Tuesday, June 22, 2021

in-focus

'Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury' is a must-buy. But it's not because of Bowser's Fury.


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"Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury" - a Wii U port of a mainline, flagpole-and-course-based Mario game - pairs a revamped version of the original "Super Mario 3D World" with an all new expansion ("Bowser's Fury") sectioned off from the main game. Here's the thing: Despite the heavy marketing on the new content, what makes "Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury" worth buying for owners of "Super Mario 3D World" isn't the new stuff found "Bowser's Fury," because it's really not that new. Instead, the best stuff is actually found in the "3D World" redux.

Let me explain.

"Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury's" first screen that loads up emphasizes the paired games right away, splitting the screen in half and giving a choice, play the "Super Mario 3D World" game or play the "Bowser's Fury" game. Nintendo's advertising heavily emphasized the "Bowser's Fury" content, which makes a sort of sense. After all, the new stuff is supposed to be the incentive for returning players to repurchase the game. But the reality is this: while Kaiju God-Slaying Bowser vs. Super Saiyan Cat Mario was littering the Internet, Nintendo should've pumped up the two key changes made to "Super Mario 3D World" that greatly enhance it overall.

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The "Super Mario 3D World" portion of the package takes the classic Mario games formula and applies it to 3D, meaning in this game, you use 3D Mario game controls like long jumps and butt stomps to navigate courses toward the end goal, the iconic flagpole. Throughout the courses are hidden collectibles like stamps and green stars that unlock special courses and minigames on an overview world map. Toward the end of each section is a castle level with a big boss and a Sprixie to rescue. You do this all while collecting power-ups like the new cat suit to change Mario's abilities (in the cat suit's case, you can claw enemies, climb up walls and do diagonal dive attacks).

But the key ingredient to it all? Multiplayer. Adding 1-3 more players to the screen complicates things quickly. Players are supposed to cooperatively work together to reach the flagpole, but power-ups and coins are limited.

The player ahead of the others will move the camera's focus ahead, leaving lagging teammates behind (who can hit a button to bubble up and catch up). Each player's individual points are tallied at the end of levels, and the player with the most points gets a nifty crown to wear in the next stage to showcase their dominance. And funniest of all: The run button also grabs other players. Add the fact that each playable character, Mario, Luigi, Peach and Blue Toad, all have different stats and abilities, and it all adds up to a hilarious balance of cooperation and competition while running through challenging obstacles as quickly as possible.

This is where the two critical changes to the Switch version come into play. These changes radically alter the experience and, in my opinion, make the entire purchase worth it. To start, the gameplay is faster in every aspect compared to its Wii U counterpart. Apart from the obvious faster load-times, characters move noticeably faster, as do enemies and obstacles. It just adds to the hilarious chaos multiplayer offers, as players have to hone their reflexes even more to survive courses.

Secondly and more importantly, you can now play the game online with friends. How this wasn't mentioned more in any of the advertising is baffling, considering how much that radically opens up the multiplayer experience to everyone, especially during these pandemic times.

When I played online in a demo Nintendo hosted for journalists and influencers, I noticed a tiny bit of input delay, but the gameplay never stuttered or lagged, meaning once I got used to the delay, I was able to compete with the others effectively. It was also relatively easy to join the online session. While only the host player is able to save any progress made in an online play session, this downside is outweighed by what I found to be one of the better online experiences Nintendo's had to offer.

The multiplayer allows for so many unique, creative experiences. Just try playing with your own custom rulesets, like a game where one person's job is to constantly sabotage the others, or a game where one person has to carry Luigi at all times, and you restart a level if Luigi dies once.

The Wii U was not the success Nintendo was hoping it'd be, so it's satisfying to see one of the best multiplayer entries of the system find a second life on the much more popular Switch, even if not much of the actual content of the game has changed.

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If you think that the additional content Bowser's Fury provides is what makes "Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury" valuable, I encourage you to reset your expectations. Bowser's Fury feels more like a testing ground for the next "3D World" entry than a fully developed game by itself.

I went into the experience wanting to like Bowser's Fury. The setup seemed pretty good - Bowser's been corrupted by this black ink that looks straight out of "Super Mario Sunshine" and, coincidentally, Bowser Jr. is there hoping Mario can help change his father back. The two tackle a brand new "open world," where the course-world structure is gone and replaced with a world map where the camera is set free on a 360 degree axis.

Bowser's Fury lets two players control Mario and Bowser Jr. as they set about collecting Cat Shines, this game's equivalent of power stars. Collecting these Cat Shines powers up lighthouses that further clean up the inky mess and reveal more of the world map. Eventually, you'll hit a Cat Shine threshold where you can activate the Giga Bell, which allows Mario to go into Super Saiyan Giant Cat form to battle the massively sized Bowser. You need to fight Bowser multiple times until he's finally completely restored, meaning this game is about continually searching the world for more Cat Shines.

The last wrinkle to the gameplay is a new mechanic that draws inspiration from "Breath of the Wild's" Blood Moon segments. Every so often, Bowser's shell, which is at the center of the world map, will rise higher and higher until it summons rain and the goliath himself. During these segments, the sky goes dark and Bowser himself causes mayhem on the map, dropping stone pillars and breathing fireballs. After a short while, or if you collect a Cat Shine during this segment, Bowser will disappear and normal gameplay will resume. It's a chaotic interlude to break up the otherwise samey-feeling gameplay.

Mario controls exactly as he does in "Super Mario 3D World," while Bowser Jr. has those controls plus a paintbrush swipe attack and the ability to reveal hidden objects using point and click motion controls. You can also have the computer control Bowser Jr. and select the amount of help it actually gives you.

Here's where the experience begins to fall apart. To start, the overall map feels like an oversized approximation of one of "Super Mario Odyssey's" Kingdoms. Because of this, you'll want every movement option that Odyssey offered in its gameplay and more. But Bowser's Fury is using "Super Mario 3D World's" controls engine, which feels dated for this game's open-world ambition. You can't do things every other 3D World Mario game offers, like the triple jump, and you don't have things Odyssey offered that gave you incredible movement flexibility, like infinite rolling or Cappy-hopping.

The "open world" is sort of a facade too. Yes, there are no loading screens between any section of the game, but the world doesn't offer the same interconnectivity or explorative wonder that, say, Odyssey's Kingdoms offer, where discoveries really are exciting and unexpected. Instead, this map feels more like five separate "Super Mario 3D World" levels stitched together in different mountain-like zones, with large expanses of water between. I would go through each "mountain zone" similarly to how I'd progress through a regular "Super Mario 3D World" level, from top to bottom, with very short branches off the main path offering a challenge for an extra cat shine.

Finally, facing off against the Giant Bowser quickly loses its luster when you see it for what it is. The game really tries to play up Kaiju Bowser's menace. Heck, there is even a part in his theme song that perfectly copies Sephiroth's theme from "Final Fantasy 7." But facing Bowser just looks grandiose simply because it's bigger. The actual fight takes the same Mario boss formula that's been here this entire franchise: recognize the pattern, wait for the opening, then jump on 2-3 times.

In short, the experience falters because it doesn't offer any truly new ideas, and it just doesn't compare to the brilliance of Mario's last game of this variety, "Super Mario Odyssey." Bowser's Fury gets beat by Odyssey in every category: aesthetics, sound design, controls and gimmick wow-factor. And while the game does provide a potential blueprint for how to take the 3D World series going forward - it wouldn't surprise me if the next game applied this open-world format to four players - Bowser's Fury is certainly not enough to merit a purchase on its own.

The graphics aren't a noticeably substantial upgrade, and handheld mode for both games had pretty steady framerates throughout (it's worth noting that "Super Mario 3D World" was closer to 60 FPS and "Bowser's Fury" is closer to 30).

Even with the Bowser's Fury miss, the content is worth it. If you want one of the best and most versatile multiplayer experiences to date for the Nintendo Switch, online or offline, go with "Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury."

But if you're looking in particular for the "Bowser's Fury" part to surprise you with new Mario gameplay concepts, look elsewhere. Bowser's increase in size and inky gloss may distract you at first, but trust me, it's simply covering up more of the same.

Published : February 11, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Jhaan Elker