If Miyamoto, Koizumi & co hadn't gone crazy with the space trip, no one would be asking for epic stuff, meteorites, space operas and giant leaps for mankind when talking about the first Super Mario game in both 3D and HD. We'd be asking for the ultimate tri-dimensional explosion of the best ideas from the whole series. Best items and costumes, best level designs, be them side-scrolling or with full depth... we'd even be asking for multiplayer, which became the most universal and fun hook of the new sub-series, to be taken into the third dimension. All of this is what the moustached icon and friends' will be trying to do in their new adventure on Wii U come November 29th, as the console's biggest and brightest bet in what will be the tightest Christmas campaign in recent memory. When you grab the controller and get to try it for yourself, you start to understand and believe.
And that's just what we managed to do the other day at Nintendo's showroom in Madrid: having our first quiet and relaxed play session, trying the first two worlds of an already pretty finished and solid version (something you'd come to expect when you consider the timing and the studio in charge). Our playtime wasn't enough to enjoy every single level, as we also invested a significant amount of time spotting differences between different versions, between control and performance, between 3D Land and, mainly, Galaxies. Regardless of our split focus, this first taste left us hungry for more, and just a little bit in love.
Straight to the point: Mario and Luigi are working as real plumbers for the first time in many years, using their brand new red and green hammers on a rare, transparent pipe. From that pipe Bowser makes an appearance, who, of course... kidnaps the princess. However it's not Peach, who witnesses the scene stunned and accompanied by Toad, but a green little princess who ends up trapped in a jar. Peach, maybe with a hint of jealousy, is the first to jump in to rescue the little damsel in distress, followed by Mario (who'd never stop staring at her), and Toad. Last in the queue is someone who's spent all year being the central figure in Nintendo's plans; Luigi. The four are transported by a pipeline that - looks straight out of Futurama - to the first '3D World' they can explore together. And this is all you need to know of the story: you are now four, and the world is 3D.
The constant emphasis is on the Z axis, and you can explore the world maps almost as if they were normal levels because at last, and for the first time, they are fully explorable. Here, Mario's able to perform tiny hops and run around searching for secrets, entrances and coins. The right stick, as it is later in normal levels (where you can also tilt the GamePad), rotates the camera. This is the first welcome difference.
The second that is noticed is regarding the behaviour and control of Mario and co within the levels. First and foremost you feel like Mario runs slower and jumps higher than he usually does in his 3D adventures. As in the 3DS game, you have to press a button to run faster than the limit prescribed to the analogue stick, and then, surprisingly, when you're doing so for a couple of seconds, a turbo's toggled and the character develops a trail of smoke until you either brake or make a sharp turn. It's one of the techniques to master, because sometimes it might be useful to maintain momentum, and other times less so. It felt like we got used to this change after the first hour, and it's nice that new mechanics result in new opportunities or stunts.
Classic jumps like the side (pulling the stick abruptly to the opposite side), the back or the long all make a return, the latter also accompanied by that cool jump-strike move that Mario learned in 3D Land (run+crouch+hit+jump). We also discovered a new high-altitude jump complete with corkscrew, which is performed when pressing jump immediately after ground-pounding. Naturally, with such a repertoire, the handy air spin from Galaxy is now gone.
The turbo burst soon makes up for the slower speed, but we also notice this has been done so that differences between the four characters are underlined. Playing with Toad has you running at a higher speed, a speed that recalls Mario's in other adventures. Peach glides, Luigi pedals to jump higher.
Finally, when considering the performance of the characters on screen, we find animations with a lot more frames, ideal for the new 3D and HD world. Mario (or your buddy of choice) stares carefully into interesting elements (such as hidden blocks or stars, items and enemies) by tilting his head and moving his eyes Toon Link-style, nodding and gesticulating, emphasising inertia, but all with the apparent intention of detailing dynamic movement within the environment, not for the sake of visual luxury.
Kitty Cat Mario
The first levels are, as always, quite introductory; perfect as the testing ground we needed to analyse the new style, as well as for trying a new power-up for the main protagonist - the bell - which makes the plumber become Cat Mario and puts a tail on game's protagonist. Sometimes we knocked it out of a block, other times we stole it from an über-cute Cat Goomba.
As the worlds grow in depth and height, the catsuit comes in handy to climb walls and access secrets holes, or to attack enemies from the safety of the air, without getting too close on the ground. And if you do get too close on the ground, the cat scratch usually holds them off, something that's impossible with the traditional overalls. You also need to adapt to the new timings and distances, but for the moment it looks like a interesting addition to the huge Mario wardrobe.
The cat suit was especially helpful during the first battle against Bowser, since, as any good kitty, the character wearing it plays much better with the sports balls that are also new in this release. The baseballs are relatively harmless, but footballs act like they've been taken from Inazuma Eleven; they become explosive and you have to hit them at the right time to tear down walls or to impact on your new archenemy's hot rod. You can also kick it with your normal plumber's boots, but with cat claws it's easier and no referee will whistle penalty.
The biggest "Greatest Hits" for fans
During our playtime we noticed that the game really starts to take off mid-way through the second world, something that the time limit is also keen to remind you as things start getting more and more compicated. Until then, there are clues as to what EAD Tokyo has come up with this time, but madness erupts in the last levels of the desert. Before, we were surprised by carnival-style environments, the intricate underground areas where the camera rotates constantly, and a relaxing trip with Plesie the dinosaur, reminiscent of the swimming and flying from Galaxies.
Moreover, we have yet to confirm whether the multiplayer will actually work as well in 3D as it does in, for example, New Super Mario Bros. U in 2D. Truth be told, levels seem to be flexible and players might not interfere with each other as much as in the other branch of the series, as now they have way more space. Watch the gameplay clip below to see how we had to solve a level in co-op during our session. World 1-5 is the first of the carnival-style levels:
The other two clips come from levels in the desert, where we enjoyed the new big birds with long necks and potted Piranha plants, super useful stuff (if you don't kill them before, that is). In general the levels are already leaving us with a greater sense of being in a playground than any other entry, with way more animated environments and many more things to play with. We unlocked them by investing the green stars (which replace star-coins) we'd collected, while also looking for hidden stamps to add to our collection.
When the aforementioned madness was unleashed, we started to understand the number of nods and homage we had witnessed in our two hours of play. Now we can't wait to see the many things that might be waiting for us in the full game (with an amount of content we hope/expect will match 3D Land's, at the very least).
The craziness that occurs with four players using a selection of the various in-game items, and with some of the characters multiplied by two, three and more (via the new cherry object), alongside the rest of the action on screen, generates screams of excitement from assembled players. We watched sections from an isometric view where bouncing fireballs mixed with bullets and enemies. Bosses that require the use the GamePad to help your attacks. Coins, coins, coins and... whole stacks of coins for the first time! Characters cloned several times lining up against a wall to avoid confusion. Numerous POW blocks, secret blocks, explosions. A crown for the best player. We heard much more trumpet playing, more jazz, electric guitar for Bowser. Bonus levels with Super Mario Bros. 2 music, deaths with Super Mario Bros. 3 sound. And that's just the beginning.
I previously said that I was in love. I may not have come out of my first session with Super Mario 3D World as amazed as I was when I tried Galaxy for the first time, but I have the feeling that this game will be more Mario and more fun. It's an enjoyment I can anticipate multiplying when in company, as is the tradition in my living room. And isn't that what matters the most in the long run (and jump)?