Mario has been many things over the years, but this, I’m sure, is a first. Bowser’s Fury, the generously sized standalone expansion included in the Switch re-release of Super Mario 3D World, is Mario as a very modern open world game; a sandbox with the edges slowly being pushed back to reveal the map in its entirety, where there are towers to climb, secrets to unearth and even what amounts to a day/night cycle with bad weather rolling in to herald the coming of dark. This is Nintendo taking Mario somewhere it’s never really been before, and the results – while a little lumpy in places – are never anything less than fascinating.
If an addendum to any entry in the series would be so bold it makes sense that it would be to Super Mario 3D World, the Wii U original that saw the Tokyo EAD team at its maximalist best in its desire to throw absolutely everything in. This is the Mario game whose levels pull in from everywhere and anywhere, from full-on tributes to Mario Kart and The Legend of Zelda to the more obscure parts of Super Mario’s own past. Just as Super Mario Bros. 3 seemed to inform the spirit of 3D World’s predecessor Super Mario 3D Land, it’s Super Mario Bros. 2, of all things, that seems to set the tone here.
It’s a more kinetic brand of action, in short. Like 3D Land before it, 3D World mashes together the traditions of 2D and 3D Mario – levels are a race to the flag, while Mario’s movement is more digital, with moves like the triple jump excised entirely – but the big new trick here is four-player co-op that’s supported throughout. It’s a lift from the New Super Mario Bros. – and you can’t help but feel an attempt to push the 3D Mario series towards those same levels of sales – that introduces an electrifying level of chaos to it all.
And so there are snowballs to pick up and toss, baseballs to hurl at each other’s heads in a frantic game of catch, or maybe you might just want to pluck up a friend and throw them into the abyss as you race them to the flag and the tiny little crown that’s awarded to the highest scoring player at the end of every level. Chaos has always been at the heart of Mario, and to see it pushed towards full-on four player slapstick is a thrill (and one that’s made a mite more accessible this time around with online multiplayer that is, by Nintendo’s admittedly fairly low standards, a breeze).
It does lead to some concessions, mind. The level design through much of 3D World is more open to accommodate those extra players, which means the solo player might find them a tad frictionless at times, and while running through those more generous expanses I always find myself missing the more elastic moveset of more traditional 3D Mario games. Still, they’re small prices to pay for the abundance of ideas on display, from Captain Toad’s inventive set of levels – now playable in four player co-op too – to sorties in Goomba shoes and turbo-charged blasts on the back of Plessie the Dinosaur. This is also a Mario game that errs on the easy side, until it very much doesn’t, the final four secret worlds that make up the post-game presenting a focus and challenge that rivals Super Mario Galaxy 2 at its very best.
Super Mario 3D World is a feast of Mario, an exuberant celebration of the series in all its various guises from its Yoichi Kotabe artwork through to its ebulliently upbeat live orchestra soundtrack that might have been a more fitting 35th birthday celebration than last year’s Super Mario 3D All-Stars. This Switch version adds a few tweaks – it’s 60fps in handheld and docked, though the movement speed has been amped up ever-so-slightly which makes it feel snappier in the hand, with touchscreen sections from the Wii U version now bolstered by the use of a gyro pointer – making it the definitive way to play Mario’s most joyous, open-armed adventure to date.
Maybe there’s a small hint of what’s to come further down the line in Bowser’s Fury, the fully open-world expansion that’s also on offer here and takes the series to uncharted territory. The co-op here has been whittled down to two players while the framerate when playing Bowser’s Fury in handheld mode is also halved to 30fps, with the 60fps docked gameplay also sometimes taking a hit when things get chaotic – as they often do. It underlines the more experimental nature of this expansion – this doesn’t have the polish or precision of mainline Mario games – but also suggests the game being pushed that little bit further beyond its comfort zone for what’s a hugely enjoyable ride.
Bowser’s Fury is more in step with traditional 3D Mario entries, with some 100 Cat Shines to be unearthed and collected at your pleasure across a single map that slowly expands across the adventure. It’s an adventure that expands upon what Mario games can be, and often with great success – here, Plessie is your mount waiting patiently on every shore so that they can whisk you from island to island as you hoover up Shines, whether that’s by taking on self-contained platforming sections, besting mini-bosses or hunting down Dark Luigi in chases reminiscent of the Shadow Mario sections in Super Mario Sunshine.
There’s a lot of Sunshine here, really, from Bowser Jr’s starring role as an AI companion who can jump to your rescue (or not, if you’d prefer, with the level of intervention left in your hands) to the general scrappiness of it all, but most importantly it’s there in its sense of heady invention. What if Mario, its archipelago of themed islands asks, but open world? What if Bowser, its boss battles heralded by frequent storms of brimstone that present new pathways and convert the island, but huge? What if Cat Mario, the one-on-one fights that play out like kaiju encounters ask, but Super Saiyan?
It’s the heady energy at the heart of every Super Mario 3D World level, pushed out across an entire map for what’s a hugely entertaining, and very different brand of Mario action. There might be more polished Mario adventures around, and more coherent ones. But when it gets to the core of what makes these games so special – the inventiveness, the imagination and the eccentricity of it all – then this new pairing might well be peerless.