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It’s been three and a half years since the last fresh Mario game, Super Mario Odyssey, arrived on the then-new Switch, heralding Nintendo’s latest efforts to mine new gameplay ideas out of a 40-year-old tradesman and his magical talking hat. That same period has seen the company engage in one of its periodic bouts of backwards-looking nostalgia-mining, retreading old territory with fancy, “new,” and annoyingly limited releases of Mario’s 3D adventures with Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, and Super Mario Galaxy. But the regressive streak was broken last week—sort of—with the release of the company’s updated remaster of Super Mario 3D World. Not only is the game basically new—in so far as it’s the first time anyone not simultaneously blessed and cursed with the massive missed potential of Nintendo’s last home console, the Wii U, will have been able to play it—but it comes along with a hefty and brand-new “expansion,” Bowser’s Fury.
“Expansion” is in quotes because Bowser’s Fury doesn’t fall under the traditional rules of video game extensions: That is, it breaks most, if not all, of the rules established in 3D World, itself a deliberate throwback to more traditional, pre-64 Mario gaming with small levels, flagpoles, etc.—albeit with a third dimension to explore. (Also: You’re a cat for a lot of it.) Instead of being broken into levels, Bowser’s Fury is one huge world for the player to explore, one less dictated by discrete goals than by a sense of exploration, and even, to a degree, danger, especially when the titular Bowser gets into one of his titular moods, transforming the sunny islands the game takes place on into a rain-swept nightmare. In form—the tropical locale, the heavy presence of bratty child-of-unknown-provenance Bowser Jr.—Fury feels like a deliberate throwback to the much-maligned Sunshine, even if it substitutes 3D World’s engaging power-ups (cat, other abilities that are not cat) in place of Mario’s talking jetpack, F.L.U.D.D.
But in function, Bowser’s Fury feels like a reference to something quite a bit different from Mario’s GameCube vacation from hell. Look back up at those descriptors: Open world. A sometimes hostile world operating on its own cycles. And, yes, the sense of discovering your goals not by pulling them from a list, but by looking off at the horizon, seeing something cool, and saying, “Hey, let’s go see whatever the hell that weird thing is.” (It’s a cat. It’s cats all the way down in this thing.)
No, what Bowser’s Fury feels like—if you squint—is an attempt to see if the lessons Nintendo learned from Odyssey’s partner in Switch-launchery, The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild, can be applied to everybody’s favorite husky Brooklynite. Admittedly, Bowser’s Fury doesn’t go nearly as hard in the open-world direction that Breath Of The Wild did; at no point are you asked to very slowly climb a mountain or cook your own apples. But the embrace of that basic principle—here’s the world, so go do the damn thing—is readily apparent, even if the actual result is a little bit truncated. Hell, there’s even horseback riding, in the form of Mario’s faithful aquatic steed, Plessie.
If these were merely aesthetic touches, it’d be easy to dismiss this as a reach. But the philosophy of Breath Of The Wild is apparent all over the edges of Bowser’s Fury, which takes the open-world experimentation of Odyssey and pushes it to the edges, inviting you to take in the terrain and turn it into a series of sometimes self-imposed challenges. It’s invigorating, to a degree that can leave 3D World feeling a little flat when you inevitably come back to it. And it makes us genuinely excited to see how far Nintendo can push this formula when the next “real” Mario game finally deigns to arrive.