The recent re-release of Super Mario 3D World on Nintendo Switch has introduced a generation of players to one of Mario’s best and brightest adventures. Being able to play as different characters across dozens of unique and interesting levels is satisfying and exciting, and of course, the addition of Bowser’s Fury to the package is the icing on an already decadent and delicious cake. The game’s strengths are obvious, but Super Mario 3D World does much more than giving the playable characters cat outfits. One of the best things this game does is prove how effective time constraints can be. By using the timer in different ways, Super Mario 3D World further shows its endless creativity.
Originally released in 2013, Super Mario 3D World feels shockingly modern. The level design is, in general, peak Nintendo. Secrets are plentiful and satisfying to find. But part of what makes unearthing a green star or stamp feel so good is that it’s difficult to do so on the first run of any given stage. Sure, diehard players of Mario games will probably know what to expect; they see Bullet Bills and a brick wall and have a good idea of what to do next. But newcomers to platformers, or even lapsed Mario fans, will probably just bang through a level quickly and miss out on the hidden stuff. The ticking clock in the upper-right-hand corner of the screen is a constant reminder to keep moving.
Even though stages are mostly short, and there is probably ample time to finish any given level, the clock gives a sense of urgency to any situation. Players will often find themselves at a crossroads, suspecting or even knowing there’s a secret lying just down the path even though the stage-ending flagpole is up ahead. The timer is ticking down; the music speeds up; is there time to find that missing green star or stamp? Making a split-second decision is always an adrenaline rush and though the stakes are actually pretty low most of the time – it’s Mario; what’s the worst that can happen? – touching the top of a flagpole with seconds to spare always feels great.
But Super Mario 3D World also plays with time in other ways. The main stages are all timed, but some stages have a timer that is deliberately shorter than others. World 5-3, Backstreet Bustle, has a timer that’s just 100 seconds long, adding another layer of pressure to complete this short-yet-chaotic stage. Contrast that tightly designed stage with Sprawling Savanna, World 5-4. Instead of a confined cave, players are free to run across a massive plain. But the timer still ticks down, and even though the time allotted is four times more than the previous stage, secret hunters might still find themselves running up against the clock.
Reviving a 2013 game is already a risky proposition, and bringing back the timer might feel like an odd choice. After all, Super Mario Odyssey basically took the series in the opposite direction, letting players explore at their leisure. And in this rerelease, the included Bowser’s Fury similarly lets players do things on their own time. This makes the time-based challenges in the base title stand out even more and highlights their variety.
Sprinkled throughout the overworld of SM3DW are Mystery Houses, where Nintendo further explores playing with short micro-challenges. In these stages, players must collect green stars in levels that are only ten seconds long. Over the course of the game, these Mystery Houses turn into gauntlets. Players must collect five, ten, and even thirty green stars in the later worlds. A Mystery House always has a frantic feeling, and the variety perfectly contrasts with the longer stages. Stages contain Mystery Boxes too, pocket dimensions where the player character is transported to a small room where they must defeat enemies or climb something quickly before the timer expires. At every turn, time is the special ingredient that adds a little spice.
This even extends to the diorama-like Captain Toad stages. Captain Toad cannot move as quickly or even jump like the rest of his friends. All he can do is walk forward, and this lends a different kind of urgency to his stages. It is impossible to blast through a Captain Toad level like it is in other stages. Players are forced to be methodical, moving the camera around to determine their best way forward. But the timer still ticks down and gives a greater sense of urgency to Captain Toad’s plodding pace. It’s reasonable to think that these stages wouldn’t feel as fun without the clock. Again, there is more than enough time to find the collectibles in these small levels, but the simple addition of some numbers ticking down adds a thin layer of panic to the proceedings.
There is near-endless variety throughout Super Mario 3D World. The costumes change traversal and enemy interaction, and playing as Peach or Luigi is a vastly different experience from using Mario or Toad. Stages have all kinds of platforming variations, and there are even auto-scrolling levels that force players to think about what’s up ahead. But the way Nintendo takes the simple concept of a timer and uses it so well and so differently throughout Super Mario 3D World is something special. The future of Mario looks bright and though upcoming games might not feature timed stages as this one does, the potential for endless variety is unmatched.