Forcing fun doesn’t work. It’s why Bill Murray has so much trouble wooing Andie MacDowell in Groundhog Day. When the poor sap repeats the same day for years on end, he decides that gluttony, easy sex, and theft just aren’t enough to fill the days. Empty fun doesn’t cut it; he wants the real deal. So he asks her out for a romantic dinner night after night, slowly building up a dossier of intimacy so that he won’t just seduce her but will make her fall in love with him. It goes badly. Spontaneously romantic events, like a snowball fight, turn hollow upon repetition. His desperation for her approval is as plain and rotten as a beached whale, and he’s rewarded nightly with a slap in the face. Only when he uses his immortality to create honest fun does he find the love he thought he wanted so badly. He finally earns a tomorrow.
Mario, video games’ mustachioed god king, has his own Groundhog Day problems. The guy’s been saving ladies in duress and jumping on turtles in the landscape for 30 years—same thing, day after day. Super Mario 3D World for the Wii U is yet another repetition. It doesn’t matter if this time he’s rescuing a bunch of fairies with big Hairspray hairdos and Princess Peach, Luigi, and Toad are tagging along; the world’s only Japanese-born Italian celebrity has done this dance before.
Something is different, though. With the little dancing turtles and the abstract pastel backgrounds, Mario’s recent outings are as sterile as Murray’s concocted overtures. They have felt like the work of people who want to make games that look like fun, not by people who are having fun. And this is where Super Mario 3D World differs. All rolled into one, it’s like a party with old friends, a long-lost 1960s variety show, the wild visions of a tipsy Jim Henson, and, best of all, a video game.
That last part might seem redundant, but many Nintendo games made over the past few years have felt less like games and more like the products of overeager/protective parents trying to tell you how cool you are. 3D World works because it surrenders control. There are no constant tutorials, no interruptions telling you to take a break or ask if you need to use a guide to get through a level. Instead, it’s a prolonged barrage of new sights and sounds, inviting you to touch everything and see how it works. What the hell is that rubber stamp thing sitting on top of a hill? What do those giant cherries do? Find out for yourself, 3D World says. In fact, the game only seems to offer tips after you’ve already accomplished something on your own. The game let me know that all four characters run and jump a little differently, but only after I’d played through five stages while switching between them.
Those stages are also some of the more generous obstacle courses that Mario has run through. In 2011 on the Nintendo 3DS, Super Mario 3D Land’s attempt to meld the acrobatic freedom of Super Mario 64 and the momentum of two-dimensional games didn’t work, in part because the new spaces didn’t offer the freedom of either. They were too cramped to run full tilt and too insubstantial to climb around and explore.
In revisiting that concept to accommodate up to four simultaneous players, Nintendo’s EAD Tokyo studio has found a sweet spot. One swampy course has you avoiding pudgy little lizards that vomit spiked rolling pins. If you’ve snagged one of the bells that turn your character into a cat, though, you can run up the side of a clip, climbing until everything below becomes a distant haze. There’s a shiny green star waiting for you up there alongside the view. That’s just one of the rewards 3D World has on hand; another is the jaunty orchestral music, which sounds like it came straight out of a Lupin The 3rd movie. The scale of the stages provides a thrill, but the game doesn’t let you dawdle either. Since the time limit in each stage runs out quickly—a threat mostly absent since the original Super Mario Bros.—speed remains a factor.
Even the series’ obsession with its own history is freed up. References to the past are less like nudges to the ribs—remember all that fun we had, pal!—and more like fodder for fresh ideas. Early on, there’s a course that explicitly calls back to Super Mario Kart on the Super NES. Rather than just using graphical and aural touches to make a reference to Mario loyalists, the Mario Kart motif is used to make a challenge out of going fast as possible. Then it’s over, and the game moves on to something entirely different and equally strange.
There’s a simpler way to describe why Groundhog Day’s Bill Murray has a hard time accepting his repetitious lot in life. The lesson is: He’d be a lot happier if he just unclenched his anus. Don’t try so hard. Have a good time. Nintendo has been trying so hard to do business recently, it seemed to have forgotten how to have a good time. Super Mario 3D World isn’t some perfect fix for the aging game maker, but it is Nintendo’s tomorrow.
Super Mario 3D World
Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo
Platform: Wii U