A strident burst of brass announced the hero's arrival in Super Mario Galaxy: a bold, triumphant fanfare to herald the return of the king. Mario landed with a gymnastic flourish, spreading his arms wide in a gesture of pure showmanship, as if to say "Ta-da! I'm back!"
This was uncharted territory for Mario, yet he entered this universe of spherical planetoids and gravity-defying trickery with the swagger of a man who knew exactly what he was doing. You could understand his confidence, perhaps, when you considered the talents of the team behind him, EAD Tokyo proving over the course of two games that it was capable of taking Mario - and an entire genre - to new heights.
By contrast, there are no fanfares in Super Mario 3D World's opening stage, no grandiose introductions. A brief piece of scene-setting sees a fairy kidnapped by Bowser - hey, it makes a change from Peach - and Mario, along with Luigi, Toad and the princess herself, sets off to rescue her and her winged friends from the Sprixie Kingdom. By trimming away the narrative fat, it shows just how keen Nintendo is to cut to the chase, to welcome you into this new world - even if the initial reaction is one of mild concern. By consciously moving away from Galaxy's epic sweep, is EAD Tokyo also taking a step back?
Yet true confidence isn't about pomp and bravado. There's a quiet grace about 3D World's opening stages that give it a perceptible air of self-belief. It's breezy and confident - relaxed even. You'd certainly never have thought the pressure was on during development, and it most assuredly is, because Mario and friends have a heavy burden on their shoulders.
Firstly, they must bear the weight of Nintendo's optimistic sales expectations for Wii U this season. This has been pinpointed as the struggling console's one big Christmas game, even if 3D Mario games have historically lagged behind their side-scrolling counterparts in commercial terms. Meanwhile, in the eyes of the players who are looking for a reason to turn on their Wii Us - or still need convincing to buy one - it has to top Super Mario Galaxy, or at least come close to matching it.
"Super Mario 3D World is brimming over with invention and generosity"
That it should feel so lissom, so sprightly is remarkable in this context. The early rumbles of discontent, when the game's initial footage was released, have dissipated in recent weeks thanks to a barrage of clips from 3D World's later, more challenging stages. In truth, Nintendo might have given a little too much away, revealing a few secrets that would have been best discovered during play rather than via a teaser trailer. Yet needs must as the devil drives: commerce prevailed, and a handful of wonderful moments were spoiled. A handful, happily, of several buckets worth.
Super Mario 3D World is brimming over with invention and generosity. At times, you worry if it's almost too generous. At times, it's like a large pack of gourmet jelly beans, offering a deep, tangy burst of flavour with every bite, yet there's only one of each kind in the pack, or two at most if you're lucky. To describe it as the kitchen sink approach to game design wouldn't be entirely accurate, because there's really nothing extraneous here, but at the same time there's no consistent, overarching theme.
You'll whizz through a desert area of the world map and barely come across more than one sandy level. Indeed, the only thing connecting one stage from the next is that they're all beautifully crafted and you get the delightful job of exploring them, mining each one for three green stars, a secret character stamp (used for Miiverse posts), and grabbing the top of the flagpole at the end of the stage.
A spinning green star and a golden flag mark the ones you've truly conquered, and in the first four worlds you'll worry that you've beaten too many on your first try. Played alone, these stages are spacious and easy, and it seems that the need to cater for four players may have had a negative impact on the level design. That's not to say they lack creativity, by any means, but platforms do feel unusually roomy.
"You'll be introduced to two of the best new Mario power-ups to date."
That concern isn't there while you're in these levels, mind, because you'll be having too much fun to care: EAD Tokyo understands better than almost anyone how to make simple actions joyous, while the novelty factor of a new 3D Mario in HD is still hard to resist. These worlds are bright, varied, beautifully lit and framed (you can move the camera in increments or freely, but you'll rarely feel the need to) with a surprising level of texture detail, populated by characterful new enemies along with a clutch of old favourites. One of Nintendo's fortes is building tangibly solid-feeling worlds, and the extra detail only heightens that sensation.
As you gleefully romp through these early stages, you'll be introduced to two of the best new Mario power-ups to date. The Double Cherry splits your current hero in two, and if you collect another you'll have three clones, then four, then five...with four players, it feels like that early Mario 128 demo on the GameCube finally brought to life, and yet there's not so much as a hiccup in the frame-rate.
Cat Mario, meanwhile, is adorable and quite gloriously overpowered, scampering up vertical surfaces to bypass hazards and snaffle stars and pouncing on enemies with claws outstretched. And if it seems a little too handy, too easy a crutch to lean on, you'll soon realise that it's useless when the gaps widen and the hazards no longer disappear with a swipe of Mario's furry paw.
From the fifth region onwards, 3D World starts to turn the screw. Gradually, at first - you'll reach a stage's flag without having discovered all its secrets, and dart back in for another go - but soon you'll see your life counter tick downwards, and you'll be glad of those rhythmic fruit-machine minigames that pop up sporadically, awarding you seven or eight 1-Ups for matching every reel.
Suddenly, that slow-burn introduction makes sense. This is a game that just keeps building and building, getting better and better and better as it progresses. World 5 is a stand-out in terms of variety, offering short, sharp challenges one minute and the next a sprawling sandbox stage that gives you an all-too-brief glimpse at what an open-world Mario game might look like.
Yet the run-up to the inevitable Bowser confrontation (which, by the way, may be the finest face-off between the two so far) is even better, not to mention what follows. And we're not to mention what follows, not because of an NDA, but because the element of surprise is crucial to what makes 3D World quite so special.
"It's always a platformer, but it's also a stealth game, a puzzle game, a shooter, a racer... an adventure."
It's a game with the nervy restlessness of someone who's had five espressos in half an hour, yet with the focus and expertise to pull off such a broad range of ideas: disparate, not desperate. There are big worlds and small worlds; worlds to explore and worlds to race through; worlds where you can see the flagpole from the start point and others where it doesn't appear until the final seconds.
It offers a stern platforming challenge one moment, and then gives you a burst of empowerment with a Mega Mushroom (never used more effectively than here) or a Starman the next. It pays tribute to its past, riffing on ideas from earlier games, and takes cues from the present, with quick-fire brawls and tests of skill and timing that would make for a very good mobile game - and should, maybe, be considered for DLC like Rayman Legends' challenge mode. It even dares to switch genres. It's always a platformer, but it's also a stealth game, a puzzle game, a shooter, a racer, an adventure. It's all things.
Well, almost all. The one thing it's less confident about is showcasing the GamePad. Off-screen play and tilt-based camera controls are nice little bonuses, but the levels that feature alternative functionality, while entertaining, highlight the struggle Nintendo has in making its unusual controller feel essential rather than, well, a nice little bonus. You'll blow into the microphone to move wind-powered platforms, or to scatter smaller enemies, and tap the touchscreen to bang gongs, and slide back screen doors.
These ideas are used sparingly, perhaps to ensure that three other players with Wii remotes or Pro controllers don't feel left out, but as such they're slightly insubstantial. Cute, sure, and there's a delightful, tactile feel to the platforms you'll prod to life, creating stairways to guide other players to upper areas, but next to the likes of Media Molecule's Tearaway - or even the Nintendo-published Wonderful 101 - it's hardly integral to the experience.
Yet you wonder if director Kenta Motokura was inspired by Hideki Kamiya's freewheeling superhero fantasy. That same spirit of invention is found in 3D World, even if it's applied with a little more restraint. Take, for example, the Toad captain levels: here you'll guide the diminutive explorer through single-screen puzzle reminiscent of 3D Land's sporadic stereoscopic conundrums.
With no jump button, you'll simply need to guide him past enemies and hazards, rotating the camera to locate the ones that would otherwise be hidden from view. Why is it here? Perhaps it's an education in right stick camera movement for an audience more comfortable with a single analogue, an introduction to more complex controls ahead of a new Galaxy game. The more likely explanation is a much simpler one: they're fun.
"If 3D World lacks the scale and ambition of Galaxy, it's a comfortable match in colour, pacing and variety."
It's a wonderful single-player game, then, and that's only half the story. In multiplayer, the peaceful stroll of those early stages frequently descends into chaos. The timer that seems to inhibit exploration in the solo game suddenly comes into play, as the music speeds up and everyone starts to race for the flag. It's an irresistible blend of co-operation and competition: it's an easier game if you work together, and yet by ranking the players by score (determined by coins collected, enemies defeated, and how high up the flagpole you land) Nintendo encourages every player's vicious streak.
Fittingly, the crown awarded to the victorious player is the multiplayer game's crowning glory: it's purely decorative, yet its mere appearance is enough to provoke a stage-long campaign of bullying, with aggression and underhand tactics regularly employed to dislodge it from the previous stage's champion. You'll pick up other players to throw them at enemies or off ledges, shift moveable platforms away from rivals, and even shoot them with the cannon block if they're getting too big for their tanooki suits.
It's a riot, and the only minor issue is the camera favouring those who race ahead, as others are left trailing in their wake, encased in bubbles until they catch up. It's less of a problem with two or three, which seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to the later stages. Simply reaching the end here is a challenge in itself, and witnessing the shared life-counter dwindle more rapidly as the game goes on will be enough for most players to adopt a more collaborative approach, for mutually beneficial progression.
If Super Mario 3D World lacks the grand scale and ambition of the Galaxy games, it's a comfortable match in colour, pacing and variety - and in its moment-to-moment play, it comes shockingly close to beating them. Where it's undoubtedly superior is in its application of multiplayer: Galaxy's Costar mode was a charming addition, but it's comfortably trumped by the laughs and thrills you'll share with up to three others.
It's perhaps best summed up by its soundtrack, where bouncy strings meet gently percussive tropical themes, chiming Christmas bells, jaunty accordions, and energetic shamisen and shakuhachi. While its rare orchestral manoeuvres are among the musical highlights, it's telling that there's little of Galaxy's bombast. As the fervour for next-gen hardware reaches its crescendo, EAD Tokyo has quietly gone about the business of making the best game you'll play this Christmas.
There's no clarion call of trumpets to herald the arrival of Super Mario 3D World. And yet, of all the games released in the next couple of months, it might deserve the biggest fanfare of them all.
Super Mario 3D World blends the best of Galaxy and 3D Land in a Greatest Hits package that's comfortably among the top games of 2013.
- Brimming with brilliant moments
- Marvellous counter-co-op multiplayer
- New standards of variety and invention
- Latter stages will test even Mario veterans
- GamePad functionality is somewhat trivial