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Review: Super Mario 3D World Lives Again, and Bowser’s Fury Points to the Future

Bowser’s Fury finds Nintendo again pushing the envelope of Super Mario Bros. in exciting directions.

4.5
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury
Photo: Nintendo

When it launched on the WiiU back in 2013, Super Mario 3D World felt like a revelation, for indicating that Nintendo was beginning to seriously chart a new path forward for its bread-and-butter platforming franchise. The game is a veritable amusement park of novel ideas and mechanics wrapped into kinetic puzzle solving, and more than one subsequent Super Mario Bros. release carries the trace of its influence. Perhaps inevitably, Super Mario 3D World feels all the more at home on the Switch alongside Super Mario Odyssey, which all but perfected its already winning formula back in 2017 before taking it to the stratosphere. The icing on the cake? The inclusion of a new game, Bowser’s Fury, that finds Nintendo again pushing the envelope of Super Mario Bros. in exciting directions.

Running, jumping, collecting coins and stars, bouncing on enemy heads—these have been the foundational mechanics of the series since the release of the original game in 1985. But there were major shakeups along the way, none more seismic than 1996’s Super Mario 64, from which Super Mario 3D World took more than a few pages. True innovation is often doled out in small doses across Nintendo’s flagship series. Typically, a Super Mario Bros. game hinges on one main gimmick for an entire campaign. By contrast, Super Mario 3D World is a game of gimmicks. Instead of dropping players into an expansive open world, it has you scale stage after stage of self-contained wonder, bursting with clever delights that rarely repeat themselves, and more importantly never outstay their welcome.

Walking into any given stage, you never know exactly what needs to be done to get to the goal. A straightforward romp through a meadow could shoot you into a cloud and have you running for your life at full speed across the heavens. (As such, the only major upgrade offered by this Switch port—a noticeable improvement in movement speed, addressing a long-held complaint about the WiiU version—will feel like a mercy to returning players.) A disco-themed stage has platforms that disappear and reappear on beat, then throw a curveball with a cherry item that lets Mario replicate himself up to four times, with enemies doing the same, and puzzles requiring a set of Marios to work together in tandem. A Japanese pagoda stage requires using the touchscreen to open doors, hit gongs, and smack enemies—and stealthily so, if you want to successfully gather all the stars after putting on your Goomba costume.

Super Mario 3D World introduced a new power-up, the Super Bell, that allows players to turn into a cat, one of the bigger—and most hilariously endearing—shake-ups to ever grow out of the series. With the suit, players are granted the power to vertically scale surfaces, and as high as possible. Not just an invitation to players to go exploring to their hearts’ content, the suit’s power works to fully obscure just how linear the stage designs actually are.

These are largely the sorts of seed ideas that would fully bloom in Super Mario Odyssey and ones that Bowser’s Fury takes in ambitious new directions. Set in a tropical paradise overrun by cats—lovingly influenced by Japan’s famous real-life “Cat Island”—a toxic sludge has turned Bowser into a massive, unholy kaiju terror who rains fire across every inch of the landscape, and it’s up to Mario and Bowser’s own son to figure out how to cut him down to size. Doing so involves gathering up Cat Shines—basically, Super Mario Sunshine’s collectables but with cat ears—and using them to power lighthouses scattered across an island chain.

That will sound familiar to anyone who’s played Super Mario Odyssey, but there are no extra lives here. Dying costs coins, thus finally giving them an actual purpose for the first time in the series in decades. Every island is connected and wide-open, which makes the experience of playing the game less about raising the flag at the end of a course than anticipating Bowser’s approach, forcing you to gather resources fast enough to escape his barrage of fire, rain, and lightning. And it’s a more nerve-wracking experience than one might expect.

Across Bowser’s Fury’s three-to-four-hour campaign, Mario isn’t beholden to the rules of each stage, but rather the world is beholden to him, and the player by proxy. By removing the boundaries between levels and pitting you against an ever-present threat, the game forces you to look at its world as an interconnected network of challenges. Even an aimless traipse around the island never feels without purpose. Whether you find yourself making a beeline for the nearest Cat Shine or simply hanging out with the family of cats who live on an impossible ledge, the island paradise of Bowser’s Fury is a joyous invitation to wander.

Which isn’t to say that Nintendo crammed each stage with collectables and meager sidequests. Bowser’s Fury really breathes with a sense of freedom and spontaneity, letting you approach the Bowser problem in whatever way you see fit. The goals for each quest may follow the typical Mario rules, but failing at it never feels like a bottleneck. When things get hairy, you’ll find yourself, yes, farming power-ups or simply looking for areas of safe harbor, but you don’t feel the game pulling you toward a flag or star nearly as much as past titles in the series.

This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: February 12, 2021 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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