Every level is a non-stop bombardment of stuff, with familiar concepts and enemies used in fresh and exciting ways, and brand new ingredients liberally sprinkled on top.
There's a room within EAD Tokyo's offices where the employees working on new 3D Mario games stick Post-It notes of ideas on the walls. Only about one in every 50 makes it into the games, claims producer Koichi Hayashida, but I strongly suspect that there were a few empty walls by the end of development on Super Mario 3D World. Every level is a non-stop bombardment of stuff, with familiar concepts and enemies used in fresh and exciting ways, and brand new ingredients liberally sprinkled on top.
Nintendo describes it as a 'grand culmination', a Best of Mario Volume One, if you will. But that doesn't really cover it. It feels more like the game equivalent of a double album, a Mario-themed collection of hit singles and B-sides with an extra disc's worth of demos, rarities and new, unheard tracks.
Though again, that's not quite right either. In some respects - and maybe it's the music that prompted this thought - it's like a freeform jazz performance: you recognise most of the individual elements but it all comes together in a constantly surprising, semi-improvisational manner. You might have felt these rhythms and melodies before, but you're never quite sure what's around the next corner, and the anticipation at what comes next is every bit as exciting as being confounded by what you do find.
From the outset it plays fast and loose with Mario tradition. Peach hasn't been kidnapped for once, and the familiar themes of the world map are entirely misleading - oh, and you can roam it freely. The ice floes of world three offer access to precisely one snow level, while the ghost house stages often don't feature a house at all. Most of the Bowser world levels don't bother with lava, and the first time the hot stuff does show up it's blue. And how about those flagpoles? With Cat Mario you can land halfway down and climb to the top, which is quite clearly cheating. Yet one gets its own back during the post-game, flying away from the start line as you set off in hot pursuit, aiming to catch up with it before the timer reaches zero.
There are moments of gentle iconoclasm then, but the watchword is variety. Take world five. It begins with you collecting key tokens on a sun-kissed shore decorated with sand statues of Goombas and Bowser, before moving onto a circus-themed level where you swing from trapezes, the music finishing with a flourish the moment you hit the flagpole. Then it's a clone rush through a small backstreet area against the clock, followed by the self-explanatory Sprawling Savanna, which supplies you with catsuits and rabbits to chase, together with the percussive soundtrack making you feel like a tiger roaming the plains of Africa against a gorgeous sunset. The next level borrows Galaxy's flipping platforms, but uses them to decorate a giant cake, before an underground stage filled with Bob-ombs and then a level where you're asked to avoid searchlights, or face a barrage of Banzai Bills.
Like Mario himself, it never stays in one place for very long. It's a fidgety, hyperactive game, never content unless it's giving you something to do. There's little downtime even between the levels - fruit machines will sporadically pop up, spitting out hundreds of coins if you can match the reels, while the mystery houses give you a series of mini-challenges to complete against the clock, tiny snippets of play that might involve hitting a target with a baseball or defeating a given number of enemies.
Even within the stages themselves, there are dozens of incidental tests of skill, whether it's locating the three green stars, the stamps that allow you to attach character art to your Miiverse posts, or simply collecting an extra power-up by exploring a hidden alcove or following a trail of red coins. The game's so generous with lives that collecting a handful of coins that emerge in a snaking trail or taking an alternate route to grab an extra life mushroom is barely worth your time, yet they're still satisfying to collect because they often require a degree of skill or forethought to grab. Often there's a round of appreciative applause in store if you do complete these extra objectives.
Like many of the ideas in 3D World, they're both unnecessary and yet somehow indispensable. There's stuff here that most players will miss, and yet it's there for you to discover if you mess around. Like using the touchscreen to draw your name in the snow, or to shake trees, or to spread sprinkles across the topping of a cake, or to tickle a friendly dinosaur until he chuckles and releases a shower of coins. To blow into the microphone to scatter a group of mini-Goombas. To bounce on a Koopa and leap inside its shell, bouncing around until you're thrown out, dizzy and confused. Or better still, to steal said shell and cruelly keep it out of its occupant's reach for just long enough to see him give up the chase and sigh sadly, shoulders slumping with embarrassment.
It's easy to take a lot of this for granted, because it all look so effortless. Like how its levels somehow function perfectly in both a solo and multiplayer context. Like how you notice the triple-jump is absent yet don't really miss it. Like how you're often given the ability to shift the camera perspective with either the GamePad's gyroscope or right analogue but never feel the need to. Like how you can play with a Wii remote held on its side without it seeming like a compromise; indeed, the non-analogue movement offers a degree of digital precision that feels vital later in the game. Like how the levels are designed to accommodate the different abilities of all the playable characters. Like how the characters themselves are subtle difficulty modifiers (Peach easy, Mario medium, Toad hard).
Some have questioned the return of the timer to a home console Mario, but I think it adds just the right amount of pressure. Getting everything in one go and finishing in time isn't supposed to be easy, after all - and of course it's a factor in your score, too. And then Miiverse ghosts appear - some clutching presents which offer coins or power-ups, of course, for an extra little carrot to chase - and you're encouraged to speed-run. Its stages may not be as expansive as Mario Galaxy's, but they're much more replayable. The flagpole, too, earns its place, as one final goal, a last test of skill, yet another challenge to round off each stage.
It's a playful game, in the true sense of the word; in that it is full of play. You will rarely spend more than a couple of seconds just pushing the analogue stick forward (not least because you really should be holding down the run button the whole time) because there is always - always something to chase, something to climb, a secret to tease out, a collectable to find, an enemy to shoot, to jump on, to bounce off, to throw things at, to hurl off ledges.
There are a thousand other things I haven't talked about. The music is outstanding, in particular the main theme, the ghost houses and the snow levels - remixed from 3D Land and sounding better than ever. There are the dash panels that send you into an exhilarating, unstoppable sprint; the weird little marching blocks that wear Cossack hats and have trumpets for mouths; the snappy enemies that aggressively hop towards you with rapid metallic clanks, and sometimes turn into portable bounce pads when defeated. Heck, even the names are great: there are Grumblumps and Rammerheads, Madpoles and Skipsqueaks, Conkdors and Ka-Thunks.
I'm pretty sure Nintendo's used the 'grand culmination' line before, but Super Mario 3D World is the first time it truly applies. This is a game that celebrates Mario's past without using it as a crutch, a game that melds the best of his 2D and 3D adventures into something that feels close to a complete package. If it lacks Galaxy's soaring enterprise, it more than compensates in its sheer munificence and the diversity of its stages.
There's a certain line of thinking that a game like 3D World shouldn't be anywhere near game of the year lists. It doesn't advance the medium in any meaningful way, it doesn't make you empathise with a character's plight, it doesn't paint a bleak picture of society (well, assuming you don't look too closely at the post-stage Miiverse posts), it doesn't make you cry. It's not progressive enough. It's not ambitious enough.
I don't see it that way. I see a game that is unburdened by any of that baggage. There's value in ambition, of course, and I've thoroughly enjoyed the games this year that have innovated, provoked, shocked and moved. And yet I think Super Mario 3D World's simple desire to delight is every bit as laudable a goal. It is, simply, a game that is happy to be a game; a rousing, effervescent celebration of play in its purest form.