No, the headline is not lazy shorthand. As much as I enjoy Super Mario 3D World, it's Bowser's Fury that has delighted me the most this year -- for many, many reasons, which I shall now inflict upon you.
Let's skip the part where I praise the quality of the 3D platforming and controls. Mario has been the leader in his genre since his Nintendo 64 debut, peaking (so far) with the sublime Odyssey. "It plays good" is pretty much a given when it comes to justifying a 3D Mario game as your pick of the year.
"It's fun" also feels like an obvious statement when it comes to a Nintendo game. It's vibrantly coloured, the soundtrack (minus the Bowser theme) is an instant feelgood, and everything is laid out in a way where it only takes a little experimentation to realise what Nintendo wants or will allow you to do, so frustration and repetition is at an absolute minimum.
Instead, I'll start with just how considerate it is of your time. Like Odyssey before it, this can be something you pour hours into, or just play for a short session -- and either way, you'll feel like you accomplished something. Each Cat Shine, this game's obligatory collectible, can be acquired within a few minutes; this both taps into my time-poor need for instant gratification, but also lends itself to the "Well, just one more..." mindset that turns a 20-minute session into over an hour.
It feels like you can experiment with Bowser's Fury in ways you can't with other Mario games
The fact it's relatively short is also a plus for me. And I don't just mean in terms of beating Bowser and rolling credits, but in terms of collecting absolutely everything. Four years on, I'm still finding Power Moons in the seemingly endless Mario Odyssey, whereas Bowser's Fury stands as the only 3D Mario game I've achieved 100% completion. (In fact, I've spent so much time on it with my son -- more on that in a bit -- I feel like I could comfortably replay it and even attempt some sort of speedrun). At the risk of echoing Chris, more of this please.
I'll be honest, I'm not overly fussed on the obsessive cat theming of everything to tie in with Mario's main power-up, but it was hard not to smile when I realised (shamefully when I was many, many hours in) that even the clouds and seagulls have cat ears. See what they did there?
I also didn't tire of the Bowser fights in the way I thought I would. Yes, the game suddenly takes on a heavy metal music video vibe every 15 minutes or so, but Fury Bowser (as he is dubbed herein) doesn't exactly take long to dispatch and you can quickly get back to the joys of platforming and shine collecting. Spend enough time with the game and you'll soon pick up the tricks to making this central boss a minor nuisance; collect any shine, for example, and he retreats back into his ink-splattered shell.
Then there's the hint of systems-based gameplay. It's not quite to the extent of, say, Breath of the Wild, but it feels like you can experiment with Bowser's Fury in ways you can't with other Mario games. Odyssey's Moons can each be generally collected in one, perhaps two ways. Many of Bowser Fury's Cat Shines, meanwhile, can be collected in any way you see fit; for example, yes, you can use Fury Bowser's blasts to wipe out the five Magikoopas you need to dispatch in order to unlock a Shine.
This is combined with the generous use of power-ups. Historically, Nintendo has specific areas or levels in which it wants you to use a Fire Flower or Super Bell, usually because the platforming section or puzzle has been designed around that ability. But while many of the islands in Bowser's Fury are geared towards one or other of these items (as indicated by which one pops out from each area's '?' boxes), you can actually use any of them whenever you want. Collect enough and you can switch between them instantaneously as you see fit. This freedom is more a novelty here, but I can't help but wonder what a Mario designed to allow players to use any power up in any situation might look like.
I also love the co-op; as established last year, co-operative games have taken on a new level of importance in the Batchelor household. For every hour I've poured into "the Bowser game," as my son calls it, I've probably spent at least five playing with him. Sometimes we're collecting shines, sometimes he's just leading the way in exploring what sort of chaos he can cause for the resident Goombas.
Bowser's Fury feels like more than just add-on content. It feels like Nintendo testing what might be the future of Mario games
Most cooperative games assume one of two things: either both players have equal skills and abilities (as seen in the Lego games, where you're both expected to pull your weight) or that one player is significantly more skilled/experienced than the other (as in Odyssey, where one of you is Mario and the other is, er, the hat).
Bowser's Fury gives player one (Mario) and player two (Bowser Jr) completely different abilities and advantages that perfectly complement each other when played by a parent and child. As Mario, my son can do all the legwork that he's comfortable with and I, as Bowser Jr, swoop in to support him when overwhelmed by enemies or fly up to grab those just-out-of-reach collectables. But then if things are getting too intense for him, we swap controllers and I can handle the tricky platforming bits as Mario, while he can take on Goombas without fear as the invincible son of Bowser.
Both players are empowered in different ways, neither feels like the inferior character or passenger, and I would love to see more developers explore this in their co-op games going forward.
But by far the thing that excites me the most is the structure. Much as I love them, I try to avoid the 'everything should be open world' line of thinking. But Bowser's Fury really does demonstrate what an open world Mario might look like.
The huge sandboxes of Odyssey are wonderful, but they're still separated by loading screens (masked by a cutscene) and a level select menu. It's an incredible game, but one cut into pieces. Bowser's Fury is a similarly incredible game that you can devour in one go. Just run or ride from island to island and you can collect every single Cat Shine without ever leaving the game.
It put me in mind of the original Jak & Daxter, where you could run between 'levels' seamlessly on a similar collectathon quest. It baffles me that exactly 20 years on, Bowser's Fury is the only game I can think of that explores this structure (and on a considerably smaller scale).
And I can't help but want more. Imagine a Super Mario Sunshine where you can't just see Ricco Harbour or the village of Bianco Hills, you can yah-mah-yahoo all the way there. I can feel my expectations rising unjustifiably high when I point out that Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (which experimented with a less linear structure on a smaller and more familiar scale) was followed by the masterpiece that is Breath of the Wild, the most open open-world game to date.
The bottom line is Bowser's Fury feels like more than just add-on content or a bonus game to justify a full-price Switch port of an eight-year-old Wii U game. It feels like Nintendo testing the waters for what might be the future of Mario games
-- and I cannot wait to see what happens next.