Since the 3DS’ release, I have been arguing that Nintendo’s main mistake with the machine has been their insistence on pushing its 3D capabilities as the system’s defining feature, rather than just one dot-point on a list of qualities and features. As the system’s 3D effects have frequently failed to impress, many have been all too eager to write the 3DS off as a failure.
With these concerns in mind, Super Mario 3D Land is perhaps the best showcase yet for what the system can output when the 3D slider is turned all the way up. Not only does it look great, largely avoiding the ghosting issues that affect so many 3DS games, but it actually proves helpful in gathering how, exactly, the level geometry all fits together.
Like so many other 3DS titles you can play with the slider turned all the way down, but for once you will actually be missing out on something.
But you’re here for the plumber, not for the graphics. Mashing together elements from several of Mario’s greatest hits – most notably Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Galaxy – 3D Land is simultaneously very familiar and hugely inventive. It’s a game intended to bridge the gap between the 2D stylings of retro Mario and his more expansive post-N64 outings, with each self-contained level featuring a definite end-point rather than objectives to complete. While a fully-fledged Galaxy spin-off would have perhaps been more impressive, this style offers up gameplay that should please just about everyone.
Mario is, as always, an absolute pleasure to control. His move set and power-up choices are slightly more limited than they have been in some previous outings, and backflips are irritatingly hard to pull off, but you’ll still get immense pleasure hurling Mario off platforms with his 64-style long jump, or coming down on Goombas with a mighty butt-stomp (that’s the proper name for that attack, right?). The Tanooki suit makes its long awaited return as well, although using it often feels like cheating. Why delicately jump between platforms when Mario can don a racoon tail and gently float over just about everything?
Unfortunately, the really good stuff is hidden away from you at first. A seasoned gamer unaware of the wonders that unlock after they rescue the princess will feel their stomach sinking by the time they hit World 8. It took me just under four hours to reach the end credits, accumulating 85 spare lives in the process – the first half of the game is a cinch, obviously designed with genre newcomers and younger players in mind. You’re even offered an item that grants you near-invincibility if you die enough times, although I was only offered it once in my entire run through.
But then eight new worlds unlock once the credits have rolled, offering remixed and redesigned takes on the original levels, along with new power-ups and challenges. Although they still start off a little on the easy side (my life count continued to increase exponentially for the first few worlds), generally they give you a much better run for your money, and feature far more inventive level designs that actually requires you to get the most out of Mario’s move set. There’s nothing here that quite matches up to the best moments of the Galaxy games, but then you could say that about just about every platformer on the market.
Super Mario 3D Land isn’t quite on par with many of the forefathers it tries to emulate. It lacks Galaxy’s endless wow-factor, 64’s commitment to being grand and impressive, and the general near-perfection of Super Mario Bros 3’s gameplay philosophy. But it’s still a damn fine bit of jumping action, and one of the 3DS’ very best games.