Developer: Nintendo EAD Tokyo / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: 3DS / Price: $39.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Mild Cartoon Violence]
At this moment in time, the 3DS is a cool device that has still yet to live up to its potential. The system’s launch line-up was sparse at best and the most compelling software released since then has been a couple of decade-old titles, great games but hardly the compelling argument to make you invest in this system. And while I’m hard pressed to say that Super Mario 3D Land totally justifies the tech behind Nintendo’s newest handheld, it is a damn fine, albeit mostly familiar, Mario game.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Bowser has captured Princess Peach so Mario must platform his way through various increasingly difficult, obstacle-filled levels while avoiding strange mushroom people, Venus fly-traps, big-ass bullets, spiky turtles, and other pesky, equally outlandish critters. Smashing blocks with question marks will reward you with coins and various power-ups. Despite being a 3D Mario game (3D in this case meaning 3D environments, not the popping-out-of-your-screen 3D, which this game also boasts. Yes, it’s very confusing), 3D Land is reliant on a lot of the design tropes introduced during Mario’s 2D era. There’s no gimmicky hook equivalent of flying through space or water-powered jet packs. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s kind of staggering just how creative it all feels even 25 years later.
This creativity spills over into what ends up as the highlight of Super Mario 3D Land: the level design. The game sports a pretty even mix of 3D and 2D platforming sections that blend together seamlessly. But nothing accentuates the quality quite like the Star Coins tucked away in each level. Snagging them is totally optional in completing the levels but you come across Bowser Castles and Gun Ships on the overworld map that require a minimum number of them in order to enter. It wasn’t until I decided to do some backtracking in order to collect all three Star Coins per level that I really started to appreciate the incredibly creative level design of Super Mario 3D Land.
But if you don’t stretch yourself to try and grab some of the more challenging Star Coins, the easiness with which you can breeze through the first half of the game almost becomes its downfall. I say almost because beating Super Mario 3D Land unlocks an entirely new set of eight more challenging worlds. While these additional eight use many of the same obstacles and art assets from the previous eight they also introduce some more challenging conditions like being constantly chased by a poison mushroom or putting only 30 seconds on the clock, thus requiring you to pick power ups that extend time as you make your way through the level.
But any grandmother that somehow found themselves in possession of a 3DS thinking it was a Wii or something, may be interested in the difficulty equalizers implemented into Super Mario 3D Land. Die five times in a level and a block will appear at the start of an area with a Golden Tanooki Suit (that makes Mario invincible). If 10 deaths occur, wings will appear that carry you straight to the end of the level. It’s tough to really fault the game for these features since you are never forced to use them and, if anything, I’d say this is one of the more successful attempts to make accessible the modern “hardcore” game (and I may lose gamer cred for it, but I even used the Golden Tanooki Suit once or twice).
Visuals and Sound
Super Mario 3D Land is maybe the most “magic” feeling of all the 3DS games I’ve seen. It’s intense without causing eyestrain; I played through the entire game with the 3D slider at max. This is especially welcome considering I’ve played so many 3DS games that made me feel like my eyeballs were melting from my skull after a couple of hours.
That said, the use of 3D never really extends beyond being a novelty. A handful of moments (usually in a hidden areas) require you to have the 3D turned up in order to navigate a platforming obstacle but they’re so few and far between that it doesn’t have any meaningful impact on the gameplay. It’s an unfortunate side effect of making the 3D optional.
The soundtrack is jovial and catchy, mixing some original Mario themes with remixed classic tunes. The art style pops (literally) with its overly saturated color palette and cartoony graphics, but lacks anything resembling a cohesive theme, something Super Mario Galaxy nailed with its space look.
Like most proper Mario games (read: ones without the word “party”, “Kart”, “golf”, or “Olympics” in the title) released over the last decade, Super Mario 3D Land sticks to the tried and true formula of the franchise. If you had hoped that the game would justify the technology upgrade in the way Super Mario 64 did for N64 then you might be disappointed. But those looking for a solid platforming experience probably won’t find a better one on the 3DS.