This will be the first entry in what I am going to try to make a semi-regular column. Each one will focus on a current game that I feel is ideal for being played and enjoyed together by parents (dads, in my case) and their kids.
My four-year-old son began to take an interest in video games over the last year. I started playing when I was about the same age, so I was only too happy to encourage his interest. When I was a kid, most of the games that were available were quite a bit less violent than today. As such, the question of what is age-appropriate becomes pretty important. I decided to go out and buy a Wii U since Nintendo is pretty well-known for having family-friendly games. Most of the ones I owned didn't really fit the bill.
One of the first games I picked up for the new system was Super Mario 3D World, or as my son likes to call it, "Cat Mario". This turned out to be a great purchase because both of us have found it to be quite enjoyable. The gameplay is the same as it was in Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS, except that in this installment, there can be multiple players on screen at the same time.
For those that aren't familiar with that game, the style is basically a mash-up of previous Mario games. You have a panned-out view of your character(s) in a 3-dimensional world. The goal is to get to the flagpole at the end of the stage without losing lives or running out of time. Most of the stages flow from left to right but some of them have you move right to left, climb up, or even go underwater.
When there are multiple players present (you can have up to four), the screen generally follows whoever is closest to the flagpole. There is no option to set a leader character. Any character that the screen isn't following can wander off (or die) and they will then come back in a floating bubble. The bubbles can travel through walls, enemies, lava, etc with no effect and will automatically float to, and follow, whoever is nearest the end. A non-bubbled player can choose to go into bubble mode at any time (except when falling to their death) by pressing either the left or right shoulder button. Players will remain in their bubbles until they press a button to pop it or another player jumps up and touches it. All players can't be in bubbles at the same time and if the non-bubbled player should die while the rest of the players are bubbled, everyone is forced to start again.
The bubble feature has its pros and cons. On the upside, it comes in handy for helping inexperienced players like my son get through tougher sections in the game. For instances where he was dying a lot, or when one section of a level looked too overwhelming, he could just choose to go into his bubble and follow my character until I was able to get us through. Also, sometimes in the game you have to work together to get one of the players up to a high, out of reach platform, leaving the other player(s) seemingly stranded below. But all they have to do at that point is go into bubble mode and they float right up to join their friend.
On the downside, since there is no way to designate a leader character for the screen to follow, sometimes the automatic bubble feature would lead to unintentional deaths. For instance, my son would occasionally get over-eager and run ahead, only to fall off a cliff or die by hitting an enemy or trap. This nearly always seemed to happen right as I was forced off screen and into a bubble, turning one death into two.
Other times, he would go one way and I would go another, in search of a power-up or one of the stamps or stars that are hidden in every level. Then, just as I'm about to claim the treasure, I get auto-bubbled again and he grabs the flag or warps us to a different section of the level. These issues would be easily fixable, again, with the simple option to choose a leader that the screen follows instead of whoever is closest to the goal. It's only something of a minor complaint but nevertheless, a source of needless frustration.
Out of Control
My only other real complaint about this game has to do with the controls. Or, perhaps I should say, the controllers. Excuse me while I rant for a moment. So, the game claims to be compatible with the Wii U Pro Controller (my personal preference); and it is, for a good 90% of the game. Playing through Super Mario 3D World with the Pro Controller, you wouldn't really expect to even need the Gamepad. But then, every so often, you get to one level that requires it. Why? I honestly have no idea. I don't understand the logic behind such a decision. If a game system offers multiple controller options, and a game box says that it is compatible with a certain controller, shouldn't that controller work for 100% of the game? Why toss in random levels that force you to stop what you're doing and juggle multiple controllers?
The reasons you need the Gamepad aren't quite clear either. There are basically two types of levels that require it. Neither will allow you to start them without the use of the Gamepad. The first type consists of levels that look and feel just like all the other levels in the game. The only difference is that the Gamepad player has to occasionally interact with an object or door by tapping it; or they will have to blow in order to make a couple of platforms in the stage move.
This blowing and tapping function feels out of place and unnecessary considering how seldom it appears in the game. It just as easily could have been replaced with contextual button presses, or by functioning in the same manner as most other objects you find in the game. In fact, most levels let you enter doors by simply walking up to them. Only the Gamepad levels force you to tap to open doors. Admittedly, my son did get a little enjoyment out of tapping and blowing on the screen, but in my opinion, the gimmicky nature of the mechanics and the fact that they are so infrequently used just makes it all feel tacked-on and pointless.
The other type of levels that require the Gamepad are an even worse offender. The Captain Toad levels. There's one in every other world of the game. They completely change the play style and feel of the overall game. You are still searching for stars and there is still a time limit and enemies, but that's about it. There are no coins or power-ups to collect, no flagpole, and no jumping. There are also no other players. Just Toad. One Toad. That means you could be playing a four-player game, zipping along, completing level after level and having a blast with your friends, then you get to a Captain Toad level and everyone has to stop playing, put their controllers down, and just sit there and watch you. How fun for them.
Unsurprisingly, my son didn't enjoy these levels too much. He wondered why he couldn't participate and kept asking when he could play again. It isn't really clear why these levels require the Gamepad either. All you do is rotate the screen around with the right thumbstick. The Pro Controller has the same right thumbstick. Theoretically, it should work just as well for these levels, yet it is inexplicably forbidden.
Taken for what they are, the Captain Toad levels are actually somewhat fun and clever. They probably fare better as their own separate game. But interspersed throughout this game, they could not feel more out of place. They also represent an additional question mark as to why the Gamepad is even necessary for this game.
Super Mario 3D World is very well paced. My son loved it right from the get-go. I, myself was a little unsure at first. It starts off incredibly easy. Almost too easy. Fortunately, the difficulty increases as the game progresses. Pretty substantially, by the end in fact. On the first stage, I was just kind of going through the motions, but by the time I got to the later stages, I was fully engaged, sometimes sweating and having to make repeated attempts at getting through some part of one.
There are a lot of stages too. Every time I thought we had reached the end of the game, another world opened up. Truth be told, we are actually still making our way through the game. We've been playing a couple nights each week for the better part of a year now, and we still have yet to reach the end, end. That a represents a pretty incredible value in my opinion.
The learning curve in Super Mario 3D World works very well. My son was new to platform games when we started it. He was really able to take advantage of the easy difficulty of the early stages and get acquainted with the gameplay mechanics. He actually became accustomed to them enough that he was able to pretty well hold his own in some of the later stages. There are checkpoints in the middle of each stage to help ease some of the difficulty as well. You can take advantage of slot machines in each world to try to score some extra lives. The game also has unlimited continues so no matter how hard a particular stage seems, you can always try, try again.
The power-ups in the game are great fun. Old favorites like the Raccoon Leaf and Fire Flower return, but there are also new ones to love. The main attraction (the one my son particularly enjoys) is the Cat Bell. It allows your character to pounce, swipe at foes, and climb up sheer walls, all while dressed head to toe in a colorful, ridiculous looking cat suit (complete with tail).
The other really fun new power-up is the Double Cherry. Every time you grab one, it duplicates your character. Go from one Toad to two Toads; get another and be three. Levels that feature the Double Cherry always have several available. If you can avoid getting hit, you can usually end up duplicating yourself three or four times. Before long, you will find yourself controlling a small army of Toads (or Marios, or Luigis, etc).
If it Plesios You
Occasionally, in certain levels of the game, you get to ride on the back of a friendly plesiosaur named Plessie. If there are multiple players present, they can try to work together (or against each other) to steer and jump the dinosaur to collect coins and stars, and avoid obstacles. My son loves the Plessie levels. We must have replayed each one about a dozen times (though some of those were do-overs due to a lack of cooperation that invariably took us over the edge of a cliff).
I had fun with the Plessie levels myself, but my personal favorites were probably the ghost mansions. Each one is pretty fun and inventive. They feature everything from floating couches, to ghostbusting floodlights, to phantom flagpoles, and more. Overall, most every stage in Super Mario 3D World is quite creative and charming. It's a big part of what makes this game so good.
Super Mario 3D World is immensely entertaining for people of all ages. Both my four-year-old son, and my adult self have had a tremendous amount of fun with this title. There are a ton of crazy, imaginative levels that are perfect for a riotous multiplayer romp. Even for the few frustrations that are present, this game is still a must-purchase for Wii U owners. Especially if you have kids. My son and I both give it two thumbs up.