Mario, the diminutive Italian plumber and Nintendo's long-time mascot, has appeared in more than 200 games over the course of 28 years. So, it's easy to be cynical when it comes to what is hands-down the most egregious over-use of a franchise in all of entertainment.
That said, it only takes a few minutes of playing Super Mario 3D World – the latest in this long cavalcade – to remember the character is more than just Nintendo's standard bearer, he's also the company's stamp of quality. If it's a Mario game, you can rest assured it's going to be a good one.
3D World positively oozes with cartoonish charm and design excellence. Some of the other characters that first gamer generation grew up with in the 1980s have matured and moved with the times, Mario remains unabashedly comfortable in the same simplicity of yesteryear's games. There's no real plot or voice acting here, just jumping from one platform to another in the quest for coins while bopping turtles and Goomba mushrooms along the way. It's a timeless formula that appeals to the kids of today and yesterday.
Amazingly, 3D World brings a great deal of freshness to the equation. For one thing, the graphics are stunning. Grass and bushes pop with bright greens while the background seas and skies are soothing in their blue-ness. The glass pipes that Mario shoots through glisten in the light, while the plumber himself is sharp and fully three-dimensional, like everything else in the world. Last year's New Super Mario Bros. U may have been the first Mario game in high-definition, but he's never looked better than he does here.
As stunning as the visuals are, it's the clever level design that really brings the newness. Each level throws some new tricks at the player: The ice level has Mario pilot a giant skate, in other stages a particular power-up transforms him into a King Kong-like giant who plods through obstacles. In other cases, he jumps on the back of a big dinosaur named Plessie, who swims along down a rapidly flowing river, or he dons a cannon hat that shoots missiles at Goombas. The common tie through it all is his new cat costume, which lets him climb walls and swat enemies with his claws.
The worlds themselves vary between standard platforming, where Mario must figure out the way forward and perhaps discover some secret areas along the way, to time-limited runs where he has to dash through as fast as possible as the screen steadily pans along. The standard themes are here, with lava and water worlds and Bowser's castles, but again, they all look better than they ever have.
One of the best parts of 3D World are the Captain Toad missions, which are a departure from the standard platforming. In these levels, players take control of the sidekick character as he tries to find green stars hidden on a rotating three-dimensional island of sorts. Toad can't jump and instead must puzzle out how to get to higher areas through a combination of glass pipes, elevators and creative falling. It's reminiscent of the indie Xbox 360 game Fez, and it's great head-scratching fun.
The variety continues into co-op, where up to four players can play simultaneously. Each player controls either Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach or Toad, with each character having slightly different abilities: Luigi can jump higher, Toad can run faster, Peach can glide. While players can work together to solve puzzles, they're also competing against each other for the highest level score. The winner gets to wear a crown on the next level, which serves as subtle motivation to the other players to prevent a repeat performance.
Multiplayer is an entirely different experience. While playing solo lets you concentrate and focus, playing with friends inevitably results in madcap chaos as everyone is jumping everywhere – and frequently dying as a result. It feels like two different games: a study in skill and contemplation, or an uncontrolled free-for-all.
3D World also has some nifty online features, with the coolest being the inclusion of other players' ghosts. These can show up in your own game so you can match your performance against your friends'. Even better, the ghosts can also guide you toward secrets you might have missed.
Similarly, players can attach notes and drawings to the levels for others to discover. The notes are often innocuous – "Best level ever!" – or they can contain actual information, such as the location of a hidden item.
All of this is to say that there is tremendous variety to Super Mario 3D World. It's a game that mashes a thousand clever, creative ideas into one cohesive whole, which of course comes under the Mario umbrella. There's a reason the mustachioed plumber has endured – his name is synonymous with simple, inventive fun, and this latest outing is one of the best efforts by Nintendo.