Bowser’s Fury is the new add on for the Switch re-release of Super Mario 3D World. The question of what it is from a mechanical standpoint isn’t very complicated. It’s a remix of Super Mario 3D World assets (with some new stuff added, and controls and a camera that are much closer to Mario Odyssey’s) into a vast open world lake level, where Mario searches out “cat shines” in order to fight Bowser, who has been corrupted by some kind of sludge into a giant dark form, that’s sort of a mix between Godzilla, Bowser, and Ganon. The shines are spread out across islands on the lake and are accessed through standard Mario challenges ranging from getting to a specific point where a shine is to fighting a boss to collecting blue coins in a specified time limit to completing a time trial race course on back of Plessie, Mario’s giant Loch Ness Monster friend, who also lurks around in the water and is used to travel from island to island in the lake.
Mario is accompanied on this adventure by Bowser Jr., who also explains the threadbare story, and mainly serves to hold power ups, meaning that Mario, for the first time I can remember in a platformer, has a substantial and immediately accessible inventory. `Just like in the main 3D World game when you collect a powerup that replaces your current one the old powerup goes into inventory, except here you can hold up to 5 of each type, meaning you can have an inventory of dozens of powerups. Because there are no lives in this mode you get a new powerup into inventory with every 100 coins, and you will naturally have quite a few stored up by the end of the ~5 hour adventure. Bowser Jr. can also kill enemies (and you can select how often he does this) and paint over specific points that you indicate with a gyro, often giving you a powerup for your trouble but sometimes doing something more substantial like opening a secret pipe. While Bowser Jr. is AI controlled by default a second player can take control of him, though he definitely serves a secondary role to Mario, especially in the massive boss fights.
And yes, there are massive boss fights. After collecting a certain number of shines Mario can use a “giga bell” to transform into a giant Super Saiyan Cat Mario and battle Bowser across the open world, which mostly consists of swiping at him with your claws or stomping on his belly after he launches a falling shell attack. These battles resemble Kaiju battles and you can use the islands for cover from Bowser’s projectiles and beams, waiting for him to expose himself. It’s a fascinating and unprecedented use of a Mario open world level and even though the battles are relatively simple and easy (especially because you can take 3 hits and there are new cat bell powerups constantly respawning) they are a lot of fun.
When you’re not fighting Bowser he mostly lurks in the center of the lake, much like Gannon, but every 5-15 minutes or so he emerges to wreak havoc, turning the normally sunny environment dark and rainy and dropping dark shards into the levels, changing their geometry. He also blasts at Mario with flame drops and a giant beam, the latter of which is the only way to destroy fury blocks, scattered throughout the island, each group of them hiding another cat shine. Bowser can be tamed either by waiting him out, collecting a cat shine, or beating him in a kaiju battle, though the last option is only accessible if you have enough cat shines for the next tier, and defeating him will unlock a new set of islands to explore (meaning you only really get 4-5 kaiju battles between the beginning and the credits, though they do evolve in complexity as they go.)
All this combines into something unique in the history of Mario. It’s kind of like a small scale Zelda game (minus the narrative, complex inventory, and deeper puzzles) set in the Mario universe and was clearly inspired by Breath of the Wild. From Bowser lurking at the center of the map waiting to be challenged like Gannon in that game, to the fury moments that resemble BOTW’s blood moons, to the fact that Mario can collect and hold a large inventory of items (and Plessie functions like an ever available Epona) this is the Mario and Zelda fusion we never knew we wanted. The challenges are very Mario (each of the islands is like a small version of a Mario 64 level in its design, complete with 5 unique cat shines collected through varied goals and objectives that evolve as you progress, replacing enemies and obstacles with new versions like how Mario 64 remixed its levels depending on the star you were after) but the structure is way more like Hyrule and the ability to explore is intoxicating.
Bowser’s Fury is fantastic. I finished it in a single day, immediately after beating Super Mario 3D World, and as good as that Wii U classic is I liked Bowser’s Fury way more. The open world exploration, the clever remixing of items, the complete freedom of camera movement and choice of what to do, those are my favorite things in Mario games and Bowser’s Fury distils them into one giant playground. It doesn’t have the boundless creativity of Odyssey and it’s much smaller in scope, but it’s also more cohesive and it’s by far the biggest Mario map ever created. The ability to just get on Plessie and ride wherever you want is intoxicating, and the fact that you get to carry your powerups with you and choose whatever you want for a given situation makes for a more dynamic approach to the game, since you can climb something as cat Mario, switch to tanookie Mario to glide down, switch to fire Mario to wipe out some enemies and then switch to boomerang Mario to grab and item (there are no twin cherries in the game for obvious reasons.) Even though the assets are mostly from 3D World it feels fresher and newer than I could possibly have imagined because of these structural changes, and I really wish that it were 3-4 times as large as its already impressive size.
But its size brings up what I think the more interesting question is about this game. What….IS it?
It’s not DLC, because it’s not separately available. It’s not an expansion, because it isn’t related to Super Mario 3D World at all except for borrowing assets and being on the same cart. It doesn’t even play like that game. It’s sort of its own title, but Nintendo isn’t treating it that way.
Does this count as a Mario game? Would it be eligible for Game of the Year (I could easily see it making my top 10.)? Should it be included separately on listings of the series? It’s certainly big enough to be its own game. There’s at least as much content here as in something like Astro’s Playroom. If I bought it for $20 I would be thrilled with the purchase, and even for $30 I would be satisfied. But it’s not separately available, even though it should be, since the biggest Mario fans probably owned Wii Us and purchased 3D World back in the day and shouldn’t have to rebuy it.
The closest analog I can think of is something like Star Fox Guard, but that game was available separately, and was far less substantial than this one.
Bowser's Fury doesn't even have its own entry on Giant Bomb's Wiki. It's that hard to categorize!
I’m also fascinated as to how and why Nintendo conceived of this thing. Was it originally intended as its own game but they decided that the prototype wasn’t good enough to go ahead with as a full title but worth polishing as a smaller release? I could easily see that happening, except for the fact that Bowser’s Fury is built from 3D World assets, which seems to suggest that it was made for this particular package. If that’s the case….why? Nintendo’s other rereleases of Wii U games have included small extras, but nothing nearly as big as this. A new mode here, a new character there, but not a whole separate adventure of their flagship character. Look at New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe and its tiny additions and then look at this thing. And 3D World was already one of the best Wii U games. Why would Nintendo bother making a whole new game just to sell a game that was already going to sell well?
I feel like there has to be a story here. Either the team was just prototyping using old assets and they decided their prototype was so good they should polish and release it, or they started developing this as an independent game and then decided it wasn’t good enough for its own release (very wrong) but was good enough for people to play it, or…something. It’s just such a weird thing to exist, and an even weirder thing to package with 3D World, which is a totally different type of Mario game.
Whatever it is I hope that some of the elements of Bowser’s Fury are incorporated into newer Mario games. Just as Odyssey freshened up the series with its capture mechanics and wildly creative worlds, the structure of Bowser’s Fury allows for an experience that’s definitely still Mario but doesn’t just repeat older beats that we’ve all played to death at this point. The game is far from perfect, with serious frame rate issues and a lot of camera problems during the kaiju battles, but it is one of my favorite gaming experiences in recent memory and, for me, a reminder that even though I don’t play my Switch very much I usually have a fantastic time when I do.