Mario and pals have new cat-like abilities in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Play as Princess Peach in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Clear tubes are a mode of transport in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Princess Peach in cat-mode in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Mario is ready to pounce in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Shadows will play tricks with the gamer in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
A scene of Mario and pals as cats in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Travel via dinosaur-like creatures as Luigi in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Bowser is back, and he's kidnapped a Sprixie in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Bowser has a hot rod in "Super Mario 3D World." (Nintendo)Link
Link can transform into an art object in "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds." (Nintendo)Link
Link brings art to life in "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds." (Nintendo)Link
As an art object, Link can travel in the walls in "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds." (Nintendo)Link
The look is old-fashioned, but "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds" is anything but. (Nintendo)Link
A battle scene in "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds." (Nintendo)Link
The Italian caricatures of Mario and Luigi, who may be the closest thing the video game medium has to a Mickey and Minnie when it comes to brand awareness, have returned in the Wii U exclusive “Super Mario 3D World,” now with the ability to morph into feline form. It’s one tweak among many, and it turns out that putting paws on the plumbers more than livens up a trusty formula.
Mario and Luigi now chase rabbits, climb trees and attack enemies with claws out, a number of seemingly small design changes that when taken as a whole results in one of the more inventive Mario adventures.
Like the best of Nintendo’s work, “Super Mario 3D World” is familiar — to a point. Along with handheld title “The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds,” Nintendo this holiday season has allowed weirdness and experimentation to goofily trump tradition.
While all gaming attention is turned toward faster, more connected game machines such as the PS4 and the Xbox One, Nintendo has reimagined its two largest brands, each making the case that eccentrically cute game design can be more impressive than any of the latest tech.
Players have seen Mario and pals in raccoon form before, but never before as a cat. They meow, they scale walls and, in one of the most meticulously designed major games of 2013, they interact with nearly every aspect of the world, here once again in fully roamable 3D rather than the side-scrolling, 2D view of yore.
Curious if they can throw a snowball, jump on an ice skate, scurry up a wall or escape peril by bounding up trees, the answer is most always yes. Ten hours into “Super Mario 3D World” and I was still asking myself the following question: Hey, I wonder if I can do this?
Does it always make sense? Gleefully no.
One doesn’t need to know why old Mario foes such as the mushroom-shaped Goombas have suddenly grown tails and now have the ability to make a sound sort of like a purr, or why never-say-die Mario foil Bowser now has a Hot Rod that can be bested by exploding soccer balls.
Another welcome change: The often-kidnapped Princess Peach is, after a long hiatus, once again a playable character, and the former damsel in distress can out-jump her potbellied male peers. This will come in especially handy when playing with others. Up to four at once can join, and since “3D World” has a competitive underbelly in multiplayer mode, don’t be surprised to see Peach floating to safety while Mario or Luigi jump into the void.
The 3DS-exclusive “A Link Between Worlds” takes a similar everything-old-can-be-torn-up-and-made-new-again approach. Here, Nintendo’s fantasy-action hero Link can turn into a painting to explore caverns, dungeons and forests as a movable art object on the wall. Link’s primary weapon is still a sword, but by allowing Link to transform into a stenciled image of himself the mood of game shifts. Never before has a “Zelda” title felt as much like a puzzle game, as dungeons exist less to be raided than solved.
While “A Link Between Worlds” is a sequel to 1992’s “A Link to the Past,” and bears a similar, bird’s-eye view of the landscape, it works as a nostalgia-eschewing stand-alone title. The kingdom and the princess are in peril, but Nintendo often uses story more as a device than a necessity. “A Link Between Worlds” is largely about giving players a full set of gadgets — a rod that sends Link spinning into the air, a switch-flipping boomerang, a Batman-like grappling hook — and finding the places where they can be used.
Perhaps its greatest asset is pace. A dungeon may need one or two go-rounds, but there’s not so much a strict order in completing them. If one simply wants to wander the kingdom and chat with a helpful witch, a magical beast who lost her children or a half-man, half-bee, one can do that. There’s multiple little stories for players to discover in the game, and it’s not uncommon to be stuck on one puzzle for 30 or 60 minutes. Players will have to think themselves out of a fix rather than slash their way out of one.
Each game is delightful in its own way, but there’s more importance riding on “3D World.” When it was released last Friday it instantly became the flagship title for the Wii U system, which Nintendo has admitted has been underperforming in the marketplace.
As a console showcase, “3D World” utilizes the Wii U’s touchscreen-like controller to enhance the game in little spots throughout. Some are fun but gimmicky, such as the ability to blow into the controller’s microphone and knock lil’ Goombas off a ledge, and other times the controller’s screen simply becomes a better way to navigate thoroughly tricky terrain, making it more a matter of convenience.
But such technical details are almost beside the point, as there is no Mario game quite like this. Ultimately, it’s no small feat what Nintendo has accomplished, which is to take two franchises that date to the mid-’80s and make them relevant to the here and meow, err, now.
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