Super Mario 3D World is far and away the best Mario game. This was true when it was initially released on the Wii-U and it is even truer today as we’ve just been graced with the re-release of Super Mario 3D World (and the new addition of Bowser’s Fury, which I’ve yet to play) for the Nintendo Switch. I’ve described it as “the most underrated game in ages” for a long time, but a big part of that is just because it released for the Wii-U, an amazing console that was only owned by myself and seven other people. With Super Mario 3D World now out on the Switch, we can just talk about it as the best Mario game with no caveats because, well, it is.
The general Mario platformer can be split into two camps—2D platformers (every Mario platformer until Super Mario 64) and 3D exploration platformers (Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Odyssey). Super Mario 3D World, like Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2 and Super Mario 3D Land, exists somewhere in between those two forms of Mario play and design. Levels are linear, point A-to-B, experiences but there are hidden nooks and crannies to explore and Mario can move around throughout the entire frame. It is 3D Mario gameplay in a 3D(ish) world that also follows the general linear functionality and platforming (somewhat) simplicity of 2D Mario—it rules.
But why is Super Mario 3D World the best Mario game? Well, it is just the best aspects of every type of Mario game blended into one incredibly charming and rewarding platforming experience. I played it upon release with a friend since it was sold as a party game first-and-foremost, and that was an intriguing way to go about playing a precise platformer. We’d judge what either of us was best at and use those skills to complete challenges (collecting stars and stickers). And while you can be mischievous in it, we never really did any of that. We helped one another and, as it turned out, playing Super Mario 3D World with a friend still remains one of my fondest gaming memories. But then we got to the post-game worlds where the platforming became more precise and the difficulty ramped up considerably. That was no longer fun in co-op so we just passed the controller and switched off in singleplayer. Years passed, my Wii-U collected dust and I moved on. Every now and again I’d think about Super Mario 3D World, but it more or less floated out of my memory. With the recent Switch rerelease, my love and admiration for the game have flooded back into me. It is still the best Mario game and a big reason why is because it is still that perfect Mario melting pot, but I now see it as so much more than that.
It might be the timing of this rerelease but Super Mario 3D World is the most peaceful game I’ve played in a long time. It shouldn’t be, but it is. The game can get really frenetic and stressful, but I never feel angry or stressed or even annoyed. There seems to be a certain trance-like state that this game lets me fall into after a few levels. Each little world is a bite-sized beauty that radiates joy from its music to visuals and what the levels ask players to do. And genuinely no two levels are the same. Each level asks the player to do something different, to put their platforming skills to the test in a new and unique way, and then the post-game worlds build off of that and ask players to really test their limits of level/player manipulation and control. But no matter the challenge or level, it all comes back to Mario. He controls like a pared-down version of his Super Mario 64 self, but he still feels great to control. And thankfully Mario moves a bit faster in this rerelease. Plus, the various suits and power-ups come into play in a way that feels similar (as a predecessor) to Super Mario Odyssey. Yes, you can get through most levels without using a power-up or new suit, but certain challenges are meant to be completed using certain suits in exact, precise ways. It meets players in the middle in a way that feels welcoming. Each level is pretty easy but they can be made harder if one wants to go for every collectible, and if a level is too hard, then the game kindly offers players a golden super-suit that does not take away from the player’s end-of-level score. It is a simple helping hand that, unlike many other games, is not accompanied by a “you’re not good enough, actually” slap in the face. There is genuine kindness in that. While we are on the matter of suits, I do have a bone to pick with the catsuit. It is cute, it rules and it is far-and-away the most fun power-up in the game (and that is due in part to how helpful it is if you’re a completionist). But seeing Mario run on all fours has some serious “person runs on all fours and jumps like a horse” energy. I just had to say it. I just had to get that off my chest.
Super Mario 3D World is a love letter to the little Italian plumber that could. There is a lineage and a history to almost every level. Playing on gamer nostalgia is usually a massive bummer, but it feels right here. Plus, it is thankfully subtle. Also, Peach is no longer a damsel and, while Bowser is still the big bad, he feels more characterized here. No, it isn’t nuanced but, like, we get a big evil cat Bowser at the end and he is cute. That’s a fact. And yet, Super Mario 3D World also takes Mario platforming to new heights. It makes the most of the 3D-but-2D semi-linearity, offers endlessly inventive and fun challenges that never grow stale, has the best music of any Mario game, and the biggest thing here, to me, is that it introduced the world to Captain Toad. There are certain levels in each world that let players control Captain Toad in a way that is just a backdoor pilot for what Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker is. Even if Super Mario 3D World was bad, which it is not, it would’ve still been worth having due to the fact that it eventually gave us Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker which, to me, is one of the best Nintendo games ever. I love Super Mario 3D World and that love for it has obviously grown over the years, and I’m so glad to have it on my Switch right now. With everything so up-in-the-air, scary and stressful, having this original, endlessly compelling and joyous platformer has helped me decompress almost every day after work or just existing right now. Even if it means only playing a level or two, my mind feels calmer and more at peace after I’ve collected some stickers and stars in whatever cute little world my Mario finds himself in. And I usually come away with a smile which, for me, is rare when it comes to games because, well, games are sure one annoying medium (and that is to say the absolute least). I’m glad a weird little Italian plumber who jumps on mushrooms while screaming “wahoo!” as they die beneath his feet has the power to make me happy. Mario is best when it is weird, and Super Mario 3D World is weird as hell (there is a whole challenge level centered around throwing/kicking baseballs in increasingly challenging ways). Thankfully, it genuinely is Super Mario 3D’s world and we’re all just living in it. And now that I’ve 100%ed it, I can finally dive in and try Bowser’s Fury.