December 4, 2013

Super Mario 3D World Review

I want to love this game. I really do. I can only assume it's for this reason that I picked up the game at all. See, 3D World is the sequel to 3D Land on the 3DS, a game which I also didn't care for. I guess a part of me wanted that game's problems to be fixed, because I really wanted to love 3D Land in the same way. Reading other reviews, you'd think Super Mario 3D World is one of the best games ever made. Sadly, this isn't the case. 3D World is, for lack of a more eloquent way to put it, not very good. Of course, I realize that I am in the minority with maybe about five other people on earth, but hear me out.

If you are unaware, 3D World (and 3D Land before it) take a rather unique approach to the platforming genre. The stages play out like classic 2D Mario levels, where you have to reach the flagpole at the end in a limited amount of time. These stages, however, are fully 3D, so your character controls (mostly) as if it was a 3D Mario game like Galaxy, Sunshine, or 64. In typical old-school Mario fashion, you shrink when you get hit, meaning you get three hits max with a powerup. Lastly, each course has one checkpoint and three hidden stars. The stars are actually used to unlock a few of the stages along the way as well as the boss stages to progress to the next world.

What I'm describing could easily be Mario 64 with shorter levels. That is not this, but I would really love it if it was! What's unique here is the stage design. The game is played in a zoomed-out isometric (think Diablo) perspective. The golden rule of 3D platforming is not to lose control of the camera! Have you ever tried playing a 3D platformer with a fixed camera? It's nearly impossible to tell where you're jumping or when things are attacking you from off screen. Instead of the behind-the-back perspective of previous 3D Mario games, you get this. While some stages let you manipulate the camera angle on the X and Y axis, the camera will never, ever follow your character and the stages are clearly designed to be best played in one perspective. And that perspective sucks ass. This means you'll often be jumping off of ledges and into things when you swore you were going to land in the right place. I had this problem in 3D Land as well... when I turned the 3D off. Clearly, the only reason Nintendo made the game in this way was because it was on the 3DS. When you turn the 3D on, you get the extra sense of depth and you can clearly tell where things are oriented. 3D World obviously doesn't have this feature, and I find it baffling that they'd choose to make a sequel to 3D Land on a system where the game would play worse. The sidescrolling stages fare no better because you have the ability to move forward and backward. You know how hard it is to orient yourself in a 2D beat-em-up, where you can't tell if you're on the same plane as the enemy you're trying to punch? It's like that, but you're trying to jump in pipes and on top of dudes.

What's up ahead of you? Probably death. Not that you can tell.

Apparently, the "Super Mario 3D" series is meant to bridge the gap between 2D and 3D Mario games by making it more casual. There has never been a less casual Mario game. I can't imagine a child being less frustrated than me, an over 15 year veteran gamer, who found this game infuriating. It's absolutely not fun for kids, who are likely to die far more often than I did. If you're not jumping off something, then an enemy is attacking you from off screen or you're running straight into danger because the stage is scrolling and it's making it impossible for you to see anything in front of you at the awful angle. I had my irritations with 3D Land, but I feel like the majority of stages were still less frustrating. 

They're not all bad, though. Sometimes the game shows glimmers of brilliance. It's usually in "underground" stages or stages designed vertically. Anything that's essentially moving from left to right horizontally or anything that's scrolling (regardless of direction) is a nightmare. Unfortunately, that's quite a lot of the game's stages. In addition, the cat suit is a mighty fine powerup that can lead you to many secrets by running up walls. The only problem I found with it (and the new double cherry which will let you control up to five Marios at once) is that a lot of the secrets are clearly designed with powerups in mind, leaving only one way to get to them. If you don't have the right power, you have to come back when you do and replay the stage. I also found the star limits to be seriously frustrating. You'd expect it to work like a 2D Mario game, where you beat the stage and then the next unlocks. When you get to the boss, though, it tells you that you need a certain amount of hidden green stars. Frustrating.

Then there's the controls. For some reason I will never understand, the developers seemed to think that the game, in which you control your character in three dimensions, needs controls from the 2D games. Simply put, the game does not control well. How Nintendo, the masters of tight control, managed this is quite a feat. The game supports every controller that's compatible with the Wii U, but they all have the same problem: the run button. This was my major issue with 3D Land. Why in the FUCK does a game with analog control need a run button? Let me repeat that again so it sinks in: A game designed with 3D movement, controlled with analog sticks, requires you to hold down a button for your character to run. But wait, that's not all. The run button is the same as the attack button. You may recognize this as something that 2D Mario games have. You hold down the attack button to run, but can't attack and run at the same time (and consequently always attack before you can run). In the olden days when controllers didn't have many buttons, I could find this acceptable. However, in modern times there is no excuse for this. In 3D World, A or B jumps, X or Y attacks/runs, and the two triggers crouch. They could at least make the shoulder buttons double as run/attack, so they can be used as the same time, but they didn't. This means that you both have to hold down a button to run and use the same thumb to jump. This is just stupid amounts of awkward. Fortunately, the Wiimote and nunchuck combo puts run on the B trigger. It's a bit better, but I know it was only done out of necessity because of the controllers design and not because they actually gave it thought (for reference you can use a remote by itself, controlling 3D movement with the d-pad). By its very nature, the analog stick lets your character move at different speeds. Even with run on a different finger, your character still takes a hefty amount of time to build up speed, unlike with a stick. The run "button" should consist of pushing the analog stick forward all the way. Then A or B should be jump, X or Y should be attack, and the triggers should crouch. There should be no run button! You'll find yourself holding it down all the damn time because the stages are designed around you needing precise, quick movement. The controls completely contradict this.

It's stages like this one that play the best.

Not to mention that other old Mario tropes make a return. The timer, for example. The game encourages exploration, except it doesn't because there's a time limit. It doesn't stop for boss battles either. There was one point where I was fighting Bower, doing pretty well, and then I died and had to start the level over (not just the boss battle–because there's no checkpoint before it) because I ran out of time. I guess the game didn't want me to be carefully avoiding damage. Speaking of bosses, they're definitely a high point for the game because they're designed in a way where it's easy to see what's going on. It's a shame there's so few of them, and that they repeat over and over. The final battle with Bowser is, again, a bit frustrating and kind of a pain in the ass because the stage scrolls. It's not nearly as interesting as the battle at the end of 3D Land, one of (if not the) best Bower fights of all time.

One thing that definitely does not disappoint: the music. Good god, is it amazing. It absolutely trumps 3D Land in every way and rivals the Galaxy series in some respects. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to check out the game's soundtrack.

As I played through the game, I'd see other's Miiverse posts pop up. A lot of them were echoing my frustration or agreeing with my own frustrated posts. Somethings I think the expression of love for Mario games is because we feel obligated to love them even if they aren't very good. In this case, Super Mario 3D world has some excellent music and some excellent level designs that are ruined by poor controls and the worst camera in 3D platforming. Whereas Mario games usually instill a sense of wonder and fun, this game instills as sense of frustration. Yes, if there's one word that describes this game it's "frustrating". Frustrating because you'll frequently die cheap deaths, and frustrating that the game isn't better. At least Miyamoto has said there's the possibility of another Super Mario Galaxy in the future. I look forward to it. For this game, I wish I could get my money back.

Though the game is beatable, it's more frustrating than fun. Only a stellar soundtrack and occasional flashes of brilliant stage design spare this game from the worst possible rating.  

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