It's difficult to extol the virtues of Super Mario 3D World without sounding like an apologist, because most of those virtues are conditional. Those who played the game by themselves, or those who gave up after the first few, less-than-revolutionary worlds are probably wondering how it landed on our list of the best games of the year. Those who played it as it's meant to be played — with four players, in long sessions, to completion — are probably finding it easier to get on board.
While not quite as subversive as The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (unarguably Nintendo's boldest reinvention in ages), Super Mario 3D World pursued design directions that the series has never really explored in depth. Its four-player co-op isn't a tacked-on bullet point; it's the very core of the game, a linchpin around which level design, gameplay mechanics and progression revolved. Simultaneous multiplayer isn't exactly new to the platforming series, but never before has it been so essential — or so rewarding.
Pound for pound, Super Mario 3D World provided more moments of emergent glee than any other game we played in 2013. It doles out satisfaction in all the ways you'd expect from a Mario title (coins, end-of-level flags, Bowser's overdramatic death animations), but those pale in comparison to the rewards you'll reap from the moment-to-moment interactions you'll have with your teammates.
Many of those moments are hard-wired into Super Mario 3D World's mechanics. To wit: There is a crown that's rewarded to the highest scorer on each level. Apart from a small point boost if you carry it through the finish line, there's no real reason to scrap over it. Same goes for the end-of-level flagpole — whoever lands the highest on the pole raises their character's flag. There's no impetus to raise your flag, but that certainly doesn't make it any less desirable. At some point, you'll form an unbreakable bond with whatever character you've selected — Luigis, represent — which makes raising their flag an objective that inexplicably outweighs all others.
even at its most unrecognizable, it's one of the most joyous multiplayer experiences we've ever been a part of
The game is delightful when cooperation prevails, and often more delightful when betrayal, greed and good, old-fashioned bloodlust are the orders of the day.
Super Mario 3D World is also an incredibly content-rich game, with dozens of levels, power-ups and interactive objects spread across the world. Some represent some huge improvements to the franchise's base mechanics; the Cat Suit adds new levels of verticality to the world, and would be a welcome series staple. Some are tailor-made for the game's frantic multiplayer; like the Cannon Box, an item that turns your character into an auto-firing death machine. When all four characters are cannon-equipped, the game ceases to be anything resembling a Mario title; it evolves into a sort of bullet hell trust exercise.
And that's just one genre switch that the game ushers its players through during its campaign. Like its heroes, Super Mario 3D World wears a lot of costumes; at times it's a platformer, sometimes it's a party game, it's occasionally a racing game, when it's not busy being a puzzle game — and so on. It reinvents itself level to level, but even at its most unrecognizable, it's one of the most joyous multiplayer experiences we've ever been a part of.