Bowser's Fur(r)y

Some months ago, my daughter looked at my retro video game cabinet and saw the Mario 30th Anniversary poster I have on the door. She looked at the various incarnations of our mustachioed hero and immediately noticed Super Mario 3D World. "Dad. We need to play the game where Mario is a cat." There was a note of urgency in her voice.

"I'd love to," said I, the eager gamer dad, excited not only to share another Mario game with my daughter, but also to boot up SM3DW again. I'd only played it once, close to launch, and was ready to give it another play-through. I switched HDMI to the Wii U, plugged in the perpetually-dead Game Pad, and opened the entertainment center to boot up the disc.

That's when I suddenly realized...I never actually owned 3D World. I had only borrowed it from my brother and never purchased a copy for myself.

My daughter cried. I cried. Thankfully I was able to boot up Super Mario Maker 2 and sate her desire to see Mario in a cat suit (which is a purely innocent sentence when the antecedent is only 4 years old). But man, I did want to play 3D World again.

Only a few weeks after this debacle, Nintendo announced exactly what I'd hoped they would announce: a 3D World port to Switch! On top of that, the game would be packed in with a new mode called Bowser's Fury. Excellent! Good news all around for everyone in the house.

Even up to the day of release, Bowser's Fury was a little ambiguous. From the information available to us, you really only knew that there was a Kaiju Gunk Bowser and a Super Saiyan Cat Mario. There appeared to be some cooperation with Bowser Jr. and a lack of the other three playable characters in the base game. Beyond that, the actual game itself was sort of a mystery.

As it turns out, Bowser's Fury is essentially an open-world concept using the 3D World engine. You can read the details of the structure elsewhere, like Ian's post on the blog here. That was a twist in structure that I was not expecting. It makes me wonder where this came from. Was this a proof of concept or demo that got spun out into a full game mode? Was this a sort of passion project from developers that got Nintendo's stamp of approval? Was this a corporate mandate following the success of Breath of the Wild, to see if Mario could chase the same open-world success Zelda saw? We'll never know, because Nintendo rarely pulls back the curtain on that sort of thing. One thing is clear, though: Nintendo is trying something here. I admire that a lot. Nintendo hasn't been doing a lot of that, lately. The "trying." (OK, that's unfair...but tell me I'm wrong.)

The implications of this structural experiment could be massive, or they could be insignificant. Perhaps the next Mario game is going to sport several of these grand maps with interconnected-but-discrete levels...or maybe this is just a one-off thing, and people will look back in 10 years and say "Man, remember when Nintendo tried that open world Mario thing?" If Nintendo does go down this open world Mario road, though, there needs to be a new hook besides the Kaiju Gunk Bowser on a timer. It worked for this shorter experience, but stretched out over a whole game it simply would not have been sustainable.

Whatever the future holds for Mario, I was happy to play Bowser's Fury. The level design was fun, if a bit repetitive. It didn't overstay its welcome--I was able to get all 100 shines in roughly 5 or 6 hours. The only shines I had a big issue with were the Calico Cat shines, and that's really only because I saved them for the very, very end. If I had been finding the Calico Cats as I played through the game's natural progression, they wouldn't have been so bad. The platforming challenges were attainable but satisfying, the tightrope that Mario games have been able to walk for so long. Finally, the new open world format allowed for some fun routing decisions. "I fell off the I go back to the beginning, or do I go to this other level that's a bit closer? Oh, wait, I see an overworld shine! I'll get that and double back. Oh wait, it's raining! Where were those Bowser Blocks again??" I love being efficient in my gameplay sessions, and situations like these presented me with fun, intrinsically motivated challenges to overcome. When do I get the Giga Bell, and when do I get a shine? That's ultimately an inconsequential decision, but it feels important when you're in the moment.

As it is an experiment, though, there are some improvements to be made. The game could have benefited from a "Make Bowser Appear Now" button, at least as an unlockable post-credits addition. (A corresponding "Make Bowser Bug Off" button would have been another good unlock, too.) It was a little weird that the levels had different states based on what shine you were pursuing, but in order to reset the level state, you had to physically run out of the level boundary and re-enter. (That may sound confusing, but you know what I'm talking about if you've played the game.) My biggest problem was the camera control; namely, the fact that my thumb can only do so much. The classic Mario setup is to put the pad of your thumb on "run" and then use that as the fulcrum to lever the middle part of your thumb down to "jump." Unfortunately, when you then ask me to include right-stick camera controls in there, I ended up occasionally using a clawgrip configuration that was...doable, but not enjoyable. This could have all been avoided by mapping "run" to R. (Or, horror of horrors for Nintendo, allowing you to...*gasp* remap the buttons.)

I thoroughly enjoyed Bowser's Fury, and since it was nice and bite-sized, I'm still excited to jump back into 3D World and play the port I was so jazzed for in the first place. I have to ask though...what is this thing? Is it a new game? Is it DLC? Is it an expansion pack? Is this just part of 3D World now? Is it something new entirely? Who knows. But even as it raises lots of unanswerable, existential questions, Bowser's Fury is a great new Mario experience.

OK, Nintendo, we really need to sit down and talk about this Cat thing.

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