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The concept of Mario is one of the most malleable in gaming, especially the 3D games. Though the main games remain steadfastly platformers, how this genre is interpreted changes drastically from game to game. The levels themselves reflect this flexibility, using every inch of them as you explore these contained worlds to discover different facets and finding different endpoints to collect. The strength of these worlds are how many different angles you can experience them from, how different trips into the same level can result in completely different gameplay loops. The latest Mario experience, Bowser’s Fury, points to enticing new possibilities by wrapping a short Mario game around an ever-looming threat of a giant Bowser that can reach you from anywhere in a single connected open world. But the level segments themselves are shockingly static, representing a step backwards for the series even as it flirts with exciting ideas.
Bowser’s Fury takes place on a set of islands in the middle of a large lake. There are three small hub areas that branch off into short, discrete levels. 100 Cat Shines are hidden throughout this island chain for you to find, some of which are off the beaten path, but the main ones you’re initially pointed toward are the ones that require you to navigate the levels to an end point. These stages will subtly change based on the Shine you’re currently working toward, again remixing levels to be different every time you play them.
In this way, Bowser’s Fury represents a step back for the series from the scavenger hunt on steroids that is Super Mario Odyssey, settling into a sort of middle ground between that and the sublimely designed linear levels of Super Mario Galaxy. And the approach works for the most part. The levels, though bite sized compared to the game’s bigger siblings, feature some tight platforming challenges while rewarding you with similar progression for exploring off the beaten path.
The major feature that sets the levels apart from other Mario games, though, is how all the levels are placed in a contiguous open world – no screen transitions, no loading screens. You travel between islands on a sea monster, and one-off secrets dot the archipelago in between the main islands. It’s all in service to the game’s central gimmick: A giant Bowser at the center of it all who will occasionally wake up and attack you from anywhere until he either feels like stopping or you get a Cat Shine to chase him away with. This adds tension and urgency to everything you do in the game, culminating in a final encounter where he will not stop attacking you until you have enough Shines to ring the Gigabell one last time.
Said Gigabell is the other new feature that appears in Bowser’s Fury and reveals the other reason for the small open world: scale. When you gather enough Cat Shines, you can ring the Gigabell and transform into a giant cat suit to battle Bowser with. The battlefield becomes the entire open world itself, which now seems as small as the last level of a Katamari Damacy game towards the end. It’s a great effect that really sells the kaiju battle imagery that these fights evoke, but also gives us a peek into the new things a Mario game can achieve in the future using this structure and scale in new ways.
Unfortunately, this structure means that the remixing of the levels that happens when you play through them each time are slighter than in Galaxy. Since the world is mostly fixed in place, much of the levels remain static upon repeated playthroughs. One type of variant, where you have to find a key and take it back the beginning of the level with few other changes, proves repetitive feeling. The flexibility of previous Mario game levels is now hampered here in service to a contiguous open world that centers its giant Bowser gimmick.
Make no mistake, Bowser’s Fury is an exciting prospect. The way Nintendo uses scale, an open world, and a persistent environmental element that can erupt at any time points to a bright future of untapped potential in Mario games. But the way it’s implemented in Bowser’s Fury hurts the malleability of the level design and wears the player down with just enough repetition to be annoying. Hopefully Nintendo will keep in mind that it needs to put level design first, as that’s the biggest strength of Mario games and why we keep going back for more.