The Super Mario series spent the 80s and early 90s as the pinnacle of 2D platforming, where each core Mario title was another high watermark for the genre. Then the franchise took a turn with Super Mario 64, as it basically invented the 3D platformer and set the standard for each that followed it. As the philosophy of 3D Marios continued to mature and grow, eventually 2D Marios came back into popularity in a big way with New Super Mario Bros. This left you with two very different, but very popular branches of the same series, but where’s the middle ground? That’s what Super Mario 3D Land is looking for.
Despite the simplicity to the concept of a little guy jumping from a thing to another thing, 3D Land has so many different techniques and styles to select from in series history, finding that middle ground is nebulous at best. Moreover, it’s the first title in the franchise to have glasses-free 3D effects at its disposal, which opens up a whole other can of design worms. Luckily, 3D Land very often chooses wisely from where it takes inspiration while making up some new rules of its own, as it creates a new legacy as the first original 3D Mario for handhelds.
Even decades later, Mario defines gaming for so many because of its always easy to understand, from concept to level design to controls. And despite any advancements made in the gameplay and level design over the last 25 years, the plot is the same as it ever was: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, Mario keeps jumping on things until he saves her. The basic concept of the game is as old as time and we don’t fault Nintendo for reusing it, as we’d almost be disappointed if the devs dropped the tradition at this point.
The simplicity of the characters’ motivations is reflected in the controls as well, where you just need to grasp the same old concepts you love about Mario: he runs and jumps. The 3DS Circle Pad works great for moving Mario around at normal speed, while jumping just feels right for Mario, like he’s jumping the same way he has for decades. The game needs that base of familiar controls to make the new concepts that are introduced work and it’s almost always successful.
However, those core controls have one major hitch thanks to a concept that is at once very familiar to Mario and something many will find unfamiliar: the run button. 2D Mario games have had the run button forever and it always made sense with the standard d-pad, but for people who have played 3D Marios for more than a decade, it doesn’t add up in your brain. 3D Land has 3D visuals and 3D controls with an analogue pad, so it only makes sense that if you move the stick all the way in a certain direction, Mario should be running. For the first hour or so we had to keep reminding ourselves that Mario was so sluggish on-screen because we weren’t holding down Y.
It’s one of the few times in Super Mario 3D Land where the styles clash, but this big one pops up because it draws inspiration at once from New Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Galaxy. Both were massive successes, and level design fluctuates between the two, but New Mario wins the control battle. 3D Mario fans must learn to love holding Y most of the time they play, and after an hour or so running and holding Y+B for speedy jumping became workable for us and we were navigating stages with ease, but it never felt “normal.” We adapted to the classic rules of taking damage, saving power-ups and jumping on flag poles, but playing with analogue controls and holding a button to run simply isn’t the best way to do it. Maybe if you’re the type of person that somehow avoided 3D Marios until now it’ll make more sense, but this was an unnecessary hurdle to get over.
Level design also exists in the stylistic middle ground between Mario design philosophies. Something you’ll note right from the start is just how focused the layout of every area is. There’s no hub world, no giant planetoids, and no mountains to climb. Almost every stage is built around a couple of concepts and one clear path for the player to follow on small platforms with clear boundaries. That may sound boring to fans of the expansiveness of recent Mario releases, but once you get this particular rhythm for 3D Land it all starts to fit.
The camera is also more static than ever, which is fine with us since direct camera control has been close to impossible to do right on the 3DS so far. That restricted camera movement flows well with the size of each stage, as platforms in this game take up a fraction of the real estate that most 3D console platformers exist in. Occasionally it can feel cramped, but mostly it just keeps you on the path the devs set in front of you and thank goodness that path is very fun indeed, and one with many, many innovative moments that take advantage of the handheld’s 3D visuals.
That smaller stage size works great with the portability of the title, as you’ll finish many stages (even the more taxing ones) in a matter of minutes. The handheld format demands levels that can be cleared in five to ten minutes while riding public transit or in the dentist’s waiting room. Again, compared to the depth of Galaxy that sounds lacking, but the quickness to the levels makes 3D Land more addictive, as you’ll feel like completing just one more stage before closing your 3DS and returning your attention to whatever is happening in real life. Unlike the running mechanic, this change in styles with the level design didn’t leave us wanting.
From the start Super Mario 3D Land evokes nostalgia for classic entries in the series, most specifically and obviously Super Mario 3. All the 8-bit Mario rules are there, like the three tiers of damage Mario can take (as opposed to coins refilling health), completing a stage by jumping on a flag pole, the increased importance of the time limit, and more are all integrated expertly into this new game. It’s worth noting that it deals with nostalgia better than the New Super Mario games, as it uses it as the starting point for new level design, instead of being shackled creatively through an excess of reverence.
Clearly the most obvious bit of Mario 3 love is how the Tanooki power-up and its telltale tail are back with a vengeance. After going missing for over 20 years, the floaty raccoon suit and its helpful tail are back, though now it just works at slowing your descent instead of flying, which is fine since flight would certainly break the game. As it is, the Tanooki suit is a loving homage to one of Mario’s most popular looks, but as a gameplay addition the extra time it adds to jumps can almost make the game too easy.
The tail love has infected the enemies too as Goombas, Boos, Thwomps, Bullet Bills, and even Bowser have tails in this game. It’s almost too much of a good thing, but since most of the game’s baddies are recycled, why not make old enemies new again with tails? Also, the boss battles have their moments, but aren’t the most creative ever, save for the final boss fight. We won’t spoil it; let’s just say it’s one of the most epic final encounters in Mario history.
Super Mario 3D Land goes for classic style and gets it right almost all of the time. Many levels clearly reference beloved Mario stages of old without recreating them directly, instead drawing inspiration from them to create imaginative new stages. We wouldn’t say this is the most innovative or fresh Mario ever made, but it’s full of clever ideas and many moments made us say, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” It skates the line between reverence and originality well.
By franchise standards, Super Mario 3D Land is one of the easier titles in Mario history, and starts off exceptionally relaxed. During our playthrough of Worlds 1 through 8 we did our share of dying, but we almost never felt truly tested. We picked up the bonus Star Medals in every single stage with relative ease and while we’re experienced Mario players, we’re not savants. If you’re the type of person that got 240 stars in the Galaxy games, the main game probably won’t tax you.
Fortunately the game doesn’t end with World 8. We’d rather not spoil it, but after the eighth world is in the books, a wealth of new content opens up for you. The equivalent of a second game begins, and that’s where those looking for a challenge will find it. The super-duper-hardcore still might not feel challenged enough by this post-game content, and if you feel that way just keep replaying the Galaxy Comet Challenges if that’s all you want.
In general, 3D Land aims to be an introduction to 3D gaming and it does it very well even if it’s at the expense of starting off easy. For people that know the rules already, it’ll be an unneeded lesson but even when it’s easy it’s still fun. The simplicity wrapped in inventiveness is still there, and despite not being the densest, freshest Mario ever, it takes advantage of the new canvas of the 3DS well.
Super Mario Galaxy 2? No, and it’s not just the run button that holds it back. Galaxy 2 was exploding with ideas and concepts making it a master class in 3D platforming. 3D Land is more like the professor from that expert class teaching a simpler course for new students. Still a very fun experience, but it’s a step back.
New Super Mario Bros? Yes. New Super Mario was a great exercise in nostalgia but was held back by too much reverence for 2D Marios. 3D Land does a much better job at embracing the series’ history of innovation while still being a loving tribute to games of old.
Rayman 3D? Yes. This may not be the fairest comparison, as Rayman is a remake of a Dreamcast game, but with little else to compare it to, this shows how at the time of release 3D Land is such an original experience on the 3DS. With few games like it, it makes 3D Land an even better proposition for owners of the handheld dying for something worth playing.
Though it falls slightly short compared to other Mario titles (aka some of the greatest games ever made), it’s certainly a release worthy of the character’s legacy. It expertly builds on franchise history, has tons of clever ideas, and even with the rare control hang-ups, it stands tall in the realm of 3D platformers, especially compared to the paltry library of games the 3DS currently has.