As the math equation of a title implies, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury bundles two discrete video games in one package. One “old,” one new, the pair have been loosely tied together by a shared love of cats. Yes, cats. But beyond that pseudo-superficial connection, the duo represents a rare fork in the road for the future of Nintendo’s diminutive plumber.
On one path is Super Mario 3D World, a port of a little-played but lovingly reviewed Wii U game that blends together the best bits of 2D and 3D Mario adventures. Though technically a sequel to Super Mario 3D Land on the Nintendo 3DS, Super Mario 3D World borrows freely from the entire series. An alternative title for Super Mario 3D World would be “Super Mario’s Greatest Hits”: the multiplayer of New Super Mario Bros. U, the colorful levels of Super Mario World, the zippy mobility of Super Mario 64.
Nintendo isn’t afraid to bend the Mario franchise in inventive ways; its designers never outright break the formula. As a result, if you know how to play one Mario game, you have the tools to play every Mario game. And so, loving Mario games means noticing the tiny details that distinguish them, like how one emphasizes coin collection or another features a power-up inspired by a woodland creature known for its engorged (and mythically magical) testicles.
Super Mario 3D World builds upon this assumption that most players can already speak its language. Stages feel, to a longtime fan, familiar — or, to put it another way, referential. Little is new here, except the game’s fluffiest upgrade: The cat suit allows Mario and pals to climb walls and launch a diagonal diving attack. The game is polished within an inch of its life, even by the standards of the Mario universe, in which every enemy, block, and bottomless pit is placed with intentionality. But this game just feels, I don’t know, glossier? Perhaps it’s the high-definition 3D character designs, which look like collectible vinyl figurines. Or maybe it’s the precision of the movement, honed through decades of fine-tuning.
Super Mario 3D World doesn’t reinvent the Mario formula. But it is in every way its own game, with a bright, joyful aesthetic that’s supported by inspired level design and a cast that matters. It gets the balance right between nostalgic touches and clever new twists, and never once let me down with a boring boss or too-familiar retread. In all my years of playing with the Mario gang, I’ve never been quite so happy to hurl myself into the unknown, and 3D World delivers challenge, surprise, and joy in almost every moment.
I won’t go so far as to say Super Mario 3D World is my favorite entry in the storied franchise. I will say it’s the entry I am most likely to recommend to both newcomers and lapsed fans returning to video games in adulthood. The four-player online multiplayer feature helps. And there’s a genuine comfort to the reliability and consistency of the adventure, like listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Greatest Hits.
To stretch out that comparison to its snapping point: While most folks prefer the Greatest Hits album, the most obsessive Fleetwood Mac fans (read: me) will prefer listening to Tusk, the band’s experimental album that’s not 100% bangers, but radiates personality from its ambitious and sometimes misguided intent. I accept that I can’t spend this whole review talking about Tusk, Fleetwood Mac’s best and most underappreciated album, but, patient reader, I can tell you about Bowser’s Fury: the Tusk of Mario games.
Bowser’s Fury, the new half of this oddball double feature, is the first fully open-world Mario game.
The story begins with a children’s book premise: Bowser has been turned into an oily, skyscraper-sized abusive father by black acrylic paint (don’t ask me), and Bowser Jr. needs Mario’s help to return his lizard dad back to his typical grumpy and incompetent self. A second player can control Bowser Jr., or the game’s artificial intelligence will handle the sidekick, who floats around Mario thwacking enemies with a paintbrush and unlocking hidden power-ups.
At first, Bowser’s Fury doesn’t appear to be so different from other 3D Mario games. Mario stands on a beach, surrounded by coins and platforming blocks and the usual baddies. But in the far distance sits another set of platforms, and farther in the distance, more platforms still. Imagine Super Mario 64, but instead of discrete stages, each location is one island in a grand archipelago.
The scope overwhelms, similar to Super Mario Galaxy’s stages crammed with satellite planets, in which Mario looks like a small speck in an infinite void. And similar to the original Super Mario Galaxy, the scope of Bowser’s Fury’s open world doesn’t allow for the artistic precision of other Mario games.
To put it another way: If most Mario games are meticulously designed obstacle courses in which every object and piece of art is precisely where it needs to be, Bowser’s Fury’s open world resembles a toddler’s room after a day of playtime: color and toys and distractions everywhere. It’s messy and lived-in, but if you take a breath, you’ll notice the space has its own charm and warmth.
The actual playgrounds, the islands that make up each challenge, are no less fun than any other 3D Mario locales, packed with clever puzzles and some difficult-but-never-infuriating platforming paths. The tropical setting offers a surprising variety of architecture, like a castle Mario must break into, a sky-high tower he must climb above, and a beach with invisible platforms that form a maze for sweet, confused Mario to feel his way through. Plessie, the orange soda-colored Loch Ness monster, materializes throughout the world, eager to ferry Mario from port to port and compete in a handful of its own aquatic challenges.
Challenges reward cat shines, which are similar to the stars in any other Mario game. But here’s where things get strange, where the Mario formula bends much further than it has before, where it nearly breaks into something entirely new.
As Mario, you must complete these challenges within an unspecified amount of time. If you don’t hurry, the game gets more challenging. A storm will roll over the island, the world will go dark, and the kaiju-Bowser will appear, transforming the world into a hellscape. Obelisks rain from the sky like onyx missiles; the pouty papa spits beams of fire; stray kittens strewn across the islands turn into demon cats.
I found three ways to get rid of the belligerent interloper, none of them easy: I could collect a cat shine, scaring him away. I could wait out the storm, a long and usually lethal prospect. Or I could turn into a giant cat and kick him in the tuchus.
If Mario collects enough of the sparkling cat shine tokens, he has the option to ring a humongous bell that transforms him into an XXXXL Mario wearing a cat suit. Evenly matched against the hulking Bowser, the two battle like Godzilla versus Kitty Kong. These boss fights are as repetitive as every Mario vs. Bowser fight, except for one clever tweak: The islands, towers, and mountains of the open world become shields and barriers in these showdowns.
Though previous Mario games have enforced time limits on individual stages, the countdown clock has been generous and visible. The series has largely encouraged players to proceed at a leisurely pace, inviting them to learn the environment and then overcome its obstacles. With the looming threat of a gargantuan Bowser and his limitless projectiles, Bowser’s Fury charts a course distinct from the Mario formula. Familiar spaces become unfamiliar with each new pillar driven into the surface. The game, without warning, shifts from memorization to improvisation.
My colleague Julia Lee noted in her preview that Super Mario 3D World is “the most chaotic Mario game [she’s] ever played.” I agree. And I love it. It’s fresh and unpredictable and different from what I expect from this series.
I initially thought the two games — Super Mario 3D World and Bowser’s Fury — made for a mismatch. But I found from bouncing between the two that their formulas complement one another. Super Mario 3D World’s history-lesson-like approach to the series acts as a control group, making Bowser’s Fury’s experimental twists all the more striking.
Is Bowser’s Fury the future of Mario? I doubt it. The formula has worked too well for too long to go too far down this antagonistic open-world path. But I hope we see similar diversions from Nintendo in the future, new ways for the familiar to surprise us.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury will be released Feb. 12 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.