Super Mario 3D World is a terrific video game. It's just not a very good Wii U game.
I can't remember the last time Nintendo needed a game to be so good so badly. Super Mario 3D World is the first really big game for the company's beleaguered Wii U, the kind of game that the company hopes will turn curious bystanders into buyers. Or at least get current owners buying a Wii U game in a holiday season set to be dominated by the launches of the PS4 and Xbox One.
Which might explain why this game, the first real BIG release for the console since its launch, is so full. With SM3DW, Nintendo has opted out of making a "new" Mario game. Instead, we're getting all the Mario games. All at once.
Things start out pedestrian enough as you're led through the opening few worlds, but as you progress and encounter more varied level types, more power-ups and more enemies, you realise that SM3DW isn't an exploration of what new experiences the Wii U can provide you with. It's a greatest hits collection, bringing together all the best things Mario has already done in a single package.
It's got Super Mario World's overworld map. There's a lot of Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy level design in here. One new power-up gives you the Mario & Luigi RPG's multi-character controls. So many stages contain so many homages, so many tributes, so many borrowed ideas from lots of different Mario games, all brought together here.
I could spend pages telling you how good much of this is, despite the retreads, but you've done it all already. Many times before. The perfectly-designed jumping challenges. The deviously-placed enemies. The charming puzzles, the gentle difficulty ramp, the way it manages to teach you everything you need to know without a single tutorial.
Just imagine loads of the best parts of your favourite Mario games rolled into one and you'll get an idea of how you'll feel during most of your time with this new game. It's old stuff, yeah, but it's the best old stuff.
On the occasions SM3DW ventures into new territory, however, it excels. There are levels of a scale this series hasn't seen before. The presence of not just stars (used for unlocking boss stages) but rubber stamps for Miiverse interaction, and their tantalising placement within levels, turns every single stage into a platform for obsessive replays and changes of strategy.
In a good way. Like other recent Mario games, SM3DW's stages aren't designed to be beaten once and forgotten. They're tiny arenas, which you'll want to keep coming back to, explore and unlock. You'll never "finish" SM3DW. You'll just one day grow tired of poking your nose into all of its many and unexpected corners.
There is also a cat suit. I cannot stress enough how important this is. Forget tanookis. In this game, you can put on a cat suit, and you suddenly walk around on all fours like a cat, and you can crawl on walls, and you can scratch things in the face, and you "meow", and it is just the best.
It's also a gorgeous game. Beautiful. While it's disappointing to some that Nintendo is once again back to being almost a generation behind the competition in terms of visuals, one look at SM3DW running in HD will have you wondering how the Mushroom Kingdom, at least with its current art design, could possibly look any better.
I used to hold Far Cry 3 up as the gold standard for nailing the "sunny day on the beach" feel, but no more.
Make no mistake, SM3DW is a good game. A very good game. And yet, carrying the Super Mario name, and appearing as the first big Wii U game on the console, and sharing the same 3D branding as the fantastic 3DS game, it's hard not to feel just a little deflated by the experience.
Why? It feels like a bit of a dead end. Whether this is due to an off-year for the designers or the challenges of developing for the Wii U, who knows. But this isn't a Wii U game, not in the way I think Nintendo needs. There's very little here making use of the system's unique abilities.
You blow a few times onto the screen (which you've done on the DS for years), you tap a few times (ditto), but for the most part - visuals aside - this is an experience you could have had on any number of prior Nintendo platforms. Including handhelds.
Indeed, I spent most of my time playing the game on the Wii U controller screen, just because it was more convenient; it makes so little use of the console's "two screen" feature that instead of offering maps, or a power-up button, or something, the controller screen simply mirrors the TV action, meaning you don't even need to hit a button to swap out the action.
Where Mario 64 was a revolution, and Mario Galaxy a reinvigoration, SM3DW can sometimes feel a little tired. Which might sound harsh, but hey, expectations - and one hell of a legacy to live up to - can be a bitch.
It's only on very rare occasions - most of them in special Captain Toad missions - that you actually get to make full use of the 3D space. Those stages, which involve navigating the Captain through fully-rotatable 3D worlds (a la Fez) are a welcome break from the regular action, and it's a shame Nintendo made them walled-off diversions instead of incorporating them more fully into the game.
Not that this was my only three-dimensional issue with the game. The camera is...good, but not great. The right thumbstick is ostensibly there to move your viewpoint around, but you're on a very tight leash. It only moves into pre-defined positions, and in many instances can't be moved at all, the action locked into the perspective the designers feel necessary.
The problem is that sometimes when this happens, it's not good enough. There are plenty of occasions, especially when jumping or tackling a crowd of enemies, that you want the camera to move as swiftly as you are, helping you judge the direction and depth of your movement. Sometimes, though, it's stuck in a really unhelpful position, and you'll think you've lined up a sweet jump only to fall straight off the stage. Frustrating.
Then there's multiplayer. I could only test it out a little, but it's what you've come to expect from Mario games since New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Up to four players can run through each level, and while the camera can again be a problem on some of the more traditional stages (failing to keep everyone in frame), on the levels built specifically for racing (of which there are quite a few) it's a blast.
The four characters you can choose from aren't just for multiplayer; you can tackle any stage in the game in singleplayer as either Mario, Luigi, Peach or Toad. Sadly in this, The Year Of Luigi, Mario is the default option.
Each gives you a different way of confronting each level - Peach can float, Toad is faster while Luigi can jump higher - but I had the most fun with Mario, since by virtue of being the most balanced character he was the most...reliable. It's not that the others aren't fun, and in multiplayer each of their skills will help complement the team effort, it's just that...this is a Mario game, and it feels like the levels are made for Mario.
If you're concerned you'll need to play as other characters, you won't, as you can get to the closing credits using only a single one, with just a select few instances (mostly related to getting some of the tougher stars and stamps) requiring the use of a specific ability.
SM3DW is a fantastic game. Just...fun, from beginning to "end". I had a smile on my face almost the entire time. It's packed with charm from front to back, contains some memorable levels and provides seamless multiplayer fun. If you own a Wii U, congratulations, your wait for a truly special game for the system is over.
It's just a shame that it couldn't do a better job of evangelising the platform for those still on the sidelines. Then again, if somebody can't get excited about one of the best Nintendo games in years, there's no helping them.