In a series that is home to some of the greatest and more influential games of all time, Super Mario 3D World seems a little underwhelming at first glance. It’s less adventurous than Super Mario 64, less experimental than Super Mario Sunshine, and less grandiose than Super Mario Galaxy. What Super Mario 3D World does have going for it is its simplicity. In fact, it is the most direct translation of the 2D Super Mario titles into the 3D space. From start to finish, Super Mario 3D World is a smorgasbord of fun ideas and classic platforming.
There’s no denying that Super Mario 3D World is closer to the original 2D Super Mario games than its 3D counterparts. Every level is a one-and-done obstacle course that ends with a goalpost. This is in stark contrast to other 3D Super Mario games which almost always reuse the same areas for multiple levels. And many times, those levels aren’t straightforward obstacle courses, but require exploration and puzzle solving. But in Super Mario 3D World, pure platforming is the main focus of the game.
While there are a few collectibles in every level, three Green Stars and a stamp, the levels are short and linear. This is not a bad thing by any means, and it allows the team of developers to design a much more curated experience. There are nearly 120 levels in Super Mario 3D World, and almost every single one introduces a new idea or concept. While many of these ideas are borrowed from previous titles, there are a few stand out new inclusions. The Cat Suit is an important new power-up that is showcased. Captain Toad makes his first appearance in the short puzzle-platformer diorama levels. And the Double Cherry makes for some engaging challenges as you control multiple clones at once.
The most surprising aspect of Super Mario 3D World is just how good all the levels are. In a game brimming with ideas and content it’s crazy that not a single one is a clunker. The level of polish here is unfathomable. The gimmicks don’t necessarily feel gimmicky because they don’t change the way Mario is controlled. The game never strays away from the pure platforming bread-and-butter than it is so committed to. It’s an insanely well-curated collection of all the best concepts from the Super Mario series.
Part of the reason why levels could be so refined is partly due to Mario’s reduced movement options. The side-flip and long-jump were drastically reduced in effectiveness, while the triple-jump was removed altogether. These constraints allowed the designers to make levels with a much clearer intended path. You cannot use advanced movement techniques to skip obstacles, and levels are much more linear. While I do think that I enjoy how polished the levels feel as a result of these movement limitations, it ultimately comes down to preference if you enjoy this style compared to all the other 3D Super Mario games.
Levels in Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Odyssey are free-roaming affairs. Many times, you don’t even know what your goal is. Exploring the environments was open-ended, and led to freestyling as to how you would approach the level. This is also reflected in how the camera works in these games, as you can rotate the camera to get a better look around. This is opposed to Super Mario 3D World which has locked camera angles so that there is never a doubt that the player has a good view of the action, but also is restrictive and prevents exploration.
While I did love playing Super Mario 3D World, it lacked the sense of adventure that makes the Super Mario series my favorite. I prefer the wide-open stages that you revisit many times and become intimately familiar with as opposed to the linear and restrictive levels that are present here. Moreover, Super Mario 3D World lacks cohesion and visual theming. While Super Mario Galaxy had mostly linear levels, it had the consistent context of exploring tiny planets. Levels made sense in that context, and they had visuals to support that theme. Super Mario 3D World just feels like a collection of artificial levels.
Most of the stages are floating islands of toy-like cubes. They don’t feel like real locales, and they lack the planetoid context of Super Mario Galaxy. I think having backgrounds and visual flair that made the levels feel more authentic would have gone a long way to making Super Mario 3D World a more immersive adventure. Moreover, while there is a world map to traverse, there is no cohesion within the worlds. The desert world doesn’t have mostly desert levels, the ice world doesn’t have more snowy levels than average, the worlds don’t group levels in a meaningful manner.
The most unique aspect of Super Mario 3D World is the inclusion of multiplayer. The fixed camera, simplified levels, and more basic controls all make a multiplayer experience possible. While it’s been a while since I played it with others, it can be a blast to partake in the sheer chaos of Super Mario 3D World multiplayer. I found that the game is much harder when trying to coordinate with your friends. And it can get competitive as you try to earn more points than your fellow players.
One thing that I felt I should mention is that in the recent Switch port of the game the movement speed has been noticeably increased for some reason. I don’t know why this decision was made, or if it was even intentional at all. But either way, you move much quicker than the original version of the game and this sometimes trivializes some speed-based obstacles. Additionally, you no longer have to collect Green Stars all in a single attempt but they are saved once you clear a level. While both of these changes make the game easier, I don’t think they are game-breaking.
Super Mario 3D World is the most consistent of the 3D Super Mario games. It’s a collection of some of the best ideas that the series has, and it’s executed superbly. The pure platforming may appeal to fans of the series who miss the old, 2D Super Mario days. Personally, I missed the sense of adventure and exploration that the other games in the series offered. While I had a lot of fun with Super Mario 3D World, it’s definitely my least favorite of the series. Of course, few games could ever compare to the excellence that is the Super Mario catalogue.