Years ago when we were told they were pulling their plumber into a 3D world, few believed the essence of the series would be preserved. Yet Super Mario 64 became one of the most acclaimed games ever. The story was the same on Wii with Super Mario Galaxy. With such lineage, expectations for Super Mario 3D World should be enormous; yet chatter about Mario's latest has been quite modest.
That may be, partly, because it's coming in the wake of New Super Mario Bros U, a sterile, if solid, experience, lacking the personality of previous home console entries. And it also may be partly due to its design similarities with Nintendo 3DS title, Super Mario 3D Land. But
3D Land was a brilliant title in its own right. And 3D World is a game designed by those responsible for Super Mario Galaxy: something that's clear from the outset. 3D World may model its look to match that of a previous entry, but it's full of playfulness and surprises. It's a rich mix of pretty much everything the Mario series has ever included, plus a lot of new ideas.
The familiar thematic world maps operate once more as gateway to a multitude of different stages. But this time you're not constrained to the linear routes between levels, and are free to explore the worlds on which the stages are contained. Dotted throughout are tents, slot machines, Toad houses and bonus levels, all of which can be visited at your own pace.
The stages are marked by the same design concept that set Super Mario Galaxy apart from its predecessors; each level contains situations and challenges unique to it. Entering each is to step into the unknown. Formulaic is, for the most, an unused word here.
Initially, the power ups offer the biggest surprises. Although the series' trademarks like mushrooms, fire flowers, stars and Tanooki suits return, the headliner is the cat suit. It's a great gameplay addition and plays an important part in many of the worlds you'll travel to.
Once transformed, your character can perform a swipe attack, an air lunge, and are able to climb up, well, almost anything, as the suit's used to find secret areas out of sight.
Equally original is the cherry power up, which grants you a clone that mirrors your original character's movements. You can pick up multiple cherries and soon have a bunch (or should that be horde?) of Marios storming around the level. It's hilarious to watch the first time, but soon stages contain challenges that force you to keep as many clones alive as possible to access new areas.
Elsewhere there are boomerang suits, flying hats, goomba disguises... no other Mario game has included so many different power ups, and it helps to keep gameplay fresh.
Stages continue to surprise. One may echo the classic 2D games, while in the very next you're playing with light and shadows. Another, and you're racing through a Mario Kart-inspired course. You rarely know what to expect the next challenge to be, and eagerly enter each stage to find out.
There's a few weaker elements within all these positives. The all-new bosses are extremely well designed, so its a disappointment when the game recycles some from previous games.
We said formulaic was mostly unused. Towards the end of the game some of the ideas are reused, and the suddenness of seeing repeated tricks after such diversity emphasises the drought of fresh ideas. When you're coming to that last game battle, it's somewhat disheartening to see the game retread old ground for its last stretch, and as a result the game ends with less of a bang than it started with.
These negatives do not change the fact that Super Mario 3D World is a sublime Mario adventure. It quickly becomes a kind of obsession to find the three stars and one sticker that are hidden in each level, and it's here that you'll find Nintendo's dedication to the smooth difficulty curve; you'll need skills to track them all down.
With the near-perfect control that is a franchise hallmark and an HD sheen to the colourful worlds, this is exactly the kind of gaming magic the Wii U has been waiting for. It's not the gameplay leap of Mario 64 or Galaxy, but it's as enjoyable.