Per an agreement with Nintendo in exchange for early access to their latest release, I am not allowed to tell you how many "cat shines" there are in Bowser's Fury, the in-game reward for completing one of the game's [REDACTED] objectives. This is a goofy part of the job, a more harmless but nonetheless annoying version of the more sinister work that was at play with last year's Cyberpunk 2077 agreements. But I can tell you that I'm not a completionist, and yet—hold on, let me look at a thesaurus and see if I can come up with the right word.
"a lot of (idiom): a large number or amount of (things, people, etc.)"
There are "a lot of" cat shines in Bowser's Fury, and I collected Every. Single. One. I move with machine-like precision from one game to the next, and almost never linger. The credits have rolled? Great, that's my cue to move onto the next game—see ya. But credits rolled on Bowser's Fury, and my instinct was to drive back in and, really, devour what was left. If there was more to do, even if it was the kind of garbage collectible hunt I'd normally spend a few hundred words decrying, I'd have signed up immediately. I didn't want to leave.
Bowser's Fury is a thoughtful and impressive expansion-sized Mario adventure attached to Nintendo's Switch re-release of Super Mario 3D World, itself a chronically overlooked Mario game because it was released on the almost platform nobody owned, Wii U. (If you want to read a bunch of words about how much I loved 3D World, read my old review.) Packaging these experiences together is a fascinating choice, because Bowser's Fury, which can accurately be described as an open world Mario, feels like a direct sequel to 3D World, fused with Nintendo's lovely experimentations in puzzle box design within Super Mario Odyssey.
It often felt like you couldn't go more than a few feet without collecting a moon in Odyssey, that game's equivalent of the shine/star/name your favorite collectible. Sometimes, even the most innocuous action would result in Mario being rewarded with a moon. Jump twice? Get a moon, bud! All told, Odyssey had more than 800 (!!) moons, albeit only a fraction were required to beat the game. Nonetheless, it was, imo, too many moons.
Bowser's Fury has [scans Nintendo's embargo, thinks carefully] less than 800 moons, but still feels stuffed with a deep variety of activities that gives the player the right amount of overwhelming options for what they might feel like doing. It feels like a balance has been struck, and a large part of that is due to the unique structure of Bowser's Fury.
Super Mario 64 established a framework for 3D Mario games that Nintendo has, in large part, stood by ever since. You enter a stage with a specific objective, complete that objective, and leave. New objectives might tinker with the layout of the level a little bit, making jumping back in surprising, but if you find a particular objective annoying, you're stuck doing that one.
Odyssey tossed that structure aside in favor of large, dynamic areas with a single "core" objective for Mario to lust after, but rewarding the player for completing smaller objectives along the way, such as scaling a tricky set of platforms or looking around the right corner. 3D World, by contrast, was a modern take on 2D Mario design, focused on players exploring the intricacies of smaller, tighter levels to find a handful of cleverly stashed collectibles—a stamp and three green stars—with the primary goal being about getting from the start to the end.
There is no "end" in Bowser's Fury. Mario is dropped into a large area, the size of which is [REDACTED], otherwise known as "pretty big." It's sizable enough to logistically and usefully require a map. Across this map are various islands, each of which would represent a stage in another Mario game. You can tell you've approached a "stage" because of the cat-themed gates, and once Mario passes through, some familiar UI appears and Mario is assigned an objective. When that's finished, Mario stays in the world, free to move in whatever direction they please. You can even head into the gate and get another objective in the same area.
But crucially, Mario doesn't have to do jack.
You don't want to mess with this area anymore? You don't have to. Just leave! No loading screens, nothing. It's freeing, and means the whims of players aren't constantly butting up the rigid demands of a designer. Whatever you are in the mood for, Bowser's Fury's got you.
Let's say, for example, Mario has to climb a giant tower and you fall to the ground halfway through. Most games would deem that a "death," and send Mario to an arbitrary checkpoint. There are no checkpoints in Bowser's Fury, and Mario cannot fall into the void, screaming for release. Instead, Mario harmlessly falls to the ground. The level design in Bowser's Fury, while draped over an ocean theme, is very tight, and there's always something to do within spitting distance. "I would like to chase this bunny around instead," thank you very much.
In reality, it's not all that different from how previous Mario games have been made, but it's how Mario is allowed to explore that's different and makes Bowser's Fury feel brand-new. He, and by extension the player, have options. It feels in line with the way that Nintendo reinvigorated Zelda with 2017's Breath of the Wild. "Open world" is itself an open-ended term that, at the end of the day, means "big map." What you do within that space is up for grabs.
There are countless examples of Nintendo rethinking Mario staples in Bowser's Fury, finding ways to keep the essence of Mario—jumping—while applying new ways to contextualize it. It feels like the designers kept asking "OK, but why?" and coming up with an answer that acts as a proper justification, rather than maintaining architectural legacy for history's sake.
For decades, the company hasn't known what to do with "lives" and "coins" in a world where players are expected to pick up where they left off, even if they hit game over. They continued to stick around because, uh, they were in previous Mario games? Bowser's Fury ditches lives entirely—but keeps the coins. Now, instead of drumming up a pointless high score, like the one still present in 3D World, coins feed into the game's on-demand power up system, where players can actively choose whether to shoot fireballs or scale walls as a cat, among other powers. (A slight disappointment: the game rarely requires you to actually use these powers.)
When you pick up 100 coins, you gain a random power up. Might be a normal mushroom, might be a raccoon tail. Regardless, it's a practical item that you'll get actual use of later on. A section might be "designed" for one costume, but any time, you can jump in another. Now, there's motivation to collect those dancing yellow objects, rather than reflexively picking up whatever the game puts in front of you because it's something we've all done since 1985.
One major component of the game is likely to prove divisive: Bowser himself. Every few minutes or so—it's hard to tell if it's a timer or triggered by the player's actions—a kaiju-sized Bowser appears in the middle of the map and begins terrorizing Mario. The sky darkens, a torrential downpour begins, and Mario's forced to dodge Bowser's neverending fireballs. It looks awesome. There are a couple of options at this point: complete an objective, as collecting a shine will send Bowser back into hiding; if you have enough shines, turn into kaiju-sized Mario and fight Bowser off; wait for Bowser to get bored and go away. You do the third a lot. Too much.
I get what Nintendo was going for here, trying to create anxiety while players are goofing around an otherwise chill location, but it doesn't always work. The kaiju moments are cool but tiring. There are Bowser-specific objectives for players to work on when he appears, but sometimes you're in the middle of scaling that tower and don't want to be bothered. Granted, you can continue and finish any objective you're already in the middle of, but it can be tough to pull off. It would've been nice if players could trigger Bowser's appearance on their own, or at the very least, if they happened less often as the game went along. It's no longer exciting.
And yet, that Nintendo has introduced a new friction with players is encouraging, and at times reminded me of the way some responded to broken weapons in Breath of the Wild. Friction is often good.
All told, that's the most exciting part about Bowser's Fury: it feels genuinely new. That's not always the case with a new game in a franchise as long-running as Mario, but Bowser's Fury proves there are still ways to make the act of making Mario jump feel exciting all over again. Onward.