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'Super Mario 3D World' review: The portly plumber's latest is totally pawesome

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Super Mario 3d World

Super Mario 3D World is not extra-dimensional in the sense that it requires special specs to play it. Nor does it run on some glasses-free, 2D-defying tech like the Nintendo 3DS. No, its name actually comes from the title that spawned it, Super Mario 3D Land, which was, in fact, played on the aforementioned 3D device.

While not technically three-dimensional, though, Mario’s latest Goomba-stomping romp pops off the screen like no entry in the popular franchise before it. Forgoing the series’ oft-used side-scrolling formula in favor of layered level layouts that stretch to foregrounds, backgrounds, and any space in between, 3D World is a platforming fan’s paradise. Toss in stunning HD visuals, complemented by a rainbow-shaming color palette and plenty of clever camera perspectives, and 3D World’s Sprixieland is the most imaginative Mario universe I’ve experienced since planet-hopping in the Galaxy games.

More than just painting a pretty picture, the eye-popping presentation translates to the title’s creative level designs as well. Environments are constantly changing, tossing up new eye-candy-coated challenges at every turn; from piloting giant ice skates and exploring a pirate shipwreck to traversing river rapids atop a dinosaur and avoiding a Bullet Bill barrage while riding a Bowser-themed train, this is not your typical Super Mario run-and-jump collect-a-thon.

That’s not to say, of course, players won’t be participating in the series’ staple activities on their quest to scoop up every collectible, discover every secret, and best every baddie. Like any good Mario game worth its weight in shiny, spinning coins, 3D World has fans gathering the familiar gold currency aplenty when they’re not filling their plumber’s tool belt with stars and stamps — off-the-beaten-path goodies needed to unlock all the title’s bonus levels — or stomping on enemies’ heads.

Helping on your journey to save seven kidnapped Sprixie princesses is a host of power-ups and suits, including old standbys (Fire Flowers), fan-favorites (Tanooki Suits), and even some fresh tricks. Most notable among the new ability-granting attire is the Cat Suit. Donned when your character snags a Super Bell, the cute kitty costume was the subject of much pre-release ridicule; turns out, though, the feline suit’s adorableness — and usefulness — elicits far more smiles than snarky remarks. In addition to being as cute as a caterpillar perched on a puppy dog’s pink nose, it allows its owner to scratch, climb, and pounce. Also, did I mention it’s adorable?

On top of the many powers and abilities acquired throughout the game, each of the four playable characters sports unique skills; Luigi jumps higher, Toad is faster, Princess Peach can hover, and Mario’s the best all-around platforming athlete. 3D World can be played cooperatively with up to four players or solo. The former is fun, especially when a pair of players’ co-op strategy gives way to some friendly competitive shenanigans, but things become a bit too chaotic when more than two Mushroom Kingdom citizens are bouncing around simultaneously. Thanks to the “3D” level designs, the co-op is leaps and bounds better than it is in the New Super Mario Bros. entries, but I still enjoyed this one most when I had Sprixieland’s lovely sights and sounds all to myself.

3D World is still very much a traditional Super Mario game at its core. Players can count on crushing Koopa Troopas, collecting stars, and battling Bowser and his many mini-boss minions, but they can also plan on doing so in one of the most imaginative and clever universes the series’ creators have ever conjured.

It falls short of perfection simply because it’s so heavily based on its portable predecessor and isn’t a totally original take — as Super Mario Galaxy was — on the franchise’s tried-and-true template. That said, the struggling Wii U’s first must-buy title is brimming with unbridled creativity and the sort of smile-inducing fun we all felt the first time we learned Princess Peach was in another castle.