Review: Super Mario 3D Land

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When Princess Peach gets snatched by Bowser—totally shocking and unexpected, I know–—Mario always jumps to the rescue. Being forced to rescue his parent company’s hardware releases? That’s a more recent development.

And it’s exactly what’s happened with the Nintendo 3DS. Debuting to King Boo-sized hoopla and fanfare way back in March of this year, Nintendo’s shiny new toy promptly slipped to many gamers’ back burners, thanks to an almost criminal lack of buzz-worthy launch titles. (A 2011 game-release schedule that was more barren than Adam Sandler’s Oscar prospects didn’t help, either.) Nintendo was forced to deploy an emergency price-drop to save face and juice sales, but even this wasn’t enough to fix the situation. As always, it’s about the games.

And as always, enter Mario. Super Mario 3D Land, the perky plumber’s latest classic/modern opus, has given gamers a great reason to blow the layers of dust off and recharge their 3DS.

The game’s structure is steeped in Mario history and all about bite-size platforming action. Bowser’s got Peach yet again, and Mario needs to jump across a series of eight worlds that double as a hall of fame take on the Mushroom Kingdom. Levels based on Luigi’s Mansion, Bowser’s Castle and Airship will look joyfully familiar, and so will squashing goombas, chasing power stars and leaping as high as possible onto flagpoles to end each level.

Everything shines in gorgeous, deviously designed 3D. Not since Super Paper Mario have players been challenged to use their spatial and depth perception skills quite like this. Unlike other 3DS games that used similar 3D level mechanics—I’m thinking in particular of Cubic Ninja—Mario’s 3D experience feels totally thoughtful and integrated. You’ll dive several dimensional levels deep into some of these worlds, ducking through tunnels, floating like a fish in a tank through underwater sequences and seeming to break the fourth wall in pursuit of checkpoints and hidden treasure.

Admittedly, it takes some untimely thousand-foot falls to get used to seeing the world in multiple dimensions. Using the shadows cast by blocks, coins and Mario’s body when he’s in the air are each critical to landing your jumps. The levels are timed, so your first runthrough is likely to be relatively easy and quick as it is incomplete. To progress past World 5, you’ll need to loop through again to score as many level-unlocking star coins as you can. And lord, are some of them hard to nab.

Luckily, super-suits abound to make combat and float-jumping easier for our ubiquitous plumber. The versatile and PETA-infuriating Tanooki suit from Super Mario 3 makes a welcome return, joining the new boomerang suit and the helicopter box that lets Mario explore the upper parts of the third dimension. And those super-tall canyon walls, too.

The levels that find Mario moving forward rather than side-scrolling make more interesting use of the 3D effects, although several levels incorporate multiple angles before they’re through. World 2-3, a doozy that demands you guide Mario across a series of cloudy and spongy platforms high in the sky, induces a deliciously real sense of vertigo, as some of the leaps you’ll have to land cover a serious distance. I’m less thrilled with the conveyor-belt airship and desert levels that force you to keep moving or die, even if they do add an additional element of tension to the proceedings. Once you’ve managed to traverse World 8, the game opens up a few more surprises.

If the 3DS’s position-specific effects make your eyes feel like they’re being stomped by Ndamukong Suh, you can opt to flip the 3D function off and briefly join the flat earth society, but doing so means you’ll miss treasures and passages in certain sections altogether. The game flashes a 3D icon in the corner of the screen whenever the 3D feature becomes critical.

If you platform-jump about as well as you bust the electric slide at a drunken wedding reception, Nintendo has you covered– the talent barrier is appropriately low in 3D Land. It’s uber-easy to achieve and maintain a steady stream of 1Up goodness just by general jumping and running around, stockpiling copious and easy-to reach gold coins. Screw up a level several times in a row, and the game offers you some seriously righteous get–out-of-jail free cards, in the form of free super-suits and even a power-up that flies you directly to the end of the level. Minus any and all of the bonuses you would otherwise have collected, of course.

In many ways, Super Mario 3D Land does for the 3DS what Super Mario Galaxy did for the Wii back in 2007: Give us a glimpse of the what happens when you turn the keys over to creative geniuses who understand the possibilities the platform offers for design and execution.

It’s hard not to wonder how things might have played out differently for the 3DS had Mario been there at launch. It’s enough to be thankful he’s here now, lugging Nintendo’s handheld in new and exciting directions.

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Pros:
+ Cleverly designed levels make fabulous and clever use of 3D effects
+ Fizzy/tasty cocktail of classic elements from Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario 3 and New Super Mario Brothers
+ Controls are sensible, easy to use
+ Difficulty curve is smoothed by copious super-suits

Cons:
- Conveyor-belt side-scrolling levels don’t allow you to stop and appreciate the sunny design

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Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Release Date: 11/13/2011
Genre: Action Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.