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Is the multiplayer enough to excuse how safe this game is? It was certainly a big deal, and justifiedly so - it is great and terrible in a system-defining way. But damn if this isn't just dull as hell, otherwise. And it shouldn't be! The control and platforming mechanics are probably the best the series has ever been, and even the motion control gimmicks aren't half bad. That little waggle air spin that gets you more distance on a jump - divine. But I would give absolutely anything for more interesting levels, characters, map layout, secrets, music, art, a final boss that's not terrible ... anything. Just so bland. Like eating a perfectly-made gourmet rice cake.
It's so hard to know how to rate this, because it's mechanically perfect and technically does do stuff the series hasn't ever before. But boy does it not feel like it.
A fair bit better than I've probably been giving it credit for all these years. It's still aggressively bland from an aesthetic standpoint - just nothing interesting going on at all - but mechanically and as far as level and overall game design go, it's quite strong.
Upon starting it (especially if coming right off of previous Mario games, as I just have) the controls feel very slow and slippery, which is, of course, a necessity given the smaller view of the handheld and how much of the screen Mario now takes up. But if you stick with if for just a little while, you can quickly get dialed in and discover some of Mario's exciting new abilities, like the really good, chunky wall-jump. Another issue you have to retrain your brain on a bit is the hitboxes, which are always going to be worse with 3D models, especially low-count ones like these. But if anything, they're generous, with you being able to fully clip into Thwomps, etc. a little bit without them killing you. You just gotta go with it and trust the behind the scenes math - Nintendo's guys still know what they're doing better than anyone when it comes to platforming, and in the end, it all works just fine.
On top of some overall top-notch level design (which features a shift further into breaking each stage down into sequences of discrete challenges, reinforced by the offshoot feats needed to get each level's three big coins - a great addition, imo), I also really like the structure of the world maps. Along with the big coins, the more prevalent branching paths design folds a kind of minor collectathon aspect into Mario, evolving the exits from SUPER MARIO WORLD and expanding it into a meatier completion system. It's great! You can mainpath it to the end pretty quick even without warping if you want to, but you're not going to see nearly all of what the game has to offer if you do. I think this is one of the more rewarding Mario games to 100%. (I mean, not in terms of unlocking anything meaningful or whatever. Goodness, no.)
Aside from the beyond-boring look and sound, and little lamenesses like the nothing final boss and a couple too many autoscrollers (although they do each have unique spins on the idea, at least), the game is quite good and lives up the legacy of the series well enough. It may have begat a solid decade of dull retreads, but I guess I probably shouldn't let that skew how I feel about this one specifically.
Just right off the bat, I think this is the best that Mario has ever looked or sounded. You could say that the graphics are simplistic compared to stuff that would come later in the 16-bit era, but it's unique to the series as it's the only Mario game that feels like it's influenced by cartoon animation specifically (I love non-mushroomed small Mario's little Ren & Stimpy character-lookin ass) and the color and vibrancy of this world is just unbelievable - so gorgeous. Playing this on hardware on a Trinitron with S-Video is like seeing the face of God. Also the music and sound effects are absolutely untouchable.
The debate has been raging since the '90s, and I know there are a lot of well-intentioned however confused people out there, but I'm sorry, this game is a lot better than SUPER MARIO BROS. 3. It has less 'stuff' in it, but trades the scattershot, throw-everything-in approach for a careful, deliberate structure and virtuoso level design. Not to mention it wisely doubles back to correct all of 3's odder missteps, and tightens the already industry-best mechanics even further, to the point where if you play this game for like, an hour, you can basically control Mario by thought and make pixel perfect jumps no problem.
It's so good, I forgive it for Ghost Houses.