Super Mario 3D World. It was good wasn't it?
Yeah it was alright.
Here's how I described it before children: "probably the most conservative Mario game ever made".
Here's how I describe it now I am in possession of a three-year-old boy: "probably the best kids game ever made".
Played as a single player game, with a few forays into multiplayer with experienced Mario players, Super Mario 3D Land just felt so boring. After the mind-bending Mario Galaxy, with its boundless imagination, orchestral soundtrack, Super Mario 3D World was just... there. I played through it by rote. On a superficial level I had 'fun', really it just engaged me on this barely conscious level — like a crossword puzzle on the train. It passed the time and little more. I was frustrated by its ordinariness, by its inability to dazzle me. I played Super Mario 3D World and I promptly forgot about it.
Then my child started playing video games. Then it all made sense.
One day my son, after watching me play another game on the Wii U, somehow managed to mouth the word 'MAH-REE-OH' after seeing Super Mario 3D World on my hard drive. Before I knew it I was replaying it. Before long he was saying the words "MY TURN". Before long I was handing him the controller saying, 'jesus-christ-please-don't-drop-this-thing-it's-expensive".
I want to talk about the very first level of Super Mario 3D World, because it's a level I've watched my son play through maybe twenty or thirty times.
On my playthrough I rattle through Super Mario 3D World's first level in roughly a minute or two. I might have gone back to pick up a secret star or two I can't quite remember. Point being: I thought it was forgettable garbage. Too easy, boring, zero personality. Blergh. Even as a tutorial level it felt like a failure.
Now, watching my son play, I notice little details. Intricacies I would otherwise have ignored.
To begin with, it's pretty difficult to die in this level. I should know — my son has done a good job of trying. Surrounding the level: the video game equivalent of bumper bars at a bowling alley. You literally have to jump over things to die (which my son has done... many times). Even the game's enemies are mostly impotent. Mushrooms will kill you if you run towards them, but here's the thing: mushrooms also run towards you. If my son stands still and jumps endlessly — as he is prone to doing — chances are he will land on their head. It's a clever little trick that make players believe they've skillfully jumped and navigated onto the head of the enemy.
The wide open spaces of Super Mario 3D World, which I assumed were there to make room for multiple players, actually create a nice little training ground for children to explore. It's hard to understand as adults who play video games but, for children, the simple act of running in a circle and jumping is a pure joy. As a parent you try, you say, "go in that direction. Bloody hell go that way" only to be roundly ignored by the giggles of a child who is literally discovering what it means to project their giddy little self into a video game universe. Super Mario 3D World allows players that time, provides players that space to experiment with what it means to actually play a video game.
It's almost insane to say but my son finds it easier to play Super Mario 3D World — a game that plays out in three-dimensional space — than any 2D Mario ever made. That fact seems bewildering to me, a player who grew up on 2D games. But it's a fact, and it's testament to just how good, how accessible and how calculated Super Mario 3D World is as a video game for children.
Super Mario 3D World allows you to play with your children and literally carry them through difficult parts of the game. It allows you to store power-ups and then actually throw them on to less experienced players. I've lost count of the amount of times my son has demanded to "be cat mario" only for me to have a spare power-up in my back pocket.
And Super Mario 3D World is just packed with intricacies like this — details that make it ridiculously easy to play for children. Example: the 3D level map, which my son has spent hours exploring. Example: the ridiculous power up that appears when you die a little too often. For adult players the Gold Tanooki suit feels like a literal insult. For my son it's just another power-up that transforms his experience from frustration to instant glee.
These are details I would never have noticed. Details that changed my perception of how game design works as a whole. Details that were clearly thought about, discussed and implemented with young children in mind. Details I would have ignored and dismissed had I not played with my own son.