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We've already conquered World 1 and seen some Super Mario 3D Land's later levels at E3, but we couldn't pass up a recent chance to play six new levels from Worlds 2 and 3 to see more of what's easily our most anticipated upcoming 3DS game. As we see more and more of 3D Land, it's really starting to feel like a "greatest hits" of the Mario franchise, both in content and in gameplay, but without the rehash connotation.
One of the most impressive aspects of 3D Land so far is how utterly different each level is from the last – of all the levels we've played, none have even remotely felt like repeats of a previous level. In one particularly creative level, Mario dons a block-shaped propeller hat that launches him super high into the air (like, several screens high), and looking down we saw that the level was made out of huge 8-bit sprites like Mario and Peach from the original Super Mario Bros, and we had to fly from 8-bit island to 8-bit island to get to the goal. In this way, 3D Land doesn't just play with 3D, but also with heights (even though Tanooki Mario still doesn't fly), and others levels feature as much vertical as horizontal movement.
The hardest level we played was one where almost the entire level is made of red and blue floor panels that flip whenever Mario jumps. If red is on then blue is off and vice versa, and every time Mario jumps the color that's on switches off and the one that's off switches on. Given those rules, you have to jump toward the empty space where the panel will be instead of jumping toward the panel you can currently see. That kind of inventive platforming is what the Mario series is all about. Of course, we also saw throwbacks to classic levels too, like a sandy level reminiscent of SMB3 World 2 and a water level full of giant cheep-cheeps, but each still felt like a new take.
Super Mario 3D Land succeeds in using 3D as more than just window dressing too – during our playtime, we played with the 3D both on and off, and it definitely makes a huge difference having it on. Many of the levels we played seemed designed around playing with perspective, and adding 3D achieves a feeling of depth that makes moving around in the 3D space work really well. If you really can't deal with 3D for whatever reason though, there are still cues you can use (like looking at the shadows of platforms and blocks on the ground) to line up your jumps, so it's still playable without it too.
It's hard to comment too much on the difficulty without having played any of the later levels yet, but we can tell you that in case it does get tough near the end (we're guessing it does), 3D Land features a help mode to give you a hand when you need it. If you die several times within the same level, an Assist Block will appear to give you an extra item, which seems reasonable. But if you die five times without beating the level, or even 10 times, you get the option of some Game Genie-level cheats. At five deaths, you can use an Invincible Leaf that makes Tanooki Mario invincible for the duration of the level, and if that's not enough (!!), at 10 deaths a P Wing block appears that you can use to teleport to the end of the level. Of course, you can also choose to keep struggling until you succeed – you're not forced to take the help if you don't want it.
Too many games these days throw in nostalgia-baiting nods to 8- and 16-bit games of old, but often come off as pandering because they merely make cheap references without adding anything of their own. Super Mario 3D Land feels like it adds something new in spite of its constant references (the most predominant seem to be Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Bros 3 so far). After our initial skeptism (we too, were miffed that the leaf now grants the full Tanooki suit), we can say that this really seems like it takes the mechanics from 3D games like Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy and marries them with the 2D platforming sensibility of SMB and SMB3.
We've still only seen a small portion of the game overall though, so we'll reserve final judgment until we've played it from start to finish, but we feel hopeful that Super Mario 3D Land is shaping up to be worthy of the Mario name not only in looks but in gameplay too. Look for more as we get closer to its November 13 release date.
Oct 6, 2011