Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U introduces the cat transformation (or suit), which allows Mario or any of the other four playable characters to take on cat attributes. With up to four people playing at once, you can climb sheer walls, scratch at enemies or walk comfortably across surfaces that would be a challenge for other characters. In many ways, the cat suit far more powerful than any other transformation, allowing you to bypass obstacles completely.
As with the recent Marios, the challenge here is to collect three stars hidden across each of the main levels. Certain levels are locked until you have enough stars but even as a total numpty at the game, I rarely had to go back and grind up to unlock these.
That was thanks to the many extra levels dotted about the world map. Along your path there will be the odd level that’s just a single mini-boss fight, or a “mystery house” where you can go rapid fire through five brief levels, each containing a star. There are also the Captain Toad maps. These are more cerebral, where Toad has to navigate his way around a compact world to pick up five stars, but he doesn’t have the ability to jump.
The main maps themselves are a splendid mix of types. There are the frantic twitch-based speed levels with short time limits, underwater levels populated by ghosts, and more traditional ones where you need to explore every nook and cranny to find clouds hidden just off-screen or slam into the ground to reveal invisible blocks and enemies. Of course, there are also my personal pet peeve – the ones where the camera slowly scrolls across the map, leaving you behind if you dawdle too long trying to reach a tantalising coin.
As always, character animations are adorable and detailed, while the sounds effects are tuned to evoke just the right level of cuteness. Yes, that’s a thing. Each of the levels is incredibly polished and impressively designed as well. One memorably beautiful section has you playing entirely in shadow, while others have platforms that flip on every jump, or send you racing away from a rising tide of death.
You’re not just hunting for stars – each of the main levels also has a stamp hidden somewhere off the beaten path. Once unlocked, these stamps can be used in Miiverse to jazz up your drawings.
Often, you can only reach areas with a certain transformation. As I said, the cat suit can let you climb sheer cliffs to find objects you otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach. There are also gears that can only be turned in cat mode, stars that can only be reached as Boomerang Mario and plenty more. Certain goombas will drop goomba disguises that you use to sneak past searchlights and propeller boxes are an essential part of several levels.
Where the game is weakest is probably the boss levels. Some of the minibosses are very simple and even in the later worlds, the end of world boss can be tediously repetitive. Per for the course, I suppose.
If you’re the one playing with the gamepad, you also have access to the touch and microphone features. Blow on the screen to repel tiny goombas or tap on certain objects to reveal and move them. I’m pretty sure the game didn’t explain this to me since I’ve just learned it from that video up there.
Other co-op players can use the Wii remotes or the pro controller, assuming you actually let anyone else play with you. In my experience, other players were more of a hindrance than a help. Many of the tricky jumps were hard enough alone. Trying to coordinate Mario with Peach or Luigi who stay in the air a little longer made the experience nightmarish.
Thanks to all the different suits and powers, a lot of the game can be rage-inducingly frustrating. Many segments are designed for a particular suit and if you lose it, you’re in for a rough ride. You can hold one spare transformation at any given time but with my lack of platforming skills, even that was rarely enough. You’ll still be able to complete the levels, but you definitely won’t be able to reach all the things you need to collect and some sections will require incredible levels of skill or luck.
Failing a section 5 times in a row (I believe) will unlock the invincibility leaf block at your spawn point, which provides the white tanooki, should you want it. Choosing this white suit renders you invincible to all enemies and blocks, and the tanooki tail lets you hover in the air longer than usual.
It’s not a guaranteed win, however. You can still die if you fall off the edge of a platform and there are many abilities that you won’t have. I should be embarrassed by the number of times I had to employ this to reach the end but I’m not. I revel in my mediocrity. (I am resigned to it.)
Running out of lives is barely a penalty either. You’ll be kicked out of the level but can jump straight back in with 5 free lives. Of course, rather than resorting to the white tanooki of shame, you could always return to the early levels gather up a few cat suits. They leave the choice entirely up to you, and that’s what makes this a magical game.
With the huge range of level types, you’ll rarely be stuck with something you hate. There’s always something else to try or the co-op mode to have a friend help you along the way. Once the game launches, there will also be ghost modes available for every obstacle – you can watch how three random other people completed the level and follow in their footsteps, assuming you can keep up.
Just firing up Super Mario 3D World makes me happy (at least until I reach a level that needs the twitch reaction time of a 9 year old). Everything in the worlds is enchanting – you can’t help smiling at the enemies, even as they stand teetering on the brink of a lava pit. I also love that it leaves you alone to work out solutions. This is a wonderful game that should be on everyone’s Christmas list.