In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he discusses how a primary reason Bill Gates succeeded so fantastically was his unprecedented access to a computer at age 13, a factor afforded few others in the country at that time. He had the chance to practice code profusely, helping shape his skills and eventually, the formation of Microsoft. Of course, he could’ve squandered that opportunity, instead choosing to become a successful barista, he was in the Pacific Northwest after all. The connective tissue to remember here is the external factors surrounding development, and how those stakes shaped the creation of a person, or in this case, a video game. Nintendo created Super Mario 3D World in a hostile environment, that of a console torpedoing into irrelevance. 3D World didn’t serve as a launch game, and was technically considered the sequel to a 3DS game. Any original designs had to fit in a neat box plucked from handhelds and thrown onto a console in disarray, desperate for a hit title to define it. This was no opportune time, but it still had the supercomputer of Nintendo’s historically great platforming braintrust at its side. Gates seized on his opportunity. In contrast, Super Mario 3D World feels like a beautiful last gasp at console relevance by a team that shirked the wholesale originality right at their fingertips.
Every console generation, the 3D Mario game is a tent pole, a usually once-in-a-console-generation monolith that stands above all else. They holds a gravitational pull over its console. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the only outlier, but even that is basically an amazing level pack for its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy. Still, the point stands, and those Mario games are like hair plugs, an accessory so monumental it immediately defines people’s perception of the person, or console in this case. Super Mario 3D World is a bastard, borne of a holy marriage between 2D and 3D Mario. The game emerged in the midst of a console death knell. It will stand as a relic lost to time, like a genius flushed through the dredges of society due to his circumstances beyond their control.
Its development history stems from Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, a title recognizable for trudging the tightrope between 2D and 3D through its self-contained isometric levels that involved limited camera maneuverability within the taut 3D playground. 3D World, as evidenced by its titular larger land mass, is of course an expanded version of this model on the Wii U with multiplayer. It provides a greater level of control for Nintendo. The restrictive plane provides less variables to account for, a contrast to the slightly grander sandboxes present in typical 3D Mario games. This tightened grip is unsurprising. Since its heyday, Nintendo has been a company intensely interested in control. Still, this approach strikes me as a unique solution to a typically not publicized problem: despite their presence among gaming’s collective pantheon (courtesy of Metacritic), of late, 3D Mario games have been vastly outsold by their 2D contemporaries.
The rationale for that remains unclear. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia factor, the almost universal recognition of 2D Mario to parents and kids alike. It could be the lower level of control acumen necessary. 3D movement made modern video gaming possible, but it’s a barrier for people not used to navigating that space. Watching my father try to decipher Halo’s movement system felt as if Medusa cast her vengeful gaze upon his Spartan. A more recent reason could be the multiplayer component, a feature included in the wildly popular New Super Mario Bros Wii. That last point is feels most salient in relation to Super Mario 3D World, given its multiplayer focus.
It’s at the crossroads of these multiple factors: where lackluster sales relative to development budget, a plumber more financially fashionable when flattened, a desire to iterate functionality and a swan-diving console desperate for an object to define it, that Super Mario 3D World emerges. The intersection looks like a fork in the road with mangled tines. In the immortal words of the Stooge Curly Howard, Super Mario 3D World is a victim of circumstance.
Each of the 3D Mario games also served as exemplars of their console’s functionality. Super Mario 64 taught players how to operate in a 3D space with the analog stick controller. Super Mario Sunshine iterated on that, introducing the dual-stick design to Nintendo stans while flaunting the flashy new graphics and color palettes only Nintendo can conjure. Hilariously, Super Mario Galaxy actually taught developers that restraint is the better part of valor when it came to motion controls.
A year into its release, the Wii U was in need of something to define it. Up to this point it remained floating in the ether, a curiosity compared to the impending and intimidating console competitors, Xbox One and PS4. Someone needed to set the parameters for other developers to design within. 3D World shirked this responsibility, but by no fault of its own. It accidentally presented the perfect use of the GamePad for developers to mimic: limited function and a passive accompaniment to the onscreen action. In this case, that meant a map for teleporting to other worlds quickly.
Super Mario 3D World’s first visual impression is its shiny veneer, the pinnacle of what Nintendo has tried to make Mario look like for 30 years. Imagine the clay figurine on Nintendo Power perfectly animated and brought to life with its slightly unnatural proportions. This is what Nintendo discovered with Super Mario Galaxy, a children’s cartoon look that feels like straight-laced 3D animation in every sense of the world. Their characters and backdrops look like glass figures, exuding a sparkling quality only accentuated by high definition. Its personality lies mainly in its dedication to color and fantasy, the same aspect that’s set Nintendo apart from its competitors (Microsoft and Sony) since AAA games development turned into a depository for bombast and drab color palettes. It also has felines.
Mario’s new cat suit presided as the biggest marketing ploy for this game. Nintendo was so fascinated by their inclusion they even trotted out cat costumes to adorn their E3 booth. Not since Blinx has a cat been such an integral part of a game’s build-up. That decision in itself though is indicative of some of the game’s shortcomings. Super Mario Sunshine promoted F.L.U.D.D. because it was integral to the game’s core mechanics. You can often tell the game was designed to encourage and require cats, many of the game’s additional green stars players can collect require the cat suit to reach. That emphasis obfuscates the lack of inventiveness present throughout the rest of the game’s design. Beyond the cat suit, the list of transformations Mario makes reads like a bland greatest hits compilation. Tanooki, Fireball, Boomerang, Hotel California. The Rolling Stones would be jealous how well they’re sticking to old standbys.
Part of this is inherently a design decision. Crafting a game for four concurrent players required Nintendo to tighten its sandbox. The problem with that, especially when you have cats, is it’s tougher to cover up the smell of old shit. One-off or rarely used suits are absent, the product of forcing any and all suits to be applicable for four characters at all times. This restriction can cause that old shit to pile up quickly. Large-scale boss battles are few and far between, and most of them lack the balls-out creativity displayed in the Galaxy, Sunshine or tripped-out Super Mario 64 experience.
The problem with that, especially when you have cats, is it’s tougher to cover up the smell of old shit
Bowser battles play out like walking up the same set of increasingly narrow steps. 3D’s strangest core venture is Mario & co. riding atop Plessy, a Loch Ness monster lookalike continuing the trend of Mario forcefully riding atop aquatic creatures at breakneck speeds. Not to mention the Toad Treasure Tracker sequences, where Toad traverses labyrinthine levels without the ability to jump requiring players to carefully rotate the screen to see the entire level. These stand as diametric opposites to the twitchy-fast portions of Super Mario Sunshine where they ripped away F.L.U.D.D.. They’re a peculiar inclusion, one that makes more sense in a different game. So much so that Nintendo did just shove them into their own game, Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker one year later.
The game is sanded perfectly. No edges stick out. Nothing’s out of place. That makes for a sterile vibe though, particularly when it chooses the rote, Dreamworks animation art direction. Most of its character comes from the emergent interactions between players, something introduced in 2D Mario on Wii and maximized within a 3D space. Those stories are few and far between though, generally the product of miscommunication and occasional miscues that come from sharing a tight space among adventuring friends. Tantalizingly, these moments hint at a sense of camaraderie, a buddy-cop film where a gang of do-gooders conquer obstacles, slay Bowser and do it all with the physical comedy of a 3 Stooges episode.
This is youthful exuberance incarnate. It’s Super Mario 2 come to life, only everyone can play and it’s stripped of the bizarre sans a plodding, squealing toad in search of treasure. Super Mario 3D World is also just the status quo. When played with friends it approaches peak Nintendo advertised family status, epitomizing the sterile fun depicted in those ads. Played alone, 3D World starts to feel like a souffle. Pristine, picturesque and gaudy in all the right ways. Pop the pastry though you discover it lacks substance, it’s completely hollow and immediately familiar. This revelation is made more depressing when you realize this will be the only solo 3D Mario experience you’ll get on this console.
The Wii U is defined by its lack of definition. NintendoLand failed to capture the collective imagination like Wii Sports. It even sported all the usual Nintendo endeavors: Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, 2D Mario. But in the end, it failed to find a defining game. There was no tentpole title that sat proudly atop the Mario pole, flag in hand throwing consoles to the burgeoning crowd below. Every other generation had a 3D Mario that even if it didn’t do gangbusters, still set a precedent for its console in terms of design. Super Mario 3D World stands between worlds, just like the Wii U, and the victim of a lost generational console still spinning its wheels. Not fully immersed in 3D, but a step up from 2D, Super Mario 3D world is a marvelous delight marred by the circumstances surrounding its release and epitomizing its difficult situation at the same time. This will be a game lost to the masses, never discovered by the audience it deserves. This is a title between visual planes, between console cycles, between single-player and multiplayer, between truly new Mario series. It’s defined by its in-between nature, its foot stuck hastily in the Wii U door that Nintendo’s been scrambling to shut.
Actually, Super Mario 3D World may have been the most fitting definition for the Wii U after all.