Just what is Bowser’s Fury?
Academically speaking, it is an add-on to the just-released Switch remastering of the 2013 Wii U title, Super Mario 3D World. Super Mario 3D World was a very well regarded Mario platform that mixed the linear level design of 2D Mario games with the greater movement freedom afforded to 3D Mario games. The game was a sequel to 2011’s DS title, Super Mario 3D Land, and while there wasn’t as much freedom in it as in the fully 3D games like Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Odyssey–you could only ‘roam freely’ in the relatively small corridor-like arenas that made up each stage as you made your way to the traditional Mario flagpole at the end–Super Mario 3D World made up for any movement limitations with the inclusion of over 80 levels of endless invention. The stages were relatively short, just a few minutes long each, with a typical Mario countdown asking the player to have fun with traversal but also to not tarry, but–in a truly mad flurry of Nintendo inventiveness–almost every single one featured a new mechanic or gameplay twist that in the scope of one stage was introduced, expanded upon, perfected, and then discarded.
It’s a shame, then, that almost nobody outside of the 6 or so people who bought a Wii U played the game. This is why Nintendo has been plumbing the depths of that ill-fated console’s back catalogue in its efforts to re-release versions of its games on its much more successful Switch. We’ve already had Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, and 8 other titles that originally released on the Wii U now ported over–in various stages of remastering–to the Switch since that console’s launch in 2017. These are by and large very good games, so it makes sense that Nintendo would want more people to buy them now on a system that people actually own (quite aside from the usual profit motive, that is).
It’s in that spirit that Super Mario 3D World arrived on the Switch earlier this month, and it did so not only with some quality of life improvements like faster movement, but also with a curious little thing called Bowser’s Fury attached to it. I hate to give credit to a marketing department, but thanks to Nintendo’s at times somewhat vague messaging, I was 100% intrigued from the outset as to just what Bowser’s Fury was going to be. They really did a number on me. I followed the drip of promotional material like a hungry pooch does the hands of its humans eating lunch. All they kept saying was that a new version Super Mario 3D World was going to be released, and that that would be “+ Bowser’s Fury.” For the longest time, that seemed to be all they were telling us. Occasionally, there’d be snatches of footage of some sort of giant, kaiju-type fiery Bowser and a similarly outsized version of Mario facing him down. Sometimes, we’d see Mario running around a beach of some sort, but the interesting thing was: The camera was rotating around him in a way that suggested this was a fully 3D type game we were seeing, more in the tradition of, most recently, Super Mario Odyssey. Mario’s movement hinted at this lineage, too. Yet Bowser’s Fury was coming bundled with the decidedly un-fully-3D 3D World. So what exactly was going on here?
Having now played it for the best part of the week I can answer this question in two ways. One: Bowser’s Fury is a short (6-8 hours), fully 3D, open world, standalone adventure, that has almost nothing to do with 3D World. And two: Bowser’s Fury is tremendous amounts of fun. Hopefully, it is also a hint of what Nintendo intends to do with its fully 3D Mario games in the near future.
Because aside from the pure fun that you have while romping around the archipelago of Lake Lapcat in Bowser’s Fury, the thing that comes across most is the sense of joyful discovery–not just the player’s, but the developers’. Bowser’s Fury very much feels like Nintendo doing a little test run in an effort to see how best they could proceed with something that many of us may well have never thought we’d need, but now that we’ve glimpsed it will likely crave: a fully open world 3D Mario Game.
Bowser’s Fury is not a big game. It’s probably about the size of one Odyssey world. But whereas in Odyssey those worlds were often fairly open in their design, they were still contained within a set area, outside of which there was a world map of sorts, across which you travelled in non-playable sections so as to advance from one stage to another. There are no such stages in Bowser’s Fury. It is all one (again, admittedly not so big) world. In this sense and a few others, it looks like the Mario team have been inspired by that other Switch tentpole: the 2017 masterpiece that is The Legend of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.
In Breath Of The Wild, you are let loose upon the wide open world of Hyrule, and it is almost entirely up to you as to which direction you set off in, and what order you complete the few structured tasks there are. Bowser’s Fury doesn’t go quite that far. Lake Lapcat is an open world playground, filled with collectables and enemies and environmental puzzles, but you are only able to access a portion of the map at first. This is nothing new to open world games, of course. In a Grand Theft Auto title there might be a bridge under construction that’s preventing you from accessing further areas until the plot permits it (ah, sweet memories of trying to jump that blown bridge in Grand Theft Auto III to get over to Staunton Island before I was meant to); in Bowser’s Fury, it is a giant oil slick (or close enough) that’s preventing you from travelling to every area in the game right from the outset. The origin of that evil toxic goo is the central hook of the game, as well as another way that the game calls back to Breath Of The Wild.
In typical Mario fashion, the plot of Bowser’s Fury is presented in beautifully minimalist fashion: Mario is strolling along in the Mushroom Kingdom one day–as he always is when a game’s plot is about to come crashing down around him–when he spots a trail of black goo on the floor. Following it along to a bigger slick, he is suddenly swallowed up by the goo and transported to another realm. Waking up on a little island beneath a blackened sky, belted by rain, Mario finds himself in a living nightmare: Out there in the water there towers a gigantic, yellow-eyed, flame-beam-spewing version of ol’ Bowser. Wasting no time, and under fire from Bowser’s various flame-based distance attacks, Mario finds a token called a cat shine that lights up a nearby lighthouse, which banishes Bowser further afield and forces him into his shell. The skies clear, the music changes, and Bowser’s son, Bowser Jr., shows up, anxious and desperate to enlist his family’s usual plumber nemesis in helping him return his dad to normal. He has been corrupted by the evil goo, says Bowser Jr., and we have to try to help him the only way we can: By collecting enough cat shines, transforming into a kaiju Mario, and stomping on the elder Bowser’s head until he is sorted out. Medicine!
And that right there is the other Breath Of The Wild-esque hook: Bowser’s Fury has a day and night cycle that, like the Zelda title, introduces an element of danger that forces you to change up your play style. In Breath Of The Wild, monsters appeared at nightfall and plagued you throughout. In Bowser’s Fury, every ten minutes or so you will notice the wind begin to pick up, the rain start to fall, and if you look to the horizon at that point, you will see Bowser waking up from his goo nap. Then, the sky goes black, the music gets heavy, and Mario suddenly has a clear and present threat interrupting his merry platforming. This ain’t your Goombas and your Cheep-Cheeps wandering through your path, this is a Godzilla-sized Bowser raining down fire and blasting a fire beam in your direction. If you haven’t collected enough cat shines in your current area, then you simply have to wait out the storm, running and dodging and avoiding Bowser’s attacks any way you can. If, however, you have found enough cat shines, then you can race to the activated ‘Giga Bell’, which will transform Mario into a size comparable with Bowser’s, and the epic showdown begins. Get enough hits in on the huge monstrosity, and he will retreat further away, taking more of the black goo with him, and freeing up more of the archipelago for you to explore on foot and on the back of your trusted water mount, Plessie. This constant interchange between the two states–happy-go-lucky standard 3D Mario gameplay and fraught survival-or-battle mode–is a great innovation here. It keeps things fresh and gives everything a nice rhythm, as well as a sense of accomplishment that comes with knocking back big bad Bowser and revealing more of the beautiful landscape each time. (It reminded me in that way a little bit of the mostly forgotten yet visually stunning and underrated 2008 Prince Of Persia reboot).
In terms of raw mechanics and the polish therein, Bowser’s Fury is not as accomplished as the perfection that is Super Mario Odyssey. The move set is smaller and the response feels a tiny but clunkier (something that wouldn’t be noticeable in any other series, but when this character has set such a high bar for himself it’s hard not to feel it). Similarly, the world design is nowhere near as thought-out, detailed, or involved as in Odyssey. And of course, though the world is open, it is small. But these slight critiques have to be taken in context. This is not a full game. What Bowser’s Fury feels like more than anything else, is Nintendo laying down something new and daring, if a little bit rough, relatively speaking, and seeing how we react to it. I hope that they hear only one resounding answer: We like it! Bowser’s Fury is gorgeous, features a frothy and joyful soundtrack (with a delicious side order of heavy metal flavour during the night portions, which I certainly appreciate), and its combination of Mario platforming and Breath Of The Wild exploration and alternating play styles is a truly inspired choice. If this is the future of 3D Mario, then sign me the hell up!
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