I knew Super Mario 3D Land was going to be a difficult review to tackle. When I first heard of the game and that it was to be developed by the team that made Galaxy, I quickly fell in love with the idea of a true sequel to Mario 64 (what I thought was in the works for the 3DS). At E3, however, I learned that the game would probably adhere more towards New Super Mario Bros. gameplay (though the most obvious homage comes in the form of the Tanooki suit, alluding back to Super Mario Bros. 3) and I must say I was a little disappointed.
Now, I’ve always been a big proponent of 2D gameplay, even in this modern day and age, but something about the New Super Mario Bros. franchise has just felt a little off when it comes to Mario. Sure, I loved the DS game immensely but all the while, I felt that the Wii game more catered to beginners than veterans (as opposed to say, Donkey Kong Country Returns, which is relentless in its difficulty). Fun, easy gameplay seems to be reserved more for Kirby titles than Mario ones in my opinion, and that’s why what was a fun multiplayer bout on the Wii just fell a little short in my eyes.
Thus comes Mario’s latest adventure hot off the holiday shelf, a much needed addition to a still small 3DS lineup and I can only hope that they’ve brought about enough innovation to make the game truly unique, rather than just selling a souped up sequel in the vein of New Super Mario Bros. Can Super Mario 3D Land continue the legacy of platforming innovation that Mario games have been synonymous with over the years or does it fall into the category of rehash?
Perspective is Everything
Let’s face it, it was difficult to try to think where the Mario series would head after the Galaxy games graced us with such an imaginative evolution in platforming. After moving platforming to new heights throughout the existence of Mario (from the original to the world map in Mario 3 to 3D in Mario 64) and ending with some of the most creative level design I’ve ever seen in the Galaxy duo, I feared creativity would run thin in the near future for the series. However, I should have known that Miyamoto always has something up his sleeves and the good folks at Nintendo rarely let us down with Mario.
Super Mario 3D Land is most certainly more than initially meets the eye. Most would imagine exactly what I did a few paragraphs before, that the game would feature New Super Mario Bros. gameplay with a gimmicky 3D coat of paint but that notion is far from the truth. What Super Mario 3D Land does to innovate in the series that’s filled with different gameplay evolutions is play entirely on our notions of perspective in gaming. While it does provide a large amount of traditional linear gameplay (with everything from a single exit to a time limit), Super Mario 3D Land gives multiple forms of perspectives to literally change the gameplay based on the point of view (and this fits nicely with a system that’s built on confusing our perspective into seeing 3D).
For instance, while the first few levels feature gameplay along the lines of horizontal, linear gameplay (with 3D depth making for a few areas to explore off-the-beaten path), the third level sort of rotates the level design a full 90 degrees, where the majority of the level involves more vertical descent than traditional horizontal movement. This makes for a great use of the system’s 3D capabilities as the path of the level can be seen far away in the distance below you and you’ll be moving downward towards it rather than left to right.
Another perspective style occurs in some of the many bonus areas throughout the game. Using an isometric point of view, the game plays optical illusions on the gamer by making it difficult to determine the positioning of the various lifts (though some panels allow you to shift the camera slightly to see the trick). This is a fun play on camera-work where purposefully placing the camera at what would be considered a “bad angle” in other games makes for an actual element in the gameplay.
Still another of the game’s perspectives brought forth is the full-3D exploration level. The one in particular that I’m mentioning occurs in world 3 and features a tremendously tall tower that must be climbed. In the vein of 3D console Mario titles, the level is broad in size in all dimensions with areas all around to explore as well as a ridiculously large tower to ascend. Thus, you start in one corner of the level and you are given the luxury of exploring a fairly large area around the tower to search for secrets as well as coins. As you progress up the tower, there are a number of different paths you can take to the top, from both inside and outside of the tower. In order to neutralize the time limit, the game also features clocks you can find to add to the time limit and makes the level feel more like an exploration than a time based level (these time additions are strewn throughout most levels to encourage exploration off the somewhat linear path that may be initially apparent).
Other perspective changes include swimming levels (that feel more like a combination of those from 3D console games and that of 2D ones) as well as a specially themed Zelda level that plays like running through a dungeon and places the camera above the action for a top-down view (with a few different paths to go if you “solve” the puzzles ;-). Camera changes also play an important role in the placement of secret star coins: in many more linear levels, a coin may be in an area that’s completely off the path but in a suspiciously conspicuous area of the level.
My biggest complaint of the entire game, however, is in the fact that despite having such a large variance of level and gameplay design, the majority of the levels fit the mold of the traditional 2D gameplay with slight deviant areas off the path (I’d say over 75% of the levels fit this category). I was hoping that there would be more than one of the 3D-exploration style levels as well as maybe a second Zelda-style “dungeon” that was more sinister and more oriented towards puzzles (the ghost houses are pretty cool though, nonetheless). For most of the game I found myself loving the variance in gameplay but hoping for levels that never came.
Also, as you’ve probably heard, the game is a little on the easy side. There are ways to help those who struggle with levels (if you die a number of times, you can receive powerups including super ones such as the gold Tanooki suit that makes you invincible as well as the P-Wing that warps you to the end of the level). However, I breezed through the first 8 worlds so easily that I found myself not discovering this aid until the very last level of world 8 (and at this point, I think I was at around 200 lives). After the first 8 worlds, the difficulty does increase but I still managed to beat everything in the game in as little as 4 days (I received it last Friday and managed to finish the game Monday evening).
Let’s be clear, the game certainly is the largest of any of the Mario games not including the console 3D ones so it’s not short on experience but the difficulty might make it seem a little shorter than it actually is (so don’t hardcore the game like most reviewers do, take your time and enjoy the 25 hour experience). I found the extra content (which I’m not cleared to talk about) very exciting and a great boost to the game’s overall depth with a few of the levels expending 20 or more lives apiece (there is a lives lost tally at the end and after beating every level and collecting all of the star coins, I was at 175 though I still had 220 extra lives when all was said and done.).
In order to promote finding the star coins but not make them a complete necessity, some portions of the game are blocked off until you’ve acquired enough coins. Most of the time it’s one single level in each of the worlds (an optional one that you can choose to play or not but isn’t required to progress through the game) though you will be required to have a certain amount of coins to reach the final level (as well as many more in the later levels after world 8).
The main innovation of the game is clearly in the perspective of the camerawork but gameplay continues to innovate and change throughout the entirety of the game and that’s what leads to a varied experience from start to finish. From new additions to homages to older games, Super Mario 3D Land is extremely strong in the gameplay department (as it should be).
Now, a brief talk about the camera needs to occur: ever since the invention of 3D Mario, full control of the camera has not only been a necessity but also an important portion of the gameplay. In 3D Land, however, the camera control is completely dynamic so that you don’t have to do any work (there is a way to veer the camera left or right to see different perspectives but this doesn’t act as an important control and I don’t remember using it at all aside from the initial run-through of testing the controls). I found this to be quite liberating also realized that it added to the game’s abilities to change perspective. By shifting the camera in certain ways, secrets might be out of view (though a noticeable path may be available if you’re observant).
As for gameplay changes, there are many different styles, typically dependent upon the level you’re playing. Much like in the Galaxy games, levels don’t follow a trend based upon the world you’re currently on, but instead they change design from level to level. One moment you’ll be travelling through a traditional linear level and the next you’re jumping rotating blocks or flying great distances with propeller blocks (the ones introduced in New Super Mario Bros. Wii). Many of the interesting platforming mechanics from the Galaxy games have actually been carried over to this game including rotating blocks, switch blocks, blocks that flip when you jump, rhythm based blocks, tight ropes and rail cars (as well as a few other things that I can’t talk about right now). The camera angles also pan in a similar fashion on Bowser levels where you may jump onto a block and propel high into the sky to the next portion of the level.
As for throwback gameplay, there is plenty of that in the game as well. We’ve seen the obvious Tanooki suit that makes platforming much easier due to its ability to slow the rate of Mario’s decent, but level design is also brought back to the style of older Mario games. Everything from donut blocks, air ships, levels that constantly move forward, Monty Moles, and Mushroom houses have been included in the game. There’s the perfect mesh of old and new into a truly hybrid game of the two.
The game also utilizes a few of the 3DS’s unique capabilities though these aren’t major gameplay elements (and I’m happy this is the case). Gyroscopic capabilities are utilized while using telescopes strewn throughout the levels (the only purpose these serve is to gawk over the level designs as well as look for secrets and find Toads to give you Star coins). StreetPass is available for use to trade high scores in time limits it took to beat levels. You can also use this functionality to regenerate your mushroom houses and question mark block levels (that give you a star coin as well as a powerup). What you’re left with is a game that thrives off of creative gameplay and level design, much like the way the Galaxy games are (but not quite to the same extent).
3D Land is one of the best looking games on the 3DS, if not the best to date (aside from maybe a few I’ve seen at E3 such as Kid Icarus). The game features graphics that are reminiscent of Super Mario Sunshine or possibly the best in the series aside from Galaxy. From the bright colorful environments to the varied change of level décor, the most impressive graphical effects are based around the concepts of perception and distance (as you might have guessed). Being that this is a powerful next-gen handheld, pop-in is non-existent so you can see everything off in the distance whether it be well below you or far in front.
The “wow” moments are due to the perfect implementation of the 3D effects to make the graphics something entirely different than other Mario games. The depth effects of the 3DS make everything look even more impressive than it would with the 3D off and really enhance the notion of depth in the level design. What’s more, you’re also given the option to increase the amount of depth effect even further (a separate control than the slider bar) and I found this to be even more impressive (though there are a small number of the levels it doesn’t work well for).
Musically, there are several songs with the new theme that are incredibly catchy (as usual) and the instrumentation is borderline orchestrated. I like that the main theme has a resemblance to the main one from Super Mario Bros. 3 (on the harmony part). There are also a mix of classic tracks like the athletic music from Mario 3 (level 1-2’s music from that game that has popped up in many recent Mario titles) as well as other remixes of classic staples. I found the soundtrack to be perfectly fitting for the series (though nothing epic like Galaxy 1 or 2).
Another presentation addition are the many different types of enemies introduced to the game. First of all, since the game is all about the Tanooki suit, many of the baddies along the way have Tanooki forms including Goombas, Bullet Bills, and even Bowser. You’ve also got your staple of older baddies that have shown up in the game including Monte Moles, those annoying Wrench throwing Moles from Mario 3, Kammy Koopas, Hammer Bros., and Boomerang Bros. Additionally, there are very endearing baddies such as Goombas stacked on top of one another and Piranha Plants that spit oil to cover the screen (like in Mario Kart).