There’s a lot to say about Super Mario 3D World. A lot of it will sound familiar to anybody who read Shacknews at the end of 2013. That’s because this was our 2013 Game of the Year and everything that was said then still applies today. The more interesting conversation surrounds Bowser’s Fury, the new side story. It’s one of the most interesting Mario experiences in a long time, just because it feels both familiar and refreshingly different.
Cats in the cradle
There’s a lot that makes Super Mario 3D World stand out as one of Nintendo’s best platformers ever made. It’s the overt blend of the bite-sized stages of the mainline 2D Mario formula and the diorama presentation of the 3D Mario games. It’s also the more subtle uses of elements from previous Mario games, like giving everyone the character traits from Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s the exquisite level design that incorporates well thought-out puzzles, cleverly-placed enemies, interesting mechanics, and intense challenges. Mario isn’t just moving around in a 3D space, but these stages also incorporate verticality, making them feel massive and vast while still in the confines of a single level. The game’s various power-ups, such as the Cat Suit, the Boomerang Bro. Suit, and the classic Tanooki Suit, all add to the experience by making you want to use them to explore farther. It adds to the usual Mario power-up experience, which is normally about getting a leg up on Bowser’s minions and getting to the flagpole quickly.
For me, what made Super Mario 3D World great back in the day and still great today is the simplified multiplayer experience. Friends can jump in and out before the start of each level where everyone then shares a life pool. Making it through stages alive and also finding every bonus Green Star in each stage, a number of which are required to progress forward, requires cooperation. However, it also requires enough coordination to not get in each other’s way. On top of that, there’s also a competitive element thrown in, where the player with the highest score gets a crown at the end of each level. While the main objective is to make it to the end of every world and do battle with Bowser, the crown turns on the competitive juices, encouraging everyone to collect every coin, stomp on every enemy, and find every secret in an effort to be the winner.
As great as 3D World is alone, the fun is in playing co-op. That’s why it’s unfortunate that 3D World’s online play, a new feature for the Switch version, isn’t very good. Players can create their own lobbies off their save files or join a room, but the result for me was mainly the same. There was heavy lag, stuttering characters, and frequent disconnects. For a game that’s as fun to play with others as 3D World, that’s dreadful. The bad online play isn’t a deal-breaker, because playing locally with friends and family is such a more valuable experience, but the ability to play with others from a distance would have been nice, especially in these pandemic times that we’re living in for the foreseeable future.
Too Bowser, Too Furious
Heading into this review, Super Mario 3D World was a known quantity. Bowser’s Fury was definitely not, especially as the cryptic trailers didn’t seem to explain any of this side story’s narrative. What’s the story behind this new Mario adventure? Your guess is still as good as mine. Mario’s walking along one day, falls into an ink blot, and ends up on a mysterious island, where Bowser is engulfed in dark ink and becomes Fury Bowser. What is this world? How did Bowser end up there? Why does the ink turn Bowser into a rage lizard? Why is everything in this world cats? How did Bowser Jr. get here? Why does he have a celestial brush? You get answers to none of these questions. The story is basically, “Bowser’s here and he’s really mad, so Mario has to awaken the Giga Bell, become a giant Cat Mario, and defeat him.” I’m not going to pretend that the Mario series is this grand bastion of storytelling, but every other Mario game at least has a pretense of plot. Bowser’s Fury doesn’t offer any of that. It just throws players right in with next to zero context and adds nothing from there.
With the gripes of the story out of the way, that opens the door for me to say, Bowser’s Fury is a hoot.
In a similar way to how Super Mario 3D World reinvented the typical 2D Mario formula, Bowser’s Fury is a 3D Mario game, but one that feels noticeably different. This is all a single giant island, but instead of separating out each stage by using plot devices like paintings, galaxies, or things of that nature, everything is connected. After collecting the first of the game’s Cat Shines, players gain access to friendly water lizard Plessie, who can take Mario around the world to other islands. Players put their Super Mario 3D World knowledge to work, using the various power-ups and their mastery of the previous game’s mechanics to find each of the game’s Cat Shines. One interesting thing to note is that Mario’s usual arsenal of 3D moves is not present. Mario can’t back flip or wall jump to get greater height or distance, which will force you to rely on alternate methods. Why Mario’s move set was restricted for this game is a mystery to me, because it feels like his abilities are incomplete.
What makes Bowser’s Fury so memorable is that every couple of real-time minutes, Fury Bowser will emerge. He doesn’t care what you’re doing. Are you in the middle of a tricky platforming sequence? Are you about to battle a boss? Are you trying to collect blue coins? Too bad, because once Fury Bowser is out, he’s out and he’s shooting flames of rage at Mario. This adds a lot more challenge to what’s otherwise a standard 3D Mario experience, as players must now work to collect their Cat Shine faster, since the attached lighthouse will send Fury Bowser back to the murky depths. What’s cooler about this idea is that as the game goes on, the lighthouses and Cat Shines have less of an effect on Fury Bowser. He’ll come back more frequently and the game will eventually reach the point where the lighthouses won’t affect him at all, adding a greater sense of urgency to find those last Cat Shines and wrap this sucker up.
Speaking of wrapping this sucker up, it won’t take you long to do so. If there’s a downside to Bowser’s Fury, it’s that it’s criminally short. Seasoned Mario players and even novice players can put Bowser’s Fury to bed in a matter of hours. That’s even with some uncharacteristically long loading times for a Nintendo title.
But in the brief time that it lasts, it’s a lot of fun. It’s even welcoming to beginners, as players can turn up an option to have Bowser Jr. help clear out more enemies or two players can jump in cooperatively. The camera will follow Mario, but Bowser Jr. players can help out by defeating foes, collecting power-ups, passing out power-ups, or finding critical Cat coins.
He’s got the 3D World in his hands
Super Mario 3D World holds up every bit as well in 2021 as it did in 2013, if not better. It’s one of the best Mario games ever produced, made even better if you have friends or family to join in on the fun. Bowser’s Fury isn’t a long experience, but it’s a lot of fun in its own way. What both games have in common is that they build on ideas from previous Mario games in such a way that you always want to see what’s next.
Greatness in simplicity has been the best way to describe Nintendo for decades and there are few better examples than Super Mario 3D World. Bowser’s Fury is the angry icing on the cake.
This review is based on a retail copy purchased by the reviewer. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury is available now on the Nintendo eShop for $59.99. The game is rated E.