Your 3DS collection isn’t complete without this Mario platformer.
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release Date: November 13th, 2011
Score: 4.9 / 5
It’s well-known by now that Mario is the master of platforming. In recent years, he’s starred in the New Super Mario Bros. games to reassert his dominance over 2D platforming, and on the Wii, the Super Mario Galaxy series has reinvented platforming in three dimensions. Now Mario finds himself in true, stereoscopic 3D for the first time, with excellent results. Super Mario 3D Land builds on the brilliant platforming of the Super Mario Galaxy games and delivers what is easily the best gaming experience on 3DS thus far.
The story is as unexpected, layered and complex as Mario games generally are: Princess Peach has been captured by Bowser, and it’s up to you to save her. The story presentation is about as minimalist as it gets: at the start of the game, and between each world, you receive a photograph showing Peach’s current status (still captured). You can shake the 3DS lightly to watch the characters in the photo bounce around, but that’s about as deep as it gets. I can’t take any points off for this, though, as there really is no need for a story in a Mario platformer. The excellent gameplay is all the motivation you need to continue playing.
The platforming in Super Mario 3D Land is based on that of the Galaxy games. While most 3D platforming titles, starting with Super Mario 64, have you exploring a wide-open space, the levels of 3D Land are generally a very linear affair, with a clearly defined platforming path to get you from the beginning of the level to the flagpole at the end. You’ll deal with a variety of enemies new and old as you navigate rotating blocks, player-controlled moving platforms, warp blocks, unfolding paths, and more. There’s enough variety present, and enough clever design, to ensure that the adventure never gets boring.
Nintendo has eagerly publicized the return of the Tanooki Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3, which lets players hover in the air for a short time; this can make certain sections of the game significantly easier, and it’s satisfying floating past gaps with your tail wagging. New to the series is the Boomerang Suit, which works exactly how it sounds; you’re given the ability throw boomerangs, which can not only attack distant enemies but pick up any coins, or Star Coins, it encounters along the way. Also new is the Properllor Box, which Mario can wear on his head along with any other powerup he might currently have; if you hold down the jump button, Mario flies up into the air for a short period, then hovers back down. Both are highly useful without being overpowered, and are offered in limited enough quantities that they don’t break the game. You can also store an extra item on the bottom screen, in case you get damaged or just need to change strategies, but be careful that an inferior item doesn’t replace a superior one, as that can happen when you start dealing with multiple different Tanooki Suits.
For the first time in any 3DS game I’ve played, the stereoscopic 3D effect feels like a vital gameplay element, as opposed to a novelty. The added depth perception removes the danger of that most terrifying of platforming elements, the jump toward, or away from, the game screen; players can now accurately judge the distance between all platforms and make jumps accordingly. There are also certain bonus rooms that are expressly designed to mess with your head if you’re not using the 3D effect, which are always entertaining to play.
Many people have had their complaints about the 3D effect giving them headaches, and it appears that Nintendo has worked to minimize those concerns in this game. In addition to the standard 3D slider range, 3D Land offers two different depth options, one closer to the eye, and one a bit farther out. In either case, the total range of 3D depth is limited to a fairly narrow range that’s easy for the eye to process all at once; objects that are farther out are brought forward a bit and shrunk, so they look the correct size, but they’re still only a certain distance away as far as the 3D effect goes. It’s easily the best use of the 3D effect yet, and people who had trouble with the 3D in the past should be less bothered by it now.
3D Land also manages to cater to both newer players looking for a less frustrating title, and longtime gamers who are looking for a significant challenge. The first few worlds aren’t unduly challenging, but players who are not platforming aficionados will find a respectable challenge throughout the first half of the game. Meanwhile, those who are looking for a greater challenge can seek out the three Star Coins hidden in each level; some are easy to find, but most will require you to explore each level carefully for secret alcoves or hidden paths, and it definitely injects some challenge into the earlier levels. It should be noted, though, that Star Coins are eventually needed to progress, so everyone is going to have to go back and get at least some of them. Going back to earlier levels to find these coins, though, doesn’t upend the difficulty curve in any real way, and can be a nice change of pace. As an added bonus, those who die enough on the earlier levels will be offered a special gold leaf, which grants them an invincible Tanooki Suit to help them get past this challenge and on to the next.
Once you get past the final normal world, however, all bets are off. At that point, the Special worlds are unlocked, and the game’s difficulty level ramps up immediately and significantly. In addition to more enemies and more difficult level layouts, certain levels may come with added challenges. Some levels will have you start with only 30 on the clock, and you’ll need to pick up additional time bonuses all throughout the level if you want to survive toward the end. Other levels will have a fairly quick autoscroll forcing you forward, while some levels will have you chased by a Shadow Clone that mimics your every movement and damages you when you touch it. The most devious levels will throw everything they have at you, and dozens of deaths can be expected before you finally reach the ending flagpole. Plus, if you ever want to see the last level, you’ll need to collect every Star Coin you possibly can. Experienced players will have nothing to complain about during the second half of the game.
In addition to standard levels, there are Toad Houses scattered across the worlds, which will give you a free power-up in case you need it; these are only good for one use, however, so be careful. On top of that, there are a number of Mystery Boxes, which offer a number of smaller, ten-second challenges that can give you power-ups, coins, or Star Coins. These Mystery Boxes will replenish on their own periodically, but you can get new ones if you connect with other players via StreetPass. They’re a quick distraction, and most of the default ones are not very challenging; I haven’t had a chance to look at StreetPass boxes, unfortunately.
There’s only one major complaint I can make about the game, and that’s the lack of variety in bosses. There are exactly three bosses in the game, and two of them are similar to each other as it is. The most common enemy is the male Boom Boom, who will run around a small arena spinning his arms at you; the female Boom Boom is defeated in a similar manner, though she throws Boomerangs at you instead. They’ll appear multiple times in the game, and they’re never very different. In the Special worlds, though, the arenas you fight them in can get significantly more challenging, such as one female Boom Boom fight that takes place entirely on platforms that fall away when you step on them. It doesn’t do quite enough to make the experience fresh, though.
The third boss, of course, is Bowser himself. You don’t actually battle him, though; you have to run through an obstacle course of sorts while dodging his attacks, in order to hit the switch at the end and drop him into lava. These are significantly more fun, especially when you need to start using Bowser to clear a path for you. The final boss battle of the game is an extended escape scene while you avoid Bowser’s attacks, similar to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and it’s frankly one of the most exhilarating boss battles in recent Mario memory. Mario is meant to platform, not to fight, and seeing Nintendo embrace this fact is very relieving. It’s easier to add variety to this sort of battle than to standard ones, anyhow.
3D Land has surprisingly good graphics that manage to show off the system’s respectable capabilities in a cartoony way. I’m still surprised whenever I stop into a Toad House and see the highly defined round shape of the building, or when I see light reflecting off the rain-slicked surface of one of the last structures in the game. This game won’t have unique music for every level, and you’ll be hearing several of the same tunes repeatedly, but this fact isn’t too troublesome. The music itself is fairly good, though it’s a far cry from the sweeping orchestral tunes of the original Super Mario Galaxy. Mostly, though, it’s another element that adds to the general atmosphere of the game, as opposed to something that’s meant to stand out on its own.
Each of the game’s worlds has just about six levels in it, and the game has a little less than 100 levels total, each of which will take you a few minutes to complete, multiplied by however many times you die trying to get to the end. Trying to fully complete the game and unlock the final level, which involves besting every flagpole, getting every gold coin, and beating every level twice, could take somebody one to two dozen hours to complete, which is more than a decent length for a portable platforming title. Even then, some of these levels are fun enough to go back and play for their own sake.
With Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo has crafted another addictively fun platforming title, with very few problems marring the experience. The gameplay is easy to pick up and enjoy for anybody, but the more experienced gamers will find the later levels delightfully challenging. Wrap that up with a great presentation, and you have the best new game on the 3DS so far. Had it not been for a couple repetitive bosses, I’d have no good reason not to give this game a perfect score. If you own Nintendo’s newest handheld, you have no reason not to go out and buy this game as soon as you can.