Everyone’s heard the old adage “if you want something done right, you better do it yourself.” Nintendo, running out of options for its embattled 3DS system as the Holiday season quickly approaches, seems to finally have understood that as Super Mario 3D Land is not only the most impressive game on the handheld, but it could spark a revival for it. Aspiring 3DS developers take note — this is how you truly take advantage of the console’s power.
Of course, Super Mario 3D Land starts off like almost every Mario game before it; Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser and its up to Mario to save her. The key here is that when she got kidnapped, she was checking on a special tree in the castle courtyard which contained the leaves that give Mario the Tanooki suit. It’s a simple story really, one that you’d expect from the franchise but it’s told via charming cut-scenes that really take advantage of the system’s 3D capabilities. In between worlds, Mario will receive photos from the Princess, detailing her predicament. These letters could be the most impressive use of the 3DS screen yet; they pop with color and vibrance.
From a gameplay standpoint, 3D Land is everything you’d expect from a Mario game — but it’s also so much more. Interestingly, it’s tough to figure just what Mario game it borrows from the most. It feels an awful lot like Super Mario 64 or Sunshine, but it also borrows a lot from NES classic Super Mario 3. Super Mario 3D Land feels like Nintendo picked the best pieces of the entire Mario history and blended them together seamlessly. The level design is incredible and perhaps most interestingly encourages users to experiment and explore. Take one of the castles found early in the game, there’s an unassuming torch that most will just run past, but interacting with it will prove valuable in your quest. Sure you could just go from one end of the level to the other, but you’ll be missing a good portion of the experience.
On that same note though, that sense of exploration could annoy some. The goal of most Mario games has always been get from point A to point B, and for the first few worlds I did just that. Sure, I would get the occasional star coin on my way, but I was never too concerned with getting them. It was quite a shock then when later in the game I found that I needed fifty of those coins to even advance through the game. As a result, I went through the game…each level and collected the coins. While this backtracking may seem a bit annoying to some, it was here, with all of the “Aha moments” that I truly fell in love with Mario’s latest adventure. By going off the beaten path you truly get an appreciation for the amount of work Nintendo put into the game.
To be honest, for a game in such an established franchise, Super Mario 3D Land is quite the deceiving experience. It’s easiest to think of it this way; this is a game with two different sides. The first is world 1-8, almost laughably easy, you’ll get a lot of extra 1-ups (by world two I had 60 or so without even really trying) and move fast, but then after world 8 (yeah, there’s more than eight worlds), things change drastically. The platforming is tougher and you’re going to have to have to be incredibly precise in your jumps and timing. Telling you about these worlds would be a major spoiler, so you’re going to want to experience them yourself, but just be ready for the swift shift in gameplay.
Super Mario 3D is a game that is meant to be played using the system’s 3D capabilities, in fact you could go as far as to say that this is the first game for the handheld that truly takes advantage of the 3D, without it getting in the way. Using the 3D effects, you’ll be able to experience Mario’s world in a way you’ve never done. Here, it’s easier to judge the distance between blocks, jumps and it even helps get a better feel for the level design. There are certain sections (mostly near the end) that are nearly impossible to pass without using the 3D, but what’s great is that not only can you adjust the game’s 3D using the slider on the system, but during certain sections a simple press of the d-pad will adjust the d-pad even further. There is one portion of the game where the 3D does seem to get in the way though — in each world, there are binoculars somewhere and looking through them will enable you to survey the map using the 3DS’ gyroscope and if you’re one of those that gets headaches when not staring at the 3D dead on be warned, you’re going to want to turn it off before using them.
What would a Mario game be without power-ups? In Super Mario 3D Land, you’ll of course have the standard mushrooms, power stars and fire flowers, but the game introduces a few new(ish) items to the game as well. The most prevalent of course is the returning Tanooki tail, which allows Mario to flutter and float in the air (no, it doesn’t do everything it did in Mario 3). There’s also a new boomerang suit, which allows Mario to toss a boomerang at his enemies. While it was helpful, I found myself shying away from the boomerang suit when I could in exchange for the fireflower, which itself is improved and can take out multiple enemies at once.
For a 3DS game, Super Mario 3D Land is easily the best looking on the system. Everything from the shading to the wonderful animations and crisp textures makes for an incredible sense of production. The world of Super Mario 3D Land is a bright and colorful one filled with breathtaking visuals and they all fit in the palm of your hand. The sound is just as charming as you’d expect from a Mario game, and the soundtrack is a mix of classic tunes and new mixes that are so catchy it’s damn near impossible to get them out of your head.
Most charming about the game though is the sheer level of fan service it packs. The game is full of references to previous Mario games, from the Toad House from Super Mario 3 to having to cross a bridge and jump on a switch to defeat Bowser and send him to a fiery pit below. It’s not just Mario games that get nods here; there’s a much talked about Zelda inspired world early on in the game, and there’s even a few instances where standing on a certain spot in a hidden room makes the Zelda discovery noise. Perhaps most impressive is just how all of this, the fan service, the excellent production values, and the fun gameplay work together to create one impressive and unforgettable experience.
The Blast Factor: Super Mario 3D Land illustrates a very important point — never count Nintendo out. After nearly ten months, a ton of disappointing games and a massive price drop, the 3DS not only has it’s first must have game, but it has one that defines the system and what it can do. Super Mario 3D Land may not be perfect, but it is the most impressive 3DS game to date, and one of the best Mario games in a long time.