Something odd happened to me as I played through the first couple of worlds on Mario's latest 3D adventure. Something I hadn't experienced for a few years.
Even though I was sitting in a room on my own, I found myself unconsciously grinning like a loon, occasionally laughing out loud. I had become eight years old.
This didn't happen when I played New Super Mario Bros Wii, or its 3DS or Wii U successors. It didn't even happen when I played Super Mario 3D Land, the 3DS game World owes most of its moniker to. In fact, the last time I found myself involuntarily beaming from ear-to-ear and letting out chuckles of delight like this, I was spending an evening alone with Super Mario Galaxy.
Super Mario 3D World is the work of Nintendo EAD Tokyo 2 - the studio responsible for Mario Galaxy 2 - and is being overseen by Koichi Hayashida and Yoshiaki Koizumi, respectively the designer and director of the first Galaxy. And though this collective's debut Wii U project doesn't share that Galaxy name, in terms of its sheer inventiveness and variety it is clearly cut from the same cloth.
The structure resembles that acclaimed handheld platformer, Super Mario 3D Land, offering a compromise between the freedom of the 3D console adventures and the strict parameters set by 2D side-scrollers. While each stage is a 3D-style free-roaming affair and exploration is rewarded, there's still an obvious start and finish (resplendent with flagpole). It allows for platforming complexity - and it certainly has this in abundance - without becoming confusing.
This halfway point between gameplay types also provides the optimum conditions for entertaining multiplayer. The side-scrolling multiplayer offered in New Super Mario Bros Wii and New Super Mario Bros U may have been enjoyable enough, but the narrow jumps and lack of space meant frustration and clumsy controls were commonplace (especially with three or four players) as characters constantly got in each other's way, bumping into and bouncing off each other to their inevitable doom.
On the other hand, simultaneous multiplayer in a game like Super Mario Galaxy would have been a logistical nightmare, as the non-linear nature of its stages would have given players too much freedom, running all over the place and causing inevitable camera issues. It's in 3D World then where Nintendo finds Goldilocks' third bowl, offering just the right combination of freedom and linear gameplay that keeps players headed towards the same general goal while still offering them enough space to prevent frustration.
Each of the stages in the game's first two worlds feels wildly different, each offering a brand new gameplay mechanic, art style or enemy type before swiftly whisking them away at the end of the level and replacing them with completely new sights and sounds for the next.
It's the same sort of tapas-inspired platforming as that offered in Mario's intergalactic Wii adventures and it ensures that, even after two whole worlds, the player hasn't yet experienced any two stages that feel similar. That said, it remains to be seen if extended play will cause this "here's something cool, now give us it back" method to eventually become frustrating as players get fruitlessly attached to each newly introduced feature.
Thankfully, some of the other new additions - such as the new power-ups - are more consistent, appearing regularly throughout. Among these is the Super Bell, which turns your chosen character into a cat.
This has three main benefits - the first is a scratch attack which keeps enemies at bay without the need for accurate jumps. The second is the ability to climb walls, allowing Mario and co reach higher areas they couldn't get to before.
Finally, there's a diving attack in which a jumping Mario can fling himself down at a 45-degree angle towards the ground. As of two worlds in, we can't see much point in this attack as it can be difficult to aim and had us plunging off the sides of stages more often than not, but Mario games never add a move for no reason so we'd expect to see it coming into play later in the game.
The other big addition we've seen so far is the Double Cherry, a power-up that splits your character into two, letting you control both at the same time. This makes for some interesting puzzle situations where you have to line up both characters to activate, say, two press switches, using the scenery to hold one in place so you can arrange their formation.
It gets even more curious when you pick up more Double Cherries, resulting in four or five clones all running around in sync. Multiply this with up to four players and you could have a Pikmin-sized platoon running around if you're not careful.
Other power-ups make a comeback too. We spotted the Tanooki suit, albeit only in one stage: thankfully it's nowhere near as commonplace as it is in Super Mario 3D Land, where its floating technique made the game much easier. The Mega Mushroom from the first New Super Mario Bros on DS also returns in the game's first stage, transforming you into a massive Mario who can smash up scenery like a Goomba-hating Godzilla.
We say it transforms Mario, but actually there's no requirement to play as Nintendo's moustachioed mascot. As with the New Super Mario Bros games, there are four characters to choose from, with the option to change character at any time during the game's map screen.
This isn't just for cosmetic reasons, as Mario, Luigi, Toad and Peach (the latter playable in a major Mario game for the first time since 1988's Super Mario Bros 2) each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Mario's an all-rounder while Luigi can jump higher, but has a slippery run. Peach, meanwhile, is slower at running, but has her patented floating jump which lets her make distant and awkward jumps easier. This makes multiplayer more entertaining too, as each player feels like they're controlling a unique character rather than a simple re-skin of Mario.
After my two-world playtest ended one thing stuck with me long afterwards: the music. Many (rightly) claim the orchestral soundtrack was one of the best things about the Super Mario Galaxy games, and it's clear that Super Mario 3D World is up for the challenge of matching those standards. The new main theme (as heard in the numerous trailers already released) is bold, jazzy and catchy, but there are plenty of other new themes and takes on old ones - including a brilliant big band version of the Super Mario Bros 2 character select music.
Everything that Super Mario 3D World offers - from the the animation, to the comedy voices, the colourful backgrounds, the weird and wonderful enemies, the imaginative power-ups and that grandiose Main Street USA-style music - adds its own magic to the mix. The result feels like Nintendo's own version of a golden-age Disney cartoon.
Will it be better than Super Mario Galaxy? Hard to say. Nintendo's duo of Wii delights set the bar so high that it'll take some doing to even brush against its underside. But based on the first two worlds here, there's every likelihood that this will be the best Nintendo game since Galaxy - and maybe, just maybe, it'll provide enough consistent moments of magic to surpass it.