So it would seem that the wait is finally over. Yes, after eight months of third party software – the quality of which has been extremely erratic – and some admittedly good remakes of classic N64 games from Nintendo, the 3DS finally seemingly has that killer-app that makes owning Nintendo’s newest foray into portable gaming so worthwhile. Indeed, it certainly goes without saying that any platform game starring Mario is by very definition going to well and truly exhibit itself a system-seller and, for the most part, Mario’s 3DS debut proves that the portly plumber’s still got it.
That’s not to say that it’s perfect; far from it. In fact, this review will spend what will undoubtedly be an alarming amount of inches in explaining what Super Mario 3D Land does wrong. This shouldn’t be misinterpreted as me claiming it to be a terrible game – or even an iffy one – but there are flaws nonetheless; some of them minor, some of them so inconsequential as to be almost unworthy of even noting at all. But when you take a character such as Mario, who – despite some minor hiccups – has enjoyed as infallible an existence as any videogame mascot is ever likely to be privy to, such flaws and quirks are immediately going to be picked up on. And that is most certainly the case with Super Mario 3D Land. It starts off well enough, with a plot that’s as bare-bones as that of any Mario game before it, but it serves its purpose. During a storm, a tree that stands within the grounds of Princess Peach’s castle loses all of its leaves. These leaves turn out to be Super Leaves, which bestow Tanooki tails on every living creature that they come into contact with. Unfortunately, this includes Bowser and his minions, who subsequently – shock, horror! – kidnap Peach and so, as always, it’s up to Mario to save her.
It’s as good a setup as any for what follows; eight worlds of classic 3D Mario platforming action, which any long-time Nintendo fans will be instantly familiar with. However, whereas more recent 3D Mario outings have served up levels that are more open and promote exploration, the stages in Super Mario 3D Land mix 3D gameplay with old-school 2D sensibilities. Instead of letting players gallivant around and solve puzzles in a search for stars like they did in Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine or the Galaxy games, each level in Super Mario 3D Land is almost entirely linear; the goal always being to reach the flag pole at the end of the stage before the timer reaches zero, with any alternate routes quickly returning to the beaten track. While many players might jump for joy at the thought of 3D platforming that focuses on just that – the platforming – Super Mario 3D Land often feels like it’s treading safe ground; like Nintendo weren’t overly keen on expending too much time or money on developing the next great 3D Mario platformer and instead opted to “go back to Mario’s roots”, with the obvious bonus being a relatively quick development cycle.
Despite this backwards step, Super Mario 3D Land boasts controls and movement that are as tight as those of any Mario game before it and as such is an absolute joy to play, while the level design – although linear – still manages to incorporate modern ideas from more recent Mario games alongside classic design elements and enemies. This goes for the power-ups as well, with old favourites like the Fire Flower and Starman being joined by the Propeller Box (from New Super Mario Bros. Wii) and the all-new Boomerang Suit, which lets Mario hurl boomerangs at enemies from a distance, with the advantage being that boomerangs don’t fall to the ground in the same way that fireballs do. The star of the show in Super Mario 3D Land, however, is undoubtedly the Tanooki Suit; first seen in Super Mario Bros. 3, this cute-as-a-button outfit bestows Mario with the ability to swipe at enemies with his tail as well as hover in the air for limited periods. These abilities are useful not only for dispatching enemies, but also for getting your hands on Star Medals, of which there are three tucked away in every level. Some of them you’ll come across naturally as you progress, while many of them require a specific power-up to be equipped in order to be reached and collected. Either way, you should be attempting to snag as many of these as possible; not only does it add many hours to the game, but you also won’t be able to progress through certain points if you haven’t collected enough of them.
The mish-mash of classic and modern Mario-ness extends into Super Mario 3D Land’s presentation, which is uniformly stellar no matter where it happens to draw inspiration from. This is easily one of the 3DS’ best-looking games, if not from a technical standpoint then most certainly from an artistic one. Every facet of Super Mario 3D Land oozes charm and there are numerous little tit-bits that will bring a smile to the faces of older players. The only gripe to be had with the presentation – whether that be the levels or the music, which remains as jaunty as ever and will probably end up stuck in your head for a good, long while – is that it tends to lean back on Super Mario Bros. 3 too often. This is in a way understandable since Nintendo was trying to bring the best of both 2D and 3D Mario games together into one title, but Mario has a long and rich heritage as far as the 2D platforming scene goes, so it would have been nice to see elements from Super Mario Bros. 2 or Super Mario World make their way into Super Mario 3D Land – although it doesn’t seem to much of a stretch to imagine that a sequel might very well focus on the latter, should Nintendo ever opt to develop one.
Of course, encompassing all of this is the one feature that truly is a first for a Mario game, and that’s stereoscopic 3D. The 3DS’ main selling point is used to great effect here, although it proves to be both a blessing and a curse in equal measures. On the one hand, having the 3D switched on will make it easier for players to judge the height and distance of their jumps and their surroundings. However, the game was blatantly designed around the 3D visuals, so if you do have them switched off, certain sections will prove hair-pullingly tricky to beat. while instances in which you’ll find yourself misjudging the simplest of movements and falling to your doom will be all too common.
In all fairness, the game does always indicate which sections absolutely require the 3D effect if you hope to succeed – and it is nice to see a game that not only benefits from 3D visuals (as was the case with Star Fox 64 3D) but also attempts to structure itself around them – but if you have trouble making out the 3D effect, it gives you headaches or you just prefer to play without it, then prepare to find yourself in trial-and-error situations fairly frequently. Luckily, another modern Mario stalwart reappears in Super Mario 3D Land, in the form of special power-ups that give players that extra leg-up should they find themselves struggling. The Invincibility Leaf grants Mario the combined abilities of the Tanooki Suit and Starman and appears if a player dies five times in the same level, while the P-Wing appears if they die ten times and instantly whisks the player to the end of the level automatically. Be warned though: these power-ups only appear on your first playthrough of each stage, so if you plan on going back and claiming any Star Medals that you’d previously missed, you’ll have to do so without these aids.
Stereoscopic 3D isn’t the only way that Super Mario 3D Land utilises the unique capabilities of the 3DS. Players can use the gyroscope to look around in first person while inside a canon or standing at binocular stands, the latter of which can help suss out the layout of the levels ahead or get stranded Toads to relinquish useful power-ups, extra lives or even Star Medals. Alongside this, Super Mario 3D Land features StreetPass support and allows players to gain access to Mystery Boxes. These mini-levels all require the player to either defeat every enemy or collect every coin within the box before the timer reaches zero; doing so also awarding them with a handy item. This feature goes some way to boosting Super Mario 3D Land’s already lengthy running time. Granted, you can breeze through all eight worlds within four hours, but by doing so you’ll be missing the point, as scouring every level for its three Star Medals adds numerous hours and is arguably the real meat of the game because, while playing through them is enjoyable enough, the initial eight worlds on offer feel almost tame by standards set in previous Mario games. It’s only once you defeat Bowser and rescue Peach that you are rewarded with a wealth of additional content. The eight worlds become sixteen, with the latter ones – while admittedly being re-jigged versions of the first eight – presenting a devilishly tricky challenge in which certain elements such as needing to collect clocks to keep the timer going or having Shadow Mario chasing aping your every move and attempting to halt your progress are added to really spice things up. Additionally, these eight extra levels also house their own Star Medals, plus you’ll get to unlock Luigi as a playable character along with another special power-up, so if you plan to see and do everything in Super Mario 3D Land, those four hours suddenly become twenty; maybe even more.
Super Mario 3D Land was initially a game that I feared would be a difficult game to grade, which is something I never in a million years thought I’d ever write. However, in the end, every little quirk ended up being just that; little, minor and subsequently inconsequential. Yes, Nintendo may have an included over-abundance of Super Mario Bros. 3, or an over-reliance on stereoscopic 3D (instead of endeavouring to make it optional), or some boss fights that aren’t as exciting as they should be and perhaps pay homage to the ones seen in the original Super Mario Bros. a little too much… but at the end of the day, Super Mario 3D Land is still an impeccably designed, aesthetically pleasing, masterfully crafted platformer. In the future, it would be nice if it proved to be an accompaniment to a proper fully-fledged Super Mario 64 style 3D platformer on 3DS rather than the norm, but for now, Super Mario 3D Land is as good a reason as any to pick up Nintendo’s newest handheld and is inarguably a love letter to all things Mario, despite it’s minor flaws.
Platforms Available – 3DS
Platform Reviewed – 3DS