Time for a little positive thinking. (I deserve this after a month of Family Guy posts. Just let me have this.)
With November 22nd now past us, the big three have all released their eighth-generation consoles. Notably, November saw the release of two of those three consoles within a week of one another, and both have reportedly broken the “million units sold” mark. Which console won the first fight in the latest and greatest war yet? Which one will go on to claim true victory over all others?
Frankly, I could care less. Right now the Wii U’s the winner in my book.
That’s not to say that the PS4 or Xbox One are worthless or useless. And that’s not to say that the Wii U’s flawless, or that it’ll suddenly overwhelm the competition to become a financial juggernaut (though that’d be totally awesome and I kind of hope it happens). But when I look at the games for the “real” consoles and see games that are getting browner, grayer, duller, shootier, stabbier, and microtransactionier…well, I hope you’ll forgive me for not exploding with hype. (Seriously, you know your console’s messed up when new technology makes it HARDER to do colors.) Comparatively, Nintendo’s first real step into the HD generation has given us colors, aesthetics, imagination, and a level of splendor that almost heals the wounds left by DmC. Almost.
So you know what? It’s almost Christmas. Let’s make it a special one, and gab about Wii U games -- starting with the kinda-sorta fantastic Super Mario 3D World. Because as it turns out, it’s fantastic in a way you’ll never see coming.
Let me back up and make something clear: the Mario games are not my forte. At all. The 2D Mario games are completely lost on me (the semi-recent Game Grumps LP of Mario 3 was the first time I saw…well, anything of that game). Now that I think about it, most of the 3D Mario games are lost on me; I didn’t really play 64 until the DS rerelease, I’ve only recently started playing Sunshine in spite of owning a (cheap) Player’s Choice copy for years, and my brother’s utter distaste for the original Wii led to him trading in Galaxy 1 and 2 before I could sink my teeth into them. Hope it was worth it to play more Gears of War, big bro.
If you want me to tell you exactly what makes the Mario games tick or the subtle nuances between one game and the next, you’re better off looking elsewhere. What I can tell you, to the best of my ability, is what 3D World does well. It really is a well-put together game, I can tell you that much right off the bat. It’s a joy to play, it makes me feel good, it’s a solid multiplayer title, it’s bursting with color and imagination, it’s the perfect game for gamers that love pushing their skills to the limit…I wouldn’t say it’s perfect, but the mere existence of this game makes a pretty strong argument for going with a Wii U this Christmas. Because really, what are you going to get instead? Ryse: Son of Rome?
Please. Does Ryse: Son of Rome have CAT DIVEKICKS?
The Cat Suit is as good a place to start as any, so let’s chat about that for a bit. In case you haven’t heard, the Cat Suit is one of the canon’s latest power-ups, and the lynchpin of the game. Grab a bell from a block, and your character of choice -- Mario, Luigi, Peach, or Toad -- will put on a full body suit. Not only that, but they’ll be able to scratch-attack enemies, climb walls, and do the aforementioned cat divekick (well technically it’s more of a diving tackle, but it’s still very reminiscent of the divekick). It’s not just Nintendo running out of ideas; it shows that they understand the nature of their game, and gave the players the one tool they need to succeed…assuming they can avoid getting hit.
Like the title implies, the worlds are in fully-realized 3D. But what’s clear almost from the get-go is that there’s a major emphasis on the vertical element of the platforming experience. You’re going to have to do more than a little “mountain climbing” if you want to clear some levels (or more often than not, find the Green Stars that’ll unlock each world’s boss level/enemy encounters). So what tool do you get first? The Cat Suit, of course! In fact, chances are that if the game suddenly gives you a bell, you’ll need it almost immediately -- and you have to make sure you don’t get hit.
I had a conversation with my brother about the place of the Cat Suit in this game, and he asked “Why would you ever use anything besides the Cat Suit?” It’s true that the Cat Suit is supremely useful, but you’re not always going to have one on hand. That’s where things like the Tanooki Suit, Fire Flower, and Boomerang Suit come in, not to mention incidental items like blocks that’ll give you spotlights, propellers, or even cannons to wear on your head. Each power-up gives you a tool that’ll help you in certain situations, and keeping them can lead to alterations in your game plan. I’m personally a fan of the Boomerang power-up, because it lets you attack distant enemies like the Fire Flower, BUT the boomerang comes back to you so you can do a little extra damage or correct for a missed toss (at the expense of being able to spam projectiles like with the Fire Flower). It certainly helps that the boomerang can pull in Green Stars…and beyond that, boomerangs are just a cool-ass weapon.
Another thing that my brother and I talked about was how “broken” the Cat Suit is -- and by extension, how “easy” it is to rack up lives in the game. It’s true that the Cat Suit gives the player a big advantage, but from what I can gather it feels like an extension of past Mario games. Mario 3 and Super had the Raccoon Tail and Super Cape, respectively, and using those either made the game significantly easier on the player or outright broke levels wide open. Additionally, those power-ups were designed to help players find the secrets, and explore each new stage to the fullest extent. If you’re on the top of your game in any Mario game and know how to get to those little treasure troves, you’re going to get a surplus of lives as well as those glowy bits bound to get you to new worlds. Seriously, I left the fifth world on my solo run with upwards of fifty lives. I’m pretty much immortal.
I wouldn’t say the game is hard, per se. The difficulty level isn’t exactly stressful in most cases (there are some tough levels and tricky obstacles littered throughout), so -- like Kirby’s Epic Yarn before it -- the game isn’t so much about pitting you against an onslaught of trials as it is breezily exploring and enjoying the worlds laid out before you. It’s more difficult than Epic Yarn, yes -- you can actually die in this game, and there’s a timer that WILL get you if you’re not careful -- but this is a game that puts the emphasis on showing you new things. New challenges, like some reality-warping child is constantly making up new rules and throwing new toys in your path. It’s refreshing, being able to tackle these challenges at your own pace.
For the most part, at least. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The worlds may be fixed challenges, but you can give your playthrough a bit of flexibility by choosing a character that suits your style. Mario is the all-rounder, of course. Little brother Luigi’s got the highest jumps, but has significantly worse traction. Toad’s the fastest of the four, but he’s the weakest jumper. And my main, Peach, has her float ability from Smash Bros. and Mario 2 (albeit nerfed for fairness) at the cost of speed. She’s seriously the slowest -- it takes much longer for her dash to reach top speed, and even then she can just barely keep up with other characters, especially when the time comes for jumping across pressure-sensitive or motion-triggering platforms. That said, she’s a character that suits me, because her slower speed lets me savor the flavor of each level, her float lets me compensate for my lack of platformer skill (and ignore more than a few obstacles for some Green Stars), and…come on, it’s Princess Peach. She deserves her chance to shine in a quality -- and presumably canon -- game.
If I had to guess, I’d say 3D World is a culmination of all the Mario games past; it’s Nintendo’s understanding and implementation of past and present ideas into something new. The long jump -- and by extension, ducking and the backflip jump -- from Mario 64 is back with a vengeance, as is the side jump from Sunshine. The Mega Mushroom from the DS NSMB makes an occasional appearance. There’s even a Mario Kart style level, if you can believe that. I know a lot of people tend to harp on Nintendo for falling back on the same old tricks year after year, but there’s a reason why they can get away with it when others can’t. One: their same old tricks change ever so slightly, making tweaks to a formula that results in a completely different experience from the game before it (barring the jump from Galaxy to Galaxy 2, or the Mario Bros. Wii titles…and even then, they’re still rock-solid.) And two: their same old tricks are amazing.
Nintendo is a company I feel like I can trust (even if my view of them is a bit too rosy). By and large, I feel like whatever they put into their games is a conscious choice, and the result of carefully-applied, carefully-managed formulas for producing the best experience they can. Unfortunately, that’s both a strength and a weakness. Let’s set aside the fact that if you’re tired of the Mario formula -- or have been betrayed by Mario in the past, for whatever reason -- this isn’t going to change your mind in the slightest. No, I’d wager that if you were to run into problem with this game, it’ll be during multiplayer sessions.
Tycho of Penny Arcade put it best: “New Super Mario Bros. Wii is marriage poison.” It’s not as bad in 3D World on account of (usually) having enough space to move around in, but you’d better be damn ready for some frustration. Single-player lets you move at your pace, and engage in the expected “player vs. game” interaction. The problem is that when you add even one more player, it becomes “player vs. player vs. game”. Each player has their different pace, style, and strategy (and that’s accented by having characters with strengths/weaknesses that make them VASTLY different from one another). Everyone comes up with their own solution to the problems the game throws at them, so it’s not uncommon for one player to take the lead, leave the others behind, or outright cause their deaths because nobody was on the same page.
Where things get really dicey is -- of all things -- the holdover from Mario games past. If I remember right, picking up things like turtle shells from the older games was done by holding the run button and pressing your plumber against it. That’s true in this game as well; the problem is that you can AND WILL pick up your buddies if you tap against them while running. Inevitably, this will lead to a number of accidental deaths that didn’t really need to be there, and trying to avoid those deaths puts an unneeded wrinkle in a game that’s almost as smooth as can be. The “pick up player” option really needed to be set to another button, and the fact that it isn’t makes me think that the Big N planned for that level of unwilling chaos. Remember, this is the company that approved a handful of Mario Kart and Mario Party games -- and let us not forget the dark specter of tripping that hangs over Smash Bros. Brawl to this day.
I also have to wonder about the bosses in this game. Having watched the Grumps’ LP of Mario 3, it was a surprise for me to see that every level had the same mini-boss (only occasionally tweaked) and largely the same main boss (only occasionally tweaked) throughout what many consider to be one of the greatest games ever. They felt more like an afterthought -- that is, until you theorize that by and large, playing Mario for the bosses is like buying a four-course dinner for the rolls. That same mindset transfers over to 3D World, and it’s something of a detriment; it’s one thing to fight nearly every boss twice, but it’s something else entirely when said bosses -- barring a couple -- are neither taxing nor particularly interesting. That little theory of mine gets reinforced by the last boss fight (I won’t spoil it here, because it is pretty cool), but it’s a shame to have the game stumble with its big encounters.
Lastly, I can’t help but feel like the “find Green Stars to unlock the boss stage!” mechanic isn’t quite beneficial in the end. It’s true that it invites players to explore levels more overtly instead of making it a whispered suggestion, but sometimes it feels like the Green Star search takes away from the experience rather than adding to it. “You MUST explore levels to find Green Stars!” the game asserts. All well and good, but it puts the focus on finding Green Stars and runs the risk of devaluing everything else. “Oh, it’s just an empty space,” the player might say when their search comes up empty-handed. Or “Wait, I’d better search around here for a Green Star.” It adds pressure, and an objective that has more than enough potential to detract from an easy, breezy experience. It doesn’t always -- and finding all three in a stage gives its own emotional rewards -- but it is an issue I feel like I should put out in the open.
Wait, why does a star need eyes...?
Then again, I’m probably overthinking things -- and for once, that’s a good thing. If I have to think this hard to come up with cons for a game, then clearly it’s a signal that something has gone right. And it has gone right, because 3D World is an amazing game. It looks right, it feels right, it plays right, and…well, it IS right. It has more than enough juice, and it makes a pretty strong argument for being the Wii U’s killer app. Simply put, if you need a reason to take the plunge with the Big N -- or even into the eighth console generation -- this could do it.
Now then. Let’s talk about that story.
The premise is simple enough. Mario and the gang are going for a midnight stroll (or something), when they run into a mysterious clear pipe. The brothers go to it and fix the pipe, and one of the Sprixies pops out of it. She tells the gang that Bowser’s been running amok in her kingdom, and it’s not long before the big boss Koopa snatches her up and drags her back down the pipe. So the gang goes in to rescue her and her friends, doing what they’ve done for some thirty-odd years: running, jumping, and turtle-bopping their way to captured princesses. And to a lesser extent, glory.
I went into the game expecting to turn it into Super Peach 3D World, in which the story acts as a prequel detailing the foundation of the Mushroom Kingdom and how it/she rose to power against the Koopas. And I almost did, given that the opening shows Peach (of all people!) diving into the pipe first. But the more I played, the more I realized there’s already a story in place. It’s subtle, yes -- to the point of nonexistence, and I might just be playing the fool for your amusement -- but I feel like there’s something there. There’s something that I need to say.
Simply put, 3D World is one big allegory for imperialism.
Now, hear me out on this. It sounds crazy, I know, but the evidence is all there. (Minor spoilers incoming, but…come on, it’s a Mario game.) As you’d expect from a big baddie, Bowser storms the Sprixie kingdom and starts setting up shop, taking their land, kidnapping the princesses, and using their (admittedly vaguely-defined) powers of construction to build an amusement park in his image. He’s taking advantage of the natives for his own gain, because that’s what villains do. Or the British, I guess.
You would think, then, that the Mario gang would act as liberators who come in and get out as soon as the job is done. But if you really pay attention to the game, you’ll find that that’s not exactly the case. The gang is a group of visitors from another land, and they’re taking back each stage -- Sprixie territory -- from the Koopa Kingdom. Fair enough…until you realize that they never give that territory back. If you’re playing as Peach, each time you beat the level by reaching the flagpole at the end, you’ll raise a crown-bearing flag instead -- a symbol that the land and everything in it has been taken back from the Mushroom Kingdom’s enemies. That means that everything in it, i.e. the stage’s natural resources (power-ups, Green Stars, and collectible stamps, not to mention all the flora and fauna unique to the kingdom, and thus worth a pretty coin back home) belong to Peach.
In a way, it’s actually a kind of dark tale. The Sprixies are tormented by Bowser and his forces, and thankful for the help the gang (led specifically by Princess Peach, as per the intro) lends to their cause. But here’s the thing: the Sprixies clearly don’t know any better. The gang is saving them, but they’re all too eager to shower you with gifts -- tribute for your presence, i.e. giving you free stamps, offering you access to the vantage points of the stages, and quite possibly summoning giant slot machines out of the aether. Seconds after you free one of them from a boss’ clutches, they’ll build you a pipe so you can continue your expedition. They revere you; they understand the basic concept of freedom, but none of the nuances. They think that as long as they’re free from their glass bottles they’ll be fine, unaware that the Mushroom Kingdom has the potential to suck them dry.
You might think that I’m reaching here -- and admittedly I am -- but the game supports my theory way too well. When I say “expedition”, I mean it. Captain Toad is exploring the world for more than just adventure; he’s looking for Green Stars to pilfer and take back home. The Peach Expedition Committee may be venturing out to save the Sprixies, but at the same time they’re lining their pockets with tens of thousands of gold coins -- supernatural resources bound to offer something to the homeland. Progressing from stage-to-stage may be the only way to build a route to the enemy stronghold, but bear in mind that the Committee is removing every foothold their enemies have in the brave new world. The Sprixie Kingdom is as much a battlefield as it is a business venture.
And the Sprixies are none the wiser. Why would they be? This is the first time they’ve been invaded or manipulated to gain their precious resources, so as long as their basic rights are kept intact there’s no reason to complain. I’d wager that to the Committee -- to Peach especially, as a member of the royal family -- what they do is their duty as members of a higher culture…even if that “higher culture” aspect is debatable. They’ll take the land, accept tributes, and let the Sprixies revere them as saviors, if not gods. Just the way they like it.
The Mushroom Kingdom is likely the lesser of two evils here, all things considered. Thankfully, they’re not destroying the land, or bringing any harm to the natives. Nor are they forcing them into service (suggesting it, maybe, but even that’s a stretch). Merely the fact that they’re letting the natives keep their freedoms has to count for something -- and on top of that, there’s always the possibility that their imperialism can lead to the strengthening of both kingdoms. The Mushroom Kingdom may be able to grow fat off the land, but in exchange they can install new institutions, spread education, share technologies -- all sorts of things that the stamp-loving Sprixies would never have considered on their own. There is that possibility for good, because the head of state (and the world, barring the rebellious Koopa Kingdom) is willing to be a real trooper about things. She’s probably having too much fun burning everything in her path.
Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut with all that said, I have to wonder: why can’t the Sprixies save themselves? Or to be more precise, should they be able to defend themselves? If the Peach Expedition Committee is really devoted to stopping Bowser, they’re doing so on native soil as a benefactor -- a force that’s (tangentially) for good, but effectively staging a turtle-stomping intervention. Are they right in doing so, though? Protecting those that can’t protect themselves is important, but what happens during and after it goes into a moral gray area.
How far are the interveners allowed to go? Should Peach sanction the posting of Toad soldiers to make sure that the Koopas don’t strike back? Should she allow the Sprixies to learn how to defend themselves against future invaders? In doing so, is it possible that the Sprixies -- with their possibly-limitless power of creation -- could become a threat to the Mushroom Kingdom? Are they already a threat, and they don’t even realize it? Could it be that the intervention is as much a means to control the fairies as it is to save and exploit them?
Yikesy mikesy. 3D World isn’t just about imperialism -- it’s a vehicle for modern foreign policy disguised as a platformer.
JB, help me out here.
Far be it from me to go questioning a canon I don’t genuinely understand. But if nothing else, I think 3D World presents one of -- if not the most -- interesting looks into the Marioverse yet. There’s very little actually said outright, with no opinions on whether or not these characters are in the right -- except Bowser, because screw that guy -- but maybe that’s the point. What happens to this world and the peoples within it is in the hands of a chosen few. And when all’s said and done, that’s the way it should be.
A game that allows for interpretations like that is a clear indication that it’s got some real oomph to it. Granted, it could be completely wrong, and just a happy coincidence by a bunch of well-meaning developers looking to test the limits of jump physics. But whether I’m right or wrong, I don’t mind either way. Mario 3D World is a great game. I’m glad I have it. I’m glad I played it. And I feel like playing it some more. Seriously, people -- this game’s a sign the Wii U’s got some juice in it. Don’t count it out of the race just yet.
But of course, if you need more proof, I’ve got plenty to offer.
See you soon.