Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 22, Super Mario 3D World

Straddling the line between Mario's 2D past and 3D present is what made 3D World feel so great to play.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

If you’ve been following along with this rankings project, then you know my feelings on the New Super Mario Bros. franchise. They’re good games, sure, but this top 101 is dealing with greatness, and, with one notable, Luigi-centric exception, the NSMB games are not great to that degree. Most of the issue is that the games don’t try anything truly innovative in their design, outside of the multiplayer components: they’re very much games made with the design philosophy of Super Mario World, if that game had worse art direction, and the idea is to capitalize on the Mario people are already familiar with. Whereas, with the 3D Mario entries, Nintendo’s goal is to create entirely new platforming experiences that just so happen to star Mario. Which is partially why, again, with one exception, that the 3D Mario games don’t get direct sequels, whereas the NSMB line is a franchise unto itself.

The release of Super Mario 3D World, originally released on the Wii U in 2013, made me like the New Super Mario Bros. games less. Instead of focusing so much on being almost exactly like games you knew and felt fondly about, it tried to create something entirely new out of those memories. Super Mario 3D World is a 3D game, sort of, in that the kinds of moves and jumps Mario can do are the ones you find in his 3D outings. However, it was designed very much in the spirit of the older, 2D platformers, especially Super Mario Bros. 3. If Super Mario 3D World had been released decades earlier, with similar intent in its design and goals, it probably would have been an isometric experience. Much of the game plays in that kind of style and viewpoint, as is, but it’s actual 3D instead of 3D rendered in 2D to appear otherwise.

It makes sense that it would have this kind of throwback, in-the-middle design and look, as the idea behind its predecessor, Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS (number 81), was to construct the bridge that, to that point, had not been built for public consumption between the Super Nintendo’s 2D Super Mario World and the Nintendo 64’s 3D Super Mario 64. Super Mario 3D Land also utilized the stereoscopic 3D technology of the 3DS, so it went above and beyond just trying to fit into the made-up expectations of a game from 1994. It was designed with a much more top-down kind of look to it all than we’re used to from Mario, with emphasis on hiding things via perspective, and it worked very well. 3D World, despite being a sequel, needed to find a different hook given it was on the Wii U, which lacked the 3DS’ 3D capabilities. So instead, it focused heavily on the system’s comparative horsepower, and its ability to host multiple players.

The stages are designed to be thoroughly enjoyed by one player, and feel far less lonely than some of the levels from the New Super Mario Bros. games, whose design cries out for you to play it with a friend or two or three for maximum enjoyment. Since there is plenty to do for just one person, 3D World can be chaotic with multiple players, but not in a bad way: the game keeps moving along if a companion can’t keep up, but much of the game is setup so that you can take your time with a group, too. I find that multiplayer is a good way to just experience the basics of the game, playing through with the goal of defeating Bowser and having a good time with others, whereas single player lets you fully mine 3D World for what it’s worth: its hidden goodies, and its most significant hurdles.

One of my problems with New Super Mario Bros. games is that there are extras to collect, but that there isn’t much point to doing so unless your eye starts to twitch when you don’t 100 percent a game. You can unlock some difficult stages that are accessible post-credits by finding all of the hidden coins, but there aren’t enough of those stages, and they aren’t that much better than your standard fare, to justify playing through the levels of a pretty good, but not great game again and again until you find them all. 3D World fixes this motivational issue by not only having superior level design and shorter, more diverse stages that feel like less of a burden to revisit, but by giving more purpose to the idea of collecting.

There are three green power stars in every stage of 3D World, and you need to be trying to find where they’re hidden at least a little bit, or else you won’t be able to advance any further in the game. Your progress will be barred unless you have X number of stars at a given point (like one of the world-ending castles), so you need to be thinking about collecting them as you play through the stages. Luckily, they’re often placed in areas you’re going to want to try to reach kind of naturally, anyway. There are plenty of “hey, what’s up here?” moments in the game, where the top of a platform is obscured by its height and the game’s viewpoint, and what ends up being up there is a star. So, your exploration and curiosity were rewarded, and therefore encouraged, and you’ll find yourself wanting to do more of that.

If you want to fully experience what 3D World has to offer, too, then you’ll want to collect all of the stars. Not most of the stars, but all of them. Get the hidden stamps while you’re at it, too, to scratch the collectible itch but also because the art for them looks a lot like the old, gorgeous 2D concept art we used to see regularly, and make sure to jump on the top of each flagpole at the end of a stage.

The game has eight standard worlds that you must complete before you’ll see the credits, which is pretty standard, but 3D World keeps going after that. You don’t unlock just one bonus level for each world like in NSMB, but instead, you get entire other worlds to conquer. Assuming you’ve collected enough stars and stamps and landed atop enough flagpoles, you can access ninth, tenth, and eleventh worlds, too, and then, when you’ve collected every star, stamp, and flagpole, you can unlock World 12, World Crown. That’s where the 30-star gauntlet stage resides, it’s where the final Captain Toad stage is, and it’s where the very last level of the game, with maybe the most difficult stage in any Mario game ever made, exists. Champion’s Road is no joke, not in getting there nor in completing it. It is long, there are no checkpoints, and the only power-ups you’ll have access to are the ones you bring in yourself. Good luck!

As has happened with other games Nintendo has produced, 3D Mario World borrows elements from Super Mario Bros. 2 in order to make a far superior game to that one. Previously on this list, Donkey Kong ‘94 was made better than its predecessors by incorporating Mario Bros. 2’s ability to pick up items and enemies in order to throw them or even use them as projectile weapons: with 3D Mario World, it’s 2’s character selection and the unique abilities of those characters that gets repurposed.

In the NSMB games, you generally have your pick of Mario, Luigi, or one of a couple of Toads. They all have the same abilities: they’re no different than when you play a Kirby game with multiple Kirbys of different colors, except here the different colors are “taller” and “is a Toad.” Not so in 3D World. Mario is, of course, an option, and is his typical balanced self, playing like you’d expect him to if you’ve played any 3D Mario games. Luigi can hang in the air a bit longer than Mario and jump a little higher, but he’s not quite as surefooted. The very much not kidnapped Princess Peach has her ability to float from SMB 2. Since “picking up radishes like, so fast” isn’t vital to 3D World, Toad is now the fastest of the bunch, which was especially useful in the original Wii U version of the game, where the base running speed was set to “plodding.” And then there’s Rosalina, who you unlock late, late in the game: she can double jump, and is able to attack enemies without having a power-up costume, too.

Speaking of power-ups: the Tanooki suit is here, and it’s great. Flying isn’t what it’s used for, but that’s not necessary given the stage designs. What it does do is let Mario and Co. float, and that can be extremely useful, whether for getting to hard-to-reach stars or simply avoiding falling into the abyss while doing some platforming. The Fire Flower is here as usual, and the Mega Mushroom that makes your character massive and environment-destroying is back as well. The Propeller Box from 3D Land is once again put to good use, and you can now cosplay as a Boomerang Koopa instead of a Hammer Bro. The items that stand out the most, though, are the cat suit and the cherries.

The cherries give you another of your character to control. They’re all controlled together, as one unit, so you need to be mindful of where the edges of a stage are for the whole group. You only need one of these Marios (or whomever) to survive in order to avoid losing an extra life, and try not to think too much about what it means if a copy lives on but your original doesn’t. But you don’t usually get just one cherry: the levels with them have them scattered repeatedly throughout, so you’ll be playing stages where you’re trying to do impeccably timed jumps to avoid enemies and fireballs and also you’re on moving platforms. And often near the stage’s end, you’ll find a little platform with a number on it. If you have a number of Marios or Peaches or whomever equal to or greater than the number on that platform, you’ll unlock a secret. If you’re short, well, better luck next time.

This is the start of a sentiment you’ll hear from me a few times in this piece, but, I would play an entire Mario game where you need to traverse stages in this form, with the idea being to have as many Marios as possible left by the end of the level in order to fully complete it or unlock a treasure or what have you. The stages in this game are great proof-of-concepts for what could be a much larger, meatier experience, which is also the kind of thing I did and still do say about the Captain Toad stages in 3D World. It will not shock you, considering Captain Toad’s solo game spun out of 3D World ranked number 45 on this list, that I approve of the World introduction to the character’s style of play as well.

Back to the power-ups for a moment, though: the Cat Suit is an all-time Mario power-up. It honestly might be the best one Nintendo has ever put in a Mario game. It’s incredibly versatile, and it is married to the game’s design and in balance with it in a way that maybe no other power-up in the Marioverse is. Leaving aside that Mario and friends all look disgustingly adorable dressed up in the suit, the thing is powerful without being broken, and allows you to experience 3D World in a way that your other power-ups or standard forms just don’t. Characters in the cat suit can scratch and claw at enemies in front of them, giving them a bit of a “Wario punching enemies” thing to work with. They run on all fours and can climb walls. They can jump in the air and then pounce on an enemy below them: not just jump on their head like Mario can in basically any form, but a fast-paced, targeted attack at an angle from the sky to the enemy or object below. There are switches specific to the Cat Suit that open up areas full of coins, or a power star, or the stamps that the game has you optionally collecting throughout. There is also an alternate and rarer form of the Cat Suit — the bell you’d find on a cat’s collar that transforms Mario is brown instead of yellow in those instances — that makes it work like the original Tanooki Suit from SMB 3, which allowed Mario to transform into an invincible statue.

The Cat Suit’s abilities, the way you can utilize its unique abilities to explore more of the game’s world, all of it helps elevate not just the power-up, but 3D World itself. You’ll fall in love in a hurry with how cute the getup is and how it adds a little touch of "meow” to everything the characters are saying, but you’ll see it’s much more than a cute getup in a hurry. If nothing else, the Cat Suit can help you get to the top of every flagpole, as you’ll climb the pole from wherever you happen to land on it. Land high enough, and you’re guaranteed to climb all the way to the top.

To circle back for a moment to ideas I wish would be full games on their own: there are stages in 3D World that are basically rush gauntlets to acquire stars. You have 10 seconds to analyze the mini stage you’ve been dropped into, react, to solve whatever little platforming puzzle or challenge it is, and then to collect the star that appears while the clock is still ticking. If you fail, you can keep whatever stars you’ve acquired to that point, but you have to restart from the beginning of the gauntlet the next time you attempt it. Early on, this is fun, but not a big deal if you lose, since you’re just talking about a handful of stars. Late, late game, though, you’re talking about, for instance, a gauntlet challenge with 30 stars up for grabs. That’s 30 mini stages you need to clear, without failure, in order to complete the whole thing.

It’s such a different way to play Mario, and being incorporated into the main game like this makes it all the more satisfying. It’s not some cool but optional mode that a lot of people who own a game might not even bother to check out: it is part of the game, just like the Captain Toad stages, just like the assorted worlds with the cherry multipliers, just like any other stage in the game. And they are so, so satisfying to complete: you’ll really feel like you accomplished something by beating the clock five or 10 or 30 times in a row. Give me an entire game of these levels, and give it to me yesterday.

There are no glaring issues with 3D World that have it ranked at number 22 instead of in an even better place. It’s a little bit on the easy side, even more so on the Switch release thanks to some re-balancing on player movement speed that removes the plodding, but this isn’t really a problem: the chaos of multiplayer and the late-game ramp up of challenge makes up for that, anyway. It lacks some of the high points of, say, Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Super Mario Odyssey, but the baseline level of fun and enjoyment that it brings is surpassed by, at most, one other Mario title. It’s a fantastic synthesis of Mario’s past and present, a necessary bridge that could have existed decades ago but is probably better for existing after Nintendo had an even better sense of what the present should look like, after they were confident enough and prepared enough to translate the ethos of something like Super Mario Bros. 3 into 3D.

The addition of the short Mario outing, Bowser’s Fury, helps make the Switch port the version to own, as does the aforementioned speeding up of the characters’ running. Bowser’s Fury feels like they gave a Super Mario Odyssey world the mechanics and power-ups of 3D World, and it works really well. It’s enough of its own thing that it feels like it should be “reviewed” on its own, but it is part of a package deal, so even though it didn’t mess with the rankings too much, it’s still a plus for a game that wasn’t in need of one. It’s more Mario goodness that helps justify an upgrade to the Switch version beyond “the characters run faster now” even if, oddly enough, that seemingly minor tweak is the thing I enjoyed more.

Super Mario 3D World didn’t get nearly the credit it deserves upon its release for the Wii U, because it was launched one year into the life of a system that had clearly already failed to grab the audience it hoped to. There weren’t enough people talking about it and enjoying it because there weren’t enough people with the system that would let them do so. The Switch re-release certainly helped fix that, but if you’re still on the fence, what are you waiting for? This is one of the best games Nintendo has ever made. It’s one of the three best Mario games they’ve ever made, if you trust my judgment on such things. It’s a joy whether you’re playing alone on your couch, with someone else on that same couch, or online with friends. It just has so much to offer, and so much depth, depth that is worth exploring in order to see the full range of what’s on offer here. Go get it if you haven’t already: it’s the best representation of the 2D ethos of Mario going, even if the title suggests otherwise.

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