While Sony and Microsoft are spending this holiday season asking video-game players to invest in the future -- namely, their respective new consoles, the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One -- Nintendo is reminding us of the great times it gave us in the past.
Remember how much you enjoyed "The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past" on the Super Nintendo back in 1991? Well, how can you resist "The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds," now out for the Nintendo 3DS?
Likewise, "Super Mario 3D World" (for the Wii U, $59.99) evokes memories of "Super Mario 64," the landmark 1996 hit that first broadened Nintendo's tenacious plumber into three dimensions. Of course, we're all used to 3-D Mario by now, so "3D World" doesn't have the same impact. Nor does it deliver the gravity-defying genius of 2007's "Super Mario Galaxy." But it is a charming, occasionally brilliant addition to a 30-year legacy of video-game excellence.
Like last year's "New Super Mario Bros. U," Mario's latest adventure is designed to accommodate up to four players. The four available characters have different skills: Luigi can jump higher, Princess Peach can float, Toad can run faster and Mario more or less averages them out. The distinctions are somewhat marginal, though, since each level is designed so that any one character can finish.
This time, the nefarious Bowser has kidnapped a bunch of helpless fairies called "Sprixies." The goal, as always, is to run and jump across each level, bouncing off the heads of enemies while avoiding fireballs, bullets and other obstacles. There are a few new additions to the landscape, like transparent pipes that shoot you across short distances, but the Sprixie Kingdom doesn't look substantially different from Mario's Mushroom Kingdom.
The power-ups are mostly familiar as well, from the basic mushroom that doubles your size to the Tanooki suit that transforms you into a raccoon that can swat enemies with its tail. New to the series is the "double cherry" that turns one Mario into two, but the most radical addition is a furry cat suit that gives our heroes the ability to climb walls -- an essential skill if you want to find all the green stars hidden throughout the game.
You can scamper through each level without gathering any stars, but some areas of the Sprixie Kingdom won't open up unless you've accumulated a certain number of collectibles. That includes the game's final castle, which requires 130 stars; when I arrived I had just 80, so I had a lot of backtracking to do.
So you want to take your time and explore each area as thoroughly as possible, while also being aware of a constantly ticking countdown clock in the corner of every screen. And you can't dawdle if you're playing with friends -- eventually you'll be dragged to wherever the fastest player is waiting.
Indeed, whether I was playing alone or on a team, I found it most frustrating that "3D World" wouldn't let me explore at my own pace. Granted, the countdown clock has been part of Mario games since the beginning, but it's a tired old gimmick.
Like any multiplayer-focused game, "3D World" can get chaotic when you're playing in a foursome. But it's a high-spirited kind of chaos, one that provokes laughter rather than the cursing you're likely to hear in, say, a "Call of Duty" free-for-all.
Played solo, "3D World" isn't quite as endearing. It's not exactly dumbed down, but it didn't bend my brain like "Super Mario Galaxy." Often, it feels like a classic 2-D Mario adventure translated into 3-D, a game that prizes familiarity over innovation. It's solid and satisfying, but next time, I want to be wowed. Three stars out of four.
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