The first Mario platformer for the 3DS should be the just the shot in the arm the handheld needs, arriving just two weeks before a further boost with Mario Kart 7. You can’t deny that the 3DS is a powerful piece of kit, but it’s hardly been well endowed in the games department. So it seems the Italian plumber has arrived in time to cheer up Nintendo’s ailing spreadsheets in the run up to the Christmas period.
Super Mario 3D Land is an unusual beast in that it plays like a 2D platformer in the spirit of the classic NES and SNES games, but with a three-dimensional twist. Unlike Super Mario 64, Sunshine, Galaxy and Galaxy 2, where you could roam wherever you wanted, Super Mario 3D Land plays out along a more linear path, like the 1985 original expanded into a 3D environment. It’s as though the horsepower of the N64 has been mated with the stallion that was Super Mario Bros 3. Although you’re restricted to one route, there is some freedom to move around, so it doesn’t often feel like you are on rails.
It’s a full retro trip for longstanding Mario fans like myself. All the hallmarks of Mario 3 are there – arguably the highlight of the 2D Mario platformers – along with nods to other episodes, from the classic level end flagpole from the first game, to the countdown clock, to the retro powers including the Tanooki suit (here, for the most part, as a cut-down raccoon power up, but with the appearance of the full suit), plus loads of classic baddies. There’s a great video on YouTube that matched up scenes from old Mario games to almost note-perfect replicas in 3D in this game, showing the development team’s attention to detail that older fans will be sure to appreciate.
It’s not all old, though, as we sees two brand new power ups in the forms of Boomerang Mario and the Propeller Block, plus new enemies, along with the general feeling that it’s Super Mario Galaxy in portable form, with some challenges mirrored from that game.
At this point, I’d normally discuss the plot, but that would be just a waste of ASCII because, as always, the scriptwriters haven’t placed originality high up on their list of priorities. On the positive side, it just means we’ve more time to get on with the game.
Here, you’re presented with eight worlds of five levels each – a mixture of grass levels, underground ones, a few water stages, castles, airships, ghost houses and other staples of the Mario level canon. Taking its cue from the Galaxy games, most levels are presented as floating in the sky, making this one of the most palm-sweating-inducing Mario games in a long time, as you know that one mistimed jump means death.
Thankfully, the controls are as tight as ever, with jumps and movement so fluid you can’t fault the system, helped by the impressive 3D that really provides a sense of depth. The 3D has always been impressive on the system, and while it’s unobtrusive for the most part, there are times when things come at the screen, or you’re falling down vertical levels, where it’s really quite awe-inspiring, and actually adds an extra level of fear to falling down those heights.
The levels that introduce slides are particularly noteworthy and, with some bonuses only possible by using the 3D, you’d be a fool to play it without it, even though, as I’d forgotten, it drains the juice out of the battery faster than a hungry man at a poorly-stocked fridge.
Though the basic premise of each level is the same – get from the start to the final flagpole while collecting coins, avoiding enemies and picking up power-ups along the way – each episode is unique, with a different enemy, obstacle or theme that keeps it fresh, be it a rollercoaster through Bowser’s castle, blocks that appear and disappear with the beat of the music, or a run across a bridge avoiding Cheep-Cheeps. There are also three star coins on each level to collect, which allow you to unlock secret levels as you progress.
So is the game any good? Well, it’s a resounding yes. Graphically, the game is amazing, and as good as anything the Wii has pulled off. The 3D works marvelously, and adds an extra sense of peril to otherwise calm levels. There are graphical touches such as footprints in snow and sand, birds that shed feathers, and much more. The controls couldn’t be more perfect. The music – a mixture of old and new songs – are just as catchy as they’ve always been, the levels are inventive and the enemies intriguing, even if the humble Koopa Troopa gets very little screen time.
There’s even a great throwback to Mario 3 in the screwed on scenery and wooden cut-outs of baddies which, though random, has a reason behind it which I won’t spoil here.
The most exciting about the game, though, is that the final boss is the first decent battle with Bowser in ages. Though the ending of New Super Mario Bros Wii was dramatic enough, it was one of many that were short, unimaginative and simple. This one provides more tension, false ends and peril. Sure, it’s not massively difficult, but it’s certainly exciting to play.
In terms of difficulty, the game is more of a challenge than some other reviewers might have you believe. It’s certainly not Super Mario Bros 3 or Super Mario Galaxy 2 difficult, but it’s not a walk in the park either. It’s just a shame that Nintendo keep liberally splashing coins and 1-ups around so a Game Over is never a likely outcome.
They’ve also thrown in two aids for less able players: five deaths in a level makes you invincible for its remainder, while ten deaths sees the return of the P-Wing special item, which now provides an immediate transport to the final flag.
There are a few bugbears in the game, though these may be more down to personal preference. I’d have liked to have seen the return of the Super Mario World-style overmap, as that was great to explore, and the secret exits to hidden levels were amazing. The star coins are, in the most, not that difficult to find, and the end world bosses are all very similar, and lack the imagination of the Koopalings seen in previous games.
These are just minor criticisms when you consider how much fun the game is to play, though. There are so many smile-inducing moments, they’re difficult to count, from the ending of world 1-3, with its extreme retro throwback; the funny cut-scenes between worlds, with images you can save to your SD card; and the impressive mix of graphics, challenge, 3D and music.
Plus there are very few games that would just have a random power-up, appearing in one of the last levels of the main game, in one third of one level. Most would milk it for all it was worth; here, Nintendo allow you to enjoy it while it lasts, like it’s the 2011 equivalent of Kuribo’s Shoe.
You may have notice there that I mentioned a main game. Without spoiling too much, once you complete the first eight worlds – which took me eight hours to complete with all the star coins – you get some extra, more challenging levels, a power-up wrong is righted, time attack challenges are made available, and there are some more surprises that I won’t reveal here.
So although I’ve not completed them all, it’s likely that you’ll get 15 hours out of this game with all its levels and star coins, and that’s not before you get to challenging your mates to beat your times. Bearing in mind this is a platformer and not an open-ended sandbox game, that really isn’t bad.
There’s also a StreetPass assist feature, where fellow players you bump into on the street providing you with extra power-ups. It’s not an amazing feature, but a welcome extra touch.
Overall, Super Mario 3D Land is pretty much everything you’d want from a Mario game. There’s plenty of challenge, a lot of retro love for the longstanding fan, and it’s game that is as beautiful to play as it is to look and listen to. It also makes excellent use of 3D, and provides lots of content that you’ll be dipping in and out of for a while – well, until Mario Kart 7 comes out anyway.
Most importantly, Super Mario 3D Land is just plain fun. It also makes you smile, which is something a lot of this year’s games seldom do.
You can rent or buy Super Mario 3D Land at Blockbuster.co.uk.