Well-designed and varied stages, fun gameplay, beautiful graphics and stereoscopic effects, challenging post-game content
Relatively short, not as forward-thinking as either of the Mario Galaxy games
Mario’s certainly been keeping himself busy lately. We’re little more than a year removed from Super Mario Galaxy 2, and the mustachioed hero is already embarking on another quest to save Princess Peach. I guess he didn’t have much of a choice; Bowser is tireless in his pursuit of the Mushroom Kingdom, and the plumber must be ready to spring into action whenever his adversary strikes. This, interestingly enough, is similar to his role within Nintendo itself– just as when the princess is abducted, Mario is called upon whenever a platform needs rescuing. Such was no doubt the case with 3DS, whose early sales failed to meet the company’s expectations and resulted in an unprecedented price cut early on in its lifetime. Mario was shouldered with the burden of salvaging the console’s fortunes, thrust into a brand new title with a little over a year of development time. This short gestation period was certainly a cause for concern for fans of the series, especially as early impressions of the game had not been entirely positive. But as he always does, Mario has risen to the occasion with an almost effortless grace; not only is Super Mario 3D Land one of the finest installments in the long-running series, but it is also the best title currently on 3DS.
From the outset, Mario’s latest is a clear homage to his early adventures: the first level begins in typical side-scroller fashion (before switching to the familiar behind-the-back perspective that has characterized his more recent outings); flagpoles once again denote the end of each stage; and Mario himself even reverts back to his diminutive, “regular” state when he is struck by an enemy. The game proudly wears its heritage on its sleeve, but nowhere is this more apparent than in the highly-anticipated (and highly-publicized) return of the Tanooki Suit. The classic power-up dominates nearly every facet of the experience, from its prominence on the game’s packaging to the countless enemies that wield it. In fact, its prevalence is almost a little overwhelming, nearly undermining 3D Land’s own identity with its persistent allusions to Super Mario Bros. 3. That a number of other elements are drawn from the same title– donut and music blocks, for instance, are scattered generously about the game’s many stages, and even Boom Boom has been plucked from the brink of obscurity to reprise his role as mid-boss– only reinforces this feeling, but the game is able to skirt the line between pandering and reverent by interspersing a handful of new ideas amongst its many references.
Super Mario Bros. 3 isn’t the only title exerting a clear influence on the design, either; nearly every game in the series has its fingerprints on 3D Land, making it an amalgam of past Mario elements– the control scheme is reminiscent of Super Mario 64 DS (albeit considerably more functional thanks to the availability of the circle pad); certain backgrounds, particularly during the little vignettes that punctuate each world, hearken back to Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World; even the very mechanics seem to have been culled from the New Super Mario games, placing a renewed emphasis on timing and momentum. Combined, these elements make 3D Land the most faithful of the plumber’s modern day adventures, and it genuinely feels like a 2D game splayed out in a three-dimensional setting.
All this talk of the past may give the impression that Super Mario 3D Land suffers from something of an identity crisis, but in truth the game uses its storied lineage as a means to solidify its own place in the Mario canon. 3D Land tempers the innovations of the Galaxy titles with the trappings of a classical Mario adventure, achieving a compromise between the series’ past and present. Longtime fans will be especially cognizant of this balancing act, able to pick out just when the two schools of game design intersect; the levels in particular, while initially quite straightforward, show a marked finesse in their structure and pacing, and many of them (especially in the later portions of the game) would not seem out of place in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Rather than try to replicate the past, 3D Land uses it to strengthen the series’ current direction, and it successfully reconciles the two different generations of Mario gameplay in the process.
The unfortunate consequence of this marriage between old and new play styles is that 3D Land never feels quite as adventurous as any of the games that preceded it. The Galaxy titles in particular, with the entire cosmos as their backdrop, brought a palpable sense of newness to the franchise (both in terms of their challenges and their set pieces); contrast this with 3D Land’s terrestrial environments, and the entire affair seems decidedly more conservative. The title is still a rousing triumph in terms of design (especially considering how quickly it was cobbled together), but it is never as surprising as either of its Wii siblings, and it is for this reason the game will likely not be remembered quite as fondly as its predecessors.
3D Land’s length is another issue that prevents it from reaching the same heights as its forebears. The primary adventure consists of roughly fifty stages, which, depending upon your level of dedication, can genuinely be completed in a single afternoon. This is partially rectified by the considerable amount of post-game content that is unlocked on clearing the main quest, but even with this in mind the title is still noticeably shorter than either of the mascot’s Wii adventures. That the majority of these bonus levels are variations on those already encountered in the game proper does little to assuage this feeling of brevity, despite how enjoyable their added challenge may be. This is, admittedly, not a significant strike against the title as its length is largely in keeping with the rest of the Mario Land sub-series (and is certainly befitting of a portable adventure), but it’s hard not to wish the experience were a little longer, particularly when what is here is so much fun to play.
On a more positive note, the game boasts what are arguably the finest visuals on its console. Super Mario 3D Land is a beautiful game, but what is perhaps most remarkable is just how well it compares to both of the plumber’s Wii efforts; Mario and friends look as though they’ve been lifted straight from Super Mario Galaxy, and the environments, while never as grandiose as the ones found in the aforementioned title, are just as detailed despite the screen’s smaller real estate. The stereoscopic effects are also quite stunning, adding a tangible sense of depth to the game’s set pieces; certain areas recede into the background, creating the illusion of distance, while others sprawl outward to better orient the hero against his surroundings. Not everything is perfect– there is the occasional instance of pop in, particularly in levels teeming with enemies– but any graphical flaws are minuscule in nature and are never conspicuous enough to be jarring.
While it may not be quite the evolutionary leap forward that Super Mario Galaxy was, Super Mario 3D Land is still a vital installment in the long-running franchise. The game invokes the spirit of the past without relying on it as a crutch, using the series’ classical hallmarks to forge its own identity. It also boasts some of the most well-designed stages in Mario’s history, drawing from both its past and present inspirations to create an experience that is at once familiar and unique. Its relative brevity is a minor complaint, but it is certainly forgivable in light of how enjoyable the title simply is. Prospective 3DS owners need look no further for a reason to finally purchase the new handheld system, and everyone else who has already taken the plunge owes it to themselves to pick up what is easily the finest game in the console’s growing library.