspired by the sliding challenges in Super Mario 64. I loved a lot of the weird little ideas that showed up, like a level that used shadows to both create atmosphere and to hide secrets in plain sight, or the ninja house filled with Goombas and sliding doors that you could actually touch to open. Surprisingly, I found that there was very little control of the camera in this game, but that I rarely even needed it; the camera scripts were generally very well done, and even occasionally given a bit of flourish, such as how the 2D side-scrolling train levels all had a spot at the front of the train where you could stand and get a custom camera angle that did a remarkable job at showcasing the train against the moving background. Unexpectedly, I also found that I loved the odd little segments with Captain Toad going on a little adventure on your behalf. I was especially impressed with how much detail they managed to cram into each of those little adventures, despite the physical dimensions of the level being small enough to fit the whole thing on the screen at once. Much like the “2,048 sector” trend in Doom mapping, the sheer creativity on display with all that cramming is unbelievable, with each level feeling like an intricate piece of Swiss clockwork. Every change of camera angle felt like it was uncovering a new perception, like enlightenment in a box. I can easily see how this warranted a later sequel/spin-off in the form of Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker.

Another thing I was pretty happy with, and which again strongly reinforced the comparison to Super Mario Bros. 3, is the power-up selection, which is taken nearly straight from it. Each power-up has a niche and is given multiple chances to shine in each world, though the cat suit obviously gets centre stage for a lot of it; thankfully, it’s quite useful and fun, having wall-climbing, diving, and hand-to-hand abilities. In addition to that, for the standard roster, you’re given the Fire Flower (with exceedingly useful bouncing fireballs), a stripped-down Tanooki Suit (no statue smash, and no flight mechanic), and, quite surprisingly, a Hammer Bro suit that throws boomerangs instead. Occasionally, you also still find the Super Mushroom and Starman, both of which function as expected, as well as rare occasions of the Mega Mushroom (letting you rampage around the level breaking everything) and a curious new addition called the Double Cherry, which makes a clone of the player.

In addition to that, you also get a variant of the cat suit that can also turn into a statue which gives you a coin for every unit of height that you fall, a Goomba costume that can fool some enemies, a reimplementation of Super Mario Bros. 3’s Goomba Shoe in the form of an ice skate, three wearable blocks (a propeller which lets you jump super high and glide back down, an auto-firing cannon, and a block that gives you a coin for every movement you make), and, shamefully, a variant of the Tanooki Suit that is also permanently invincible for the duration of the level, which only appears when you’ve lost 5 or more lives in a given run of a level.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find there are five playable characters in this game, with the fifth, Rosalina, being unlocked post-game after beating a particular stage in the first new world. Each of them, Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, and Rosalina have different movement speeds and jump heights, and the two girls, perhaps to compensate for their lack of speed, also get an additional ability — Peach can float, like in Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA), and Rosalina gains an attack similar to that of the Cat Suit in her normal form. You can play with whatever combination of characters you want, though to encourage you to try the others, some stamps can only be obtained via pressing a button that is specific to a given character.


Naturally, nothing is ever quite perfect, and I did find myself with a few criticisms.

Probably the first thing anyone will come to notice is that this game kind of hits an in-between point, where it’s not quite a 2D Mario game, but not quite a 3D Mario game either. In terms of literal movement, yes, it’s full 3D; you can even do all the fancy jumps from Mario 64 and beyond. In terms of how it handles its somewhat mandatory macguffins, it’s more or less 3D, but a bit less so, scaled back. In terms of moment to moment gameplay though, it feels more like the 2D titles, putting you in linear, tightly-designed courses with fixed cameras that often default to a side-scrolling view. Because the camera doesn’t follow Mario so closely, this can lead to issues where you’re unexpectedly surprised by depth, or angle a jump wrong, which can be pretty obnoxious. Thankfully, this wasn’t a big problem as a rule; the worst example I can think of was a particular boss level taking place on a train where I found myself in constant danger of unexpectedly jumping off the side in one segment.

The second thing I noticed is that I was, around World 7, starting to get kind of fatigued about collecting all the stars and stamps. You only need 170 stars in order to unlock Bowser’s final castle in World 8, and I had something like 235 by that point. That’s a lot of redundancy, and the stamps are completely useless from a gameplay standpoint unless you enjoy making weird screenshots. I found that I really enjoyed, while replaying stages, just running through them unhindered by the psychological pressure, or “need”, to collect everything, reminding me much more of the classical games. Given that Stars only unlock a handful of stages and some boss fights, they seem kind of redundant for the main game, only gaining major relevance in unlocking the final post-game world. At least we caught a break in this version; the original Wii U release made you forfeit collected Stars and stamps should you lose a life.

Third, I really was not a fan of the permanently invincible variant of the Tanooki Suit. It felt like the game was mocking me with its presence, and the game doesn’t even count it as a proper win until you beat the level without the suit anyway. I get that it was put in as an equaliser of sorts for casuals or young children, but an unearned victory feels worse than losing.

Bowser’s Fury

This game, too, is in kind of a weird place, showing up as a sub-mode, a guest star, next to the main attraction of 3D World. Yet despite this status, it feels entirely worthy of being, with some expansion, a complete stand-alone product, having successfully created something that has never existed before — a true, open-world, no loading, fully seamless Mario game. A game full of cats.

None of that is any sort of exaggeration, by the way. The only loading screens are upon starting the game and losing a life. Everything else is active all at once. If you want to go to the ice level, you just…go to the ice level. And the cats. Everything is a cat. Mario’s a cat half the time, all the enemies are cats, the Shine Sprites are cats, the best power-up in the game is a Super Saiyan cat, and there’s even pet cats that turn into fiery demons when Bowser’s pissed off. If all that hasn’t sold you on this game already I can’t imagine what will.

Overall, in terms of gameplay, it’s a really refined remix of every element from 3D World, including essentially identical controls and the same items. However, to accommodate the new open world design, you’re allowed to stockpile up to 5 of each kind of power-up, which can be used at-will, tossed to you by the secondary character (optionally playable by Player 2), Bowser Junior, who can also help you out by bopping enemies and making power-ups out of graffiti. While an odd pairing, it makes sense because of the story — while playing with the paintbrush from Super Mario Sunshine, Bowser Junior paints his father with a strange black paint, turning him into a raging kaiju, which causes Junior to seek out Mario for help. As such, Bowser is also the only, and recurring, boss in the game. He goes on predictable rampages every six minutes or so, which is foreshadowed by the music cutting out and the sky darkening. While he’s in “rage mode”, you can take advantage of his fireballs to break certain bricks, but otherwise you’re generally attempting to evade him. After a set amount of time, or after collecting a Cat Shine Sprite, he’ll retreat. At various breakpoints, reached by collecting a specific amount of Cat Shine Sprites, a Giga Bell will be purified and made available during the next rage session. Collecting this bell turns you into Super Saiyan Lion Mario and let you have an awesome kaiju fight with Bowser, which is definitely one of the highlights and about the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen in a Mario game.

The remixed setting also comes with brand-new music, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s even better than the already-stellar offerings in 3D World. I was particularly fond of the rowdy theme that plays when you get on the dinosaur previously used in the sliding levels in 3D World, Plessie. While her main form of movement is still sliding here, too, she’s also just a total maniac, crashing into and destroying obstacles and enemies alike. Somehow, she’s also always there when you need her, too, due to just perfect placements of her spawn points. It all just fits so well together you can’t help but laugh. Many of the other tracks are equally memorable, and every one of them perfectly fits their assigned locale. The theme for wandering around the main world is particularly nice, and the kind of song you’ll find echoing in your head long after shutting off the game.


Of course, despite the lunatic joy of so much of it, it does have some flaws that could be addressed.

An obvious issue is that the Cat Shine Sprites are obtained mission-style, similar to earlier games but without loading screen interruptions, but because of that you can’t always get all of them until you’ve changed the environment. This is done by getting certain Cat Shine Sprites and then leaving and coming back, which can be a confusing and leave you wandering around looking for what’s changed. A little more flexibility there would be welcome, I think.

More pressingly, I think I’d also have to point to the rage mechanic that sends Bowser after you about every six minutes. Some more spacing would be appreciated, and especially in the post-game (you don’t need to collect all the Cat Shine Sprites to trigger the final battle, leaving you the option of collecting the rest later). It would be really fantastic to be able to just explore at your leisure and play with the environment without having to worry about those attacks. This is especially true when you’re trying to do the little side-quests to reunite the calico kittens with their mother, as some of them require very tight timing due to the fact that Bowser’s appearance turns them into monsters.

Related to the above, I was really shocked to find that when I was about 3 Cat Shine Sprites away from unlocking the final fight, the rage attack happened immediately and wouldn’t let up, and continued to do so even after reloading. It turns out this is an intended mechanic introduced to create some tension and force the player to move. While it was really exciting, some areas in particular didn’t have many places to hide, which lead to some annoying, nearly unavoidable hits.

Probably the worst thing about this game though is that it’s relatively short, taking only about 4 hours to get to the credits. While you can play the post-game, which recreates the initial conditions story-wise and lets you get the rest of the Cat Shine Sprites, it still doesn’t take a whole lot of time past that. I’d love to see a more full-featured game like this, though one with a less aggressive Bowser. I think this style has massive potential and I had an absolute blast with it.


I am overall pretty happy with how the Mario series has progressed. Even after over 30 years of games, they’re still able to showcase fresh ideas that all come together in an actually-fun way. This game pops off more ideas in a few hours than most games ten times its size. Stuff like this reminds me why I still love video games, and leaves me hopeful for the future of the series.

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