Nintendo really wants you to know that Mario can turn into a cat in Super Mario 3D World. That’s the primary focus of the game’s marketing. The logo even has a little cat tail poking out from behind the second D. When that instantly recognizable “baby’s first Italian impersonation” voice of Mario’s announces the game’s name on the title screen, it ends with a sassy little meow. Nintendo really wants you to know that Mario can turn into a cat in Super Mario 3D World.
Cat Mario is just one of many new ideas introduced in the first 3D Mario game for the Wii U. Like the cat suit, which Mario and his friends can wear after grabbing a bell that pops out of certain blocks and fallen enemies, most of these new ideas build cleverly on concepts that have long run throughout the series. Although the cat suit offers a distinct set of abilities and controls differently than the raccoon suit or bee suit, the idea is the same: With this one special power-up Mario gains the skills and appearance of a specific animal. And of course the suit is so adorable it hurts.
Cat Mario does the things you’d expect a cat Mario to do. It has claws for scratching Goombas to death or climbing up the side of hills too tall to leap onto. It can move swiftly on all fours, darting through the green plains and frozen fields so familiar from past Mario games. Cat Mario can pounce in mid jump, his trajectory suddenly shooting downward with claws bared, striking hard against his cartoon cute enemies. He can do everything that can make cats seem like jerks. He pulls it off, though, because he’s only using those powers for good, and because he doesn’t mysteriously vomit everywhere.
The cat suit might be the most visible addition to Super Mario 3D World, but it’s not the only twist on an old idea. Super Mario 3D World doles out inventive new wrinkles throughout the course of the game, regularly surprising you with familiar but subtly changed mechanics. Kuribo’s Shoe reappears as an ice skate, with Goombas merrily flitting over frozen ponds until Mario stomps them into dust and steals the skate in which they lived. It turns the grease spot annoyance of every Mario ice level ever into a graceful and meditative moment of beauty. Bullet Bills are everywhere, as usual, but now Mario can ram his head tight into a cannon block and run around shooting bullets out of his face. Magic fruit splits Mario into three, putting you in control of a troupe of skittering Mario clones. Super Mario 3D World isn’t content to aimlessly rehash Mario’s past—it approaches that history with reverence but also inspiration, spinning new threads out of old cloth.
It’s also the first core Mario game that lets you play as Princess Peach since Super Mario Bros. 2. You can pick between four characters before the start of each level, or play with up to three friends at once. 3D World’s four-player multiplayer foregoes the twin Toad attack of the New Super Mario Bros. series, activating Mario’s true love back onto the starting lineup alongside Mario, Luigi and a single Toad. As in Super Mario Bros. 2, each character has its own abilities. Luigi can jump higher than Mario, Toad’s the fastest and the Princess can float for a brief spell. It’s the first 3D Mario game that has simultaneous multiplayer, and although the camera can grow a bit problematic as multiple players sprawl throughout the levels, the game handles the increased player load with aplomb. It’s not as frenetic or distracting as in the New Super Mario Bros. series, and the level design holds up as well with four players as with one.
A Mario game wouldn’t really be a Mario game if that level design wasn’t exemplary. The levels in 3D World aren’t as open or rambling as those in previous 3D Mario console games, but most are craftily built tests of intelligence and reflex, little puzzle boxes to unravel while searching for every last coin, 1-up and green star. Although it’s a 3D platformer, it owes much to a 2D design ethos (and not just because you enter levels through a 2D overworld map similar to Super Mario World.) The camera is often fixed between a few perspectives, eliminating the full range of vision from the older 3D Mario games. More often than not your character will move from left to right, although with a sense of depth and an allowance of space that doesn’t fix you into following a single straight line. It can be hard at times to judge where your character stands in relation to the enemies, at which point it’s crucial to look for the shadows on the ground, which offer a reference point for spatial relationships. Reading the angles properly is an acquired skill that doesn’t take much time to learn. With copious secrets spread throughout each level, a suite of recurring challenges that pop up throughout the game, and that regular drip-feed of new mechanics, you’ll be torn between replaying levels and pushing through the game as quickly as possible to see what comes next.
It’s a sign of a great game when the only major complaint is that it isn’t as good as some of the greatest games ever made. 3D World is a wonderful Mario installment, offering up all the charm and challenge you expect. Despite that quality and its new additions to the Mario mythos, though, it’s not an unmistakable instant classic like Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Bros. 3. It doesn’t change the scope or expand on the possibilities of the series. It’s a very good Mario game, but like pizza, bourbon and records by the Fall, a Mario game that’s only very good is still one of the best things ever.
Garrett Martin first played Super Mario Bros. in a Lechmere in Sarasota, Florida. He edits Paste’s games section and reviews games for the Boston Herald.