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Mario and pals in multiplayer of Super Mario 3D World Image: Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo

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Even the strongest relationships won’t survive Super Mario 3D World

Considering multiplayer? Read the room

Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

Mario platforming games are pretty chill when I’m playing on my own. A tricky level might occasionally pop up, but 95% of Mario games can be completed by anyone with a passing familiarity with platformers. Time is rarely a factor, after all, and don’t worry if you die, since you have one million lives waiting in reserve.

Super Mario 3D World definitely falls into this category. I enjoyed the first few worlds on the Nintendo Switch, but can’t recall feeling challenged. This was all within my capabilities.

Then I added a second person and it all went to shit.

Two’s a crowd?

When played solo, Super Mario 3D World keeps throwing out callouts — on the world map and at the start of every level — for other players to join in. It’s akin to what you might see from an arcade beat-’em-up, trying to entice another source of quarters with a Marge or a Rafael joining the fight. But if you manage to wrangle another player, the chill dynamic during solo play will change drastically.

While Mario Kart gets plenty of attention for ruining friendships, you wouldn’t necessarily expect something similar from a Mario platformer. After all, everyone’s just trying to get to the end of the level together, right? 3D World even encourages cooperation through level design. Panels that change position whenever you jump require communication among players to ensure that no one gets sent to an untimely demise. In another level, players can work together to issue commands while riding a dinosaur named Plessie. Plessie goes faster the more in-sync both players become.

This all seemed like an idyllic paradise of teamwork, and made me think maybe I should play with my wife. She’s definitely not into platforming games, preferring more slow-paced, cerebral efforts like Stardew Valley and Don’t Starve. But, I don’t know, this seemed like a fun way to spend time together?

Mario and pals in multiplayer of Super Mario 3D World Image: Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo

It turns out playing with other people turns 3D World into bloodsport. For every moment where you have to work together, there are three moments where you’re sprinting after a second Fire Flower, even though you’ve already got one, just for some extra points.

See, every single thing you do in 3D World earns you points, and those points are tallied up on the scoreboard at the end of each level. The person with the highest score on the scoreboard? They get a crown. To wear. Maybe you see where this is going.

Things were going OK as my wife and I played through the first few levels. There was a moment of tension when I accidentally picked up a second Mega Mushroom, making her miss the experience of becoming an enormous Toad of destruction, but she knew I hadn’t done it on purpose.

Then the scoreboard came up at the end of the level. I had narrowly beaten her, thanks to the Mega Mushrooms and my higher placement on the end-level flagpole. The crown was mine.

I could tell she accepted it, but wasn’t thrilled. It felt like a slight to finish a level, only for her to be reminded that she could have done better.

After one or two more levels of me still narrowly beating her score, I skipped things ahead to the level I was currently on in my solo play: a boss level featuring Bowser and a giant train. I’m not entirely sure what I did during this level, but I guess she died a few times and I absolutely eviscerated her score by the end of it. It wasn’t even close. It was such a blowout that I started laughing uncontrollably. It wasn’t to gloat, it was just out of uncomfortable surprise, like a loud fart at a funeral.

And then I made a fatal mistake: I took a screenshot of the scoreboard.

A scoreboard in Super Mario 3D World Image: Nintendo EAD Tokyo/Nintendo via Polygon

In the back of my head I thought: Huh, maybe this would be a fun thing to write about, how this nice, friendly-looking game turned into a competitive slaughter. And having some art to go along with that story would be useful. But she understandably read the screenshot as a flex. She tossed the controller on the couch next to me to signal that she was very much done.

When everyone is Player One

She was totally right to pull the ripcord, and I quickly apologized. What played out was not at all what I was expecting. I envisioned a utopia where we helped each other through tricky jumps or discovered hidden items like we were on a treasure hunt. That’s the spirit of Mario platforming games, right? It’s about the thrill of exploration, of trying new things in a friendly space.

While Mario Kart and Mario Party seem to relish in giving you ways to screw other players over, core Mario games are usually supportive. Think about Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey, who can be controlled by a second helpful player to assist Mario with jumps and attacks. Hell, even the nefarious Baby Bowser becomes a helpful pal when a second player jumps into Bowser’s Fury. There’s no fighting over coins or Fire Flowers in those games, it’s just about working towards a common goal.

But those side characters lack agency. They have no control over the camera or where Mario goes. They’re purely there to assist Mario in his quest, rather than taking command themselves.

In 3D World, additional players have the same abilities as Player One, the same right to grab whatever items they want, and the same ability to push the action ahead at any point. Suddenly, everyone has equal power.

The stark contrast between solo play and multiplayer in Super Mario 3D World is not actually a bad thing … in the right circumstances. In my college days, this would have been a massive hit in the dorms, with playful heckling and a few beers. A controller might have been hurled in someone’s direction but, ya know, college kids and all.

Perhaps less ideal: someone who lives with you and loves you very much, but isn’t super jazzed about platformers or competitive games and would much rather you leave her with the 1.5 update of Stardew Valley. In short? Read the room.