I've long asserted that the thing that really made Mario 64 work is that its audience had the time for it. It was a £70 game in 1997, and the 8 year-olds who went wild for it weren't likely to get another one of those until Christmas. They were willing to knock their heads against the wall a million times and lose countless lives to find each new Power Star, and the game thrived under those conditions.
But what if a 3D Mario game was short and light? What if it was a bonus freebie bundled in with another game? That's what Bowser's Fury is, and it's why it works so well.
Bowser's Fury is the Thatcher's Techbase of Super Mario. A dense open world, exploring the full depth of 3D Mario design, and focused directly on the execution of a vicious demonic tyrant. The cat theme might wear thin within the context of a traditional campaign, but it's a constant delight within the few hours the game takes. As much of a treat as it is for longtime fans, it serves as a great introduction to those who aren't so committed to the series.
It's an odd duck this one. Many have seen it as a way to experiment with what Mario can learn from Breath of the Wild. I think it's equally valid to see it as an experiment with what a very wee Mario game could be. Portal has long been held as a standard-bearer for short games, but compared to personal favourites like PaRappa the Rapper and Kirby's Dream Land, that's a fairly meaty game. I'm into this stuff. The success of Bowser's Fury's freeform structure and open level design is heavily owed to its scale. I suspect a full Odyssey-sized game of this would feel pretty drab and repetitive compared to the big Marios, but as a wee bonus for a 3D World rerelease, it's great.
Bowser's Fury is full of wee islands. Each one, a new spin on the platforming. It's kind of like Super Mario Bros. 3, where none of the levels really felt as substantive as those from its series' siblings, but their brievity gave them the freedom to delve into mad stuff with slopes and frog suits. Bowser's Fury is full of wild level design. Areas full of bouncy platforms and slides, invisible obstacles, and giant towers that seem to go on forever. The design of its platforming obstacle sequences is frequently more linear than something like Sunshine or Odyssey, but oddly, it feels less boxed-in and restrained as a result. It feels more like Galaxy, except you can shoot off and do something completely different at any point.
It's odd, but this wee bonus game tacked on to a 3D World rerelease might be one of the most balanced Mario games ever made. The 3D games have always struggled to weigh freedom against the excitement of deliberately designed sequences of hazards and challenges. Bowser's Fury is arguably the first Mario game that feels like every Mario game. It balances the appeal of the NES games with the HD and handheld ones. More casual fans who have been following the series' biggest releases will inevitably be annoyed at the thought that they have to buy 3D World again if they want to try this new spin on the formula, but it's been out for a while now - I'm sure someone will give you a lend if you ask.
There are a lot of dedicated Mario fans who will miss this as a result of being asked to buy the same game twice, and the Wii U owners need every bit of good will that could be sent their way. I don't know why they couldn't just chuck this up on the eShop. This far from launch, it feels like it's slipped into obscurity. I don't think there's a lot of people still finding out about Bowser's Fury. If they're looking for a game to push on young audiences who have just become excited about Mario through the new film, I don't know if there's a better one to hand them. It feels so reflective of all the surrounding games, it could serve as a fantastic gateway. 3D World's not a bad place to go afterwards, but it could just as easily spark interest in Odyssey, Mario Maker 2 or Super Mario World. If this was a £15 download, everyone who owns a Switch would have played it. Time's running out before April, and I'm embarrassed to think that kids who just came out of the Sonic film probably asked their parents for Forces or Colors Ultimate.
I don't know if Bowser's Fury is indicative of the future of Mario games, but I'd hope that whatever comes next can learn from it. It's every reason people like them. I hope a lot more people will play it.