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
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.
Bridging the gap
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.
A brave new (smaller) world
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.
Super Mario 3 + D?
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
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
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.
Too easy? Yes and no
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.
Is it better than…?
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.
For those who skipped straight to the end
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.