It’s no secret the Nintendo 3DS has had a bit of a rough start. It’s telling that, now more than six months out, the system’s best games are those that are remakes of 15 year-old adventures. What the system needs is a game designed from the ground-up to take advantage of the system has to offer. In order words, it needs Mario.
And with the return to old-school platforming comes the return of old-school power ups, such as mushrooms (yup, Mario finally shrinks when hit again!), fire flowers, and even the Tanooki suit. Yes, after a 20-year long absence, the Mario 3 classic is finally back, but it comes with a giant asterisk: you can’t fly--a pretty jarring revelation for anyone who cherished Mario 3 as a child. There’s also a few newer ones to be found too, such as the Helicopter Block (which does allow you to fly!) and the Boomerang suit, which enables you to knock out enemies and retrieve distant items. Unfortunately, the boomerang suit feels a bit lacking since it’s mostly inferior to the fire flower (though it does look badass), but the helicopter block is a joy to use and really makes effective use of the 3D--but more on that later.
Of course, one of the most important things for platformers especially are the controls. Unfortunately, 3D Land is the first time since Super Mario Sunshine where I felt the controls weren’t completely up to the task. Even though the game takes place in a 3D world and uses the analog Circle Pad, Mario’s movement is locked to a digital 8-directions (similar to Super Mario RPG), with no option to use the control-pad. This lends the game an imprecise and stiff feel, which is further compounded by Mario’s sluggish speed. Basically, Mario takes way too long to build enough up speed in order to cross longer gaps, resulting in missed jumps that I was certain I would have made in any other Mario game. I found the game unnecessarily frustrating at points because of the touchy and imprecise controls, and really detracted from the excellent level design.
As should be expected from the Mario Galaxy team, 3D Land looks gorgeous. The vibrant levels are paired with beautifully rendered character models that really bring the world to life. The music, too, is suitably catchy, though the selection of songs isn’t quite as wide as I would have hoped, as you’ll hear the same tracks recycle just a few too many times.
Mario 3D Land also marks one of the first games to truly make effective use of the depth-enhancing third-dimension, and not just in the gimmicky “things popping out at you” way (which it also does rather well incidentally; the spikes in Bowser’s castle have never felt so harrowing!). Instead, the game’s levels were very much designed with 3D in mind, even deploying the occasional top-down camera angles that makes the added depth of 3D a near necessity. There are even a few bonus rooms designed specifically to drive those who have the 3D-disabled mad, with platforms that may not be where they appear to be.
Although the game does feature a greater emphases on straight-forward platforming, there is still room for some exploration as there are 3 hidden coins to be found in every level. And you’ll want to track them down if you want to see all of the fantastic content this game has to offer (which, I am unfortunately unable to fully talk about at this point. Let’s just say the game may not be completely over when you think it is...).
But for as much as 3D Land has in common with the older games, I can’t help but wish it had gone just a bit further. For instance, I would have loved to see a return to the Mario 3/Mario World method of selecting a level, instead of the completely linear system in place here. I also wish the game was a bit more true to the power-ups of the original. Why can’t the Tanooki suit fly? And why was the P-Wing that appears when you die too many times used instead of the Cloud power-up from Mario 3, which was designed specifically to let you skip levels? These are small details, but ones that matter to the very players Nintendo’s trying to bring back into the fold. I also wish the game had a larger selection of power-ups, especially since the Boomerang suit doesn’t even turn up well into the latter half of the main game.
Despite these complaints, Super Mario 3D Land is yet another solid entry under Mario’s plumber’s belt and is exactly what the 3DS ordered: a long and challenging adventure designed with the system 3D capiblities in mind. Though it lacks some of the magic of his recent console excursions, and is marred by a few control frustrations, the fantastic level design ensures that platforming has seldom been better on any handheld system.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release: November 13, 2011
Available On: Nintendo 3DS
Mario Galaxy 1 & 2: Loved
Super Mario Land 2: Loved
Super Mario Sunshine: Burn it with fire
Super Mario 64: Loved
New Super Mario Bros. Wii: Liked
New Super Mario Bros (DS): Meh