For the last fifteen years, there have been two distinctly different branches of the Super Mario franchise proper: The games that began in 1986 with the original Super Mario Bros and the games that began a decade later with Super Mario 64. Although this distinction is becoming increasingly less binary, you can still typically tell where a game is going to fall on the spectrum ranging from 2D side-scrolling to 3D platforming. With Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo is literally splitting the difference. Instead of swapping between two separate styles of gameplay as they’ve done previously, 3D Land instead serves as a missing link. It’s perhaps best described as the game you’d get if you introduced a Z-axis into Super Mario Bros 3. Although 3D Land may not be introducing anything revolutionary to the series, it synthesizes the best aspects of the 8-bit and 64-bit eras in a way that feels as original as it is nostalgic.
If you’ve ever played a Mario game, than you’ve probably already got a good idea of how 3D Land is going to work. Mario has three basic moves at his disposal. The first button on the control jumps, the second button dashes and utilizes Mario’s various power-ups, and the third button crouches and butt stomps. For those of you keeping track, the 3DS actually has six buttons on it (ten if you count the D-Pad). This surplus allows each of the commands to be doubled up on an extra button. If you’re the sort of weirdo who prefers to butt stomp with L instead of R, Nintendo’s got you covered. While the familiar controls might lead one to believe that 3D Land is simply picking up where previous 3D installments have left off, this isn’t completely accurate.
There are no punching or spin attacks in 3D Land. Instead, you’ll find yourself having to rely on fireballs, boomerangs, and your tanooki suit to take down enemies just as you did in Super Mario Bros 3. Obviously jumping on guys is still the tactic de rigueur, but I assume you’ve taken that for granted by now. Even though 3D Land controls like a modern Mario game, the omission of a standard attack shifts the focus from punching to jumping, and thus results in a slightly more vintage Mario experience. It’s a nice touch, and it’s far from the only way that 3D Land pays homage to its NES forefathers.
Where 3D Land really begins to stand out is in its level design. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but there seems to be a growing sentiment amongst the gaming community that linear level design is somehow inferior to a more open-ended environment. This game proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that is not always the case.
Following the trend set by Super Mario Galaxy 2, 3D Land forgoes the use of a hub world in favor of a more straightforward level select screen. While exploring a giant castle was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Super Mario 64, two generations later the convention has grown stale. Utilizing the touch screen, you’ll be able to quickly jump between levels and get into the action as fast as possible. It’s an elegant use of UI that could easily go unnoticed, but which eliminates a great deal of the tedium experienced in-between gameplay.
All in all, there are forty-eight levels split evenly between eight worlds. Each of the of the worlds is capped with an airship/dungeon stage, which ultimately culminates in a Koopa Kid-esque boss fight. In order to unlock all forty-eight, you’ll have to search each level for a trio of hidden star coins. Sound familiar? That’s probably because the system is identical to the one found in New Super Mario Bros Wii. While personally I’m not a huge fan of collecting stuff in video games, this is a good thing. The star coins provide each level with an extra challenge so that you can take the time to explore, instead of rushing through as fast as humanly possible.
Developed by the Super Mario Galaxy team, the levels themselves are nothing short of spectacular. Far more linear than you’d probably expect from your average 3D Mario game, Nintendo’s managed to capture the essence of the original NES stages while modernizing them in a way that feels completely natural. Aside from the star coins mentioned previously, there is literally no collecting. Your objective is simple: reach the end and jump on the flagpole. That’s it. The design philosophy reminded me a lot of Metroid: The Other M, in the way that it utilizes a locked camera to recreate a retro side-scrolling experience but in a 3D environment. With that said, it’s far more refined than Other M. The levels never feel repetitive, narrow, or constrained by controller limitations, but instead are consistently imaginative and diverse enough to keep the game feeling fresh.
If there is a fault to find in the level design, it’s this; they can be occasionally short. While this isn’t a problem in its own right, the fact that you’re visiting this website means that you’ve likely played some video games before. You may not be good at them, but you’re probably good enough to hold your own. For a person like you, 3D Land will not be a hard game. Although you could easily make your way through all forty-eight levels in less than a weekend, fret not. Upon completion of the game’s main quest, you'll be asked to play through each level again, but with alternate goals and challenges. This effectively doubles the length of the game. While no one likes to be told that their princess is in another castle (especially those of us who remember the Green Stars in Super Mario Galaxy 2), in this case, the additional play-through comes as a welcome addition. The greater difficulty only makes the game better, and the levels are different enough the second time around that you won’t find yourself burning out.
But what if I’m wrong? What if you actually suck at video games, and only stumbled onto this website accidentally while on a never-ending quest for porn? Don’t worry - Even you can beat this game. After failing too many times on a single level, the game will tempt you with a golden tanooki suit. This suit will work much like a normal tanooki suit, but with the added benefit of making you invincible to everything but falling. If somehow you are still unable to beat the level, then it turns out that you really do suck. Luckily for you, your sucking will be rewarded with a P-Wing, which will straight up beat the level for you (albeit without collecting any of the star coins). All snarkiness aside, these Super Guide style assists are great for the people who need them. Think of it like calling a Nintendo Power game counselor, but without the outrageous phone bill.
Visually, 3D Land is a great looking game. It’s bright, colorful, and graphically on par with any game on the system. Utilizing a fixed camera Nintendo takes full advantage of the 3DS’s unique 3D technology in a way that very few games have as of yet. Even though I found my slider in the off position half of the time, when I did turn it on, I was impressed by what I saw. The game is constantly forcing your perspective to help solve puzzles and create dramatic camera angles. In 1996 Nintendo promised us that we’d "no longer have to live in a two-dimensioal world." In 2011, they’re finally making good on that promise.
Although 3D Land isn’t reinventing the wheel, it does a great job of utilizing a modern framework in order to pay tribute to the 8-bit classics in a way that’s enjoyable regardless of whether you’ve played them or not. Considering Mario games are typically rationed out but only once per hardware cycle, I consider each release to be an event. It’s easily a must own for anyone who’s already purchased a 3DS, and perhaps more importantly, a good sign of things to come for the struggling handheld.