Nov. 22, 2013 at 11:46 AM ET
Since the pudgy Italian plumber first appeared in the original "Donkey Kong" in 1981, Mario has evolved into both the most iconic video game character in the medium's history and the mascot for the industry's best-selling franchise. But video games are a very different beast in 2013 than they were in the 1980s, and it's no secret that Nintendo has been having a hard time getting even its diehard fans to buy the Wii U console.
The Japanese gaming giant hopes to change that with "Super Mario 3D World," the latest installment in its rockstar franchise that hits shelves Friday. "3D World" is easily one of the best Mario games I've ever played. But as a wayward Nintendo fan, I'm left wondering: will this marvelous new game just end up being completely overshadowed by the launch of Microsoft's Xbox One console, which hits the shelves the same day?
Clearly, I don't know the answer to that. Nobody does. But what I can tell you is that "Super Mario 3D World" finally gives the Wii U the Mario game it deserves. There's "New Super Mario Bros. U," which launched with the system back in 2012, sure. But that game just felt like a gussied up version of the side-scrolling classic; it had prettier graphics than its predecessors on the Nintendo systems of generation's past and little else.
As its name implies, "Super Mario 3D World" throws the series' running and jumping paradigm into a whole new dimension. There are all the well-trodden territories fans will know and love — from the lava-infused slate-colored dungeons to the icy tundra of the winter-themed levels. But they're all recast in an isometric perspective that makes navigating them more engaging.
The fun of any good Mario game lies in the comical clumsiness of simply trying to navigate from point A (the green pipe you pop out of at the beginning of the level) to point B (the flag pole you jump onto at the end). Playing with four people huddled around the TV is delightfully awkward, but that's the whole point.
Better yet, for the first time in the series using different characters actually means that you will actually have a different experience playing the game. There are four playable characters—Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Peach—each with subtle advantages and disadvantages of their own. Toad is the fastest runner, for instance, while Luigi can jump the highest of the four. Princess Peach—who takes a much-needed break from her standard role as the damsel in distress—has a unique ability to float for a few seconds after making a jump, which proves especially useful when trying to nab the highest point possible on one of the end of the level flags.
Everybody wants to be a cat
And then there's the cat suit. Probably the single greatest addition to Mario that "3D World" brings is a brand-new power-up that puts any of the four characters into a feline costume that lets them behave like, well, a cat. You can scratch your way up walls, claw at any of the cast of colorful bad guys in the game, and run around with newfound feline grace. You know the old Disney adage that "everybody wants to be a cat?" If the sheer joy of "Super Mario 3D World" is any indicator, it's true.
During a video conference that Nintendo hosted with members of the press last month to talk about the game, three of the core developers behind "Super Mario 3D World" — Yoshiaki Koizumi, a producer, Kenta Motokura, one of the two directors, and Shigeru Miyamoto, the legendary creator of Mario and other hit Nintendo franchises such as "Donkey Kong" and "The Legend of Zelda" — kept emphasizing that Mario is designed to be a game for everybody to enjoy. Seasoned gamers, couples on dates, young children and their elderly grandparents, everybody.
Problem is, "Super Mario 3D World" is only coming out on a device that nobody seems to want to buy. Just earlier this week, the game industry research firm DFC Intelligence forecast that Nintendo would only end up selling about a quarter as many Wii Us as original Wii consoles — which sold more than 100 million units.
So is the company still bringing enough new stuff to the world of Mario to keep it the de facto game for everybody? When I put this question to Miyamoto, he said that focusing on novelty was the wrong way to look at "Super Mario 3D World."
"If you think about this game only in terms of the number of courses it has, which is similar to previous games, you’re gonna miss out on the fact that there’s so many new ideas and surprises contained within," Miyamoto said. "Whether it’s the ability to have multiplayer with your friends and family nearby, or how much fun you can have trying all sorts of different characters and the different ways that they can get through the levels and surprises within."
For Mario's sake, I hope he's right.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.