You can always count on Mario. Who else would continually save a princess whose only hired protection is a bunch of pint-sized, bare-chested — not to mention incompetent — mushroom men? She’s practically begging to be kidnapped. Just as you can rely on him to come to the rescue whenever Bowser makes a return, his games are usually a safe bet for anyone looking for some fun platforming, a bit of Koopa crushing and a jaunty tune or two.
Of course, Mario’s latest adventure has one major defining feature (hint: It’s in the title). But how else does it set itself apart from the rest of the series?
For starters, the use of an extra dimension in Super Mario 3D Land isn’t just exceptional, there are some segments of the game that are absolutely impossible to get past without turning up the 3D slider. Some areas look like a bunch of blocks stacked on top of one another at first glance. Add an extra dimension and suddenly you find yourself in a maze. It doesn’t end there, either. Many of the stages benefit from a flick of the 3D slider, even if you don’t turn it up to the max. Levels where platforms run into one another and donut lifts drop as you step on them are easier to navigate when you get a bit of extra depth on the Nintendo 3DS’ upper screen.
Outside of the 3D, this Mario game isn’t anything you couldn’t have seen coming a mile away. Overworld navigation works much like it did in Galaxy 2 and New Super Mario Bros. In fact, it’s much more linear than any Mario game since the first entry on the NES; you typically can’t progress to one stage unless you beat the one before it. Sometimes you’ll be denied access to a special stage because you don’t have enough star coins collected, but toward the end of the game those levels aren’t optional and a lack of coins prohibits you from progressing any farther. Thankfully, the cost of entry isn’t too steep; I had accumulated enough star coins to make it to the final castle before I made it halfway through the game.
Holding true to the every-Mario-game-bundled-in-one mission 3D Land seems to go for, each stage ends with the traditional trip down the flagpole first introduced in Super Mario Bros. on the NES. The trip from the start of a level to the end isn’t long, either. It’s evident Nintendo designed Super Mario 3D Land with the needs of the handheld gamer in mind – one or two minutes will usually get you from start to finish in a given stage. That’s definitely a plus considering there’s a time limit for every stage.
The most interesting aspect of 3D Land’s level design is that it’s not a 2.5D platformer as many pre-release screenshots may suggest, nor is it a free-roaming 3D adventure. The game dips into both genres a little bit, with most stages smoothly transitioning from one perspective to the other with great success. Don’t forget to look closely at each stage — there are plenty of hidden power-ups and bonus rooms just out of sight to keep things interesting.
All of Mario’s basic abilities are present in 3D Land. You control him with the circle pad, hold the X or Y buttons to run and B to jump. I’ll admit that I was a bit miffed when I learned the circle pad alone wouldn’t allow Mario to go from a slow walk to all-out sprint, but the control scheme works and doesn’t detract from the experience. In addition to the long jump, somersault and crouching walk, Mario’s skill set now includes the ability to roll into objects with a quick crouch and a push of the X or Y button directly afterward. The move comes in handy when it comes to taking down the wooden enemy busts scattered throughout stages or when you need to destroy a block of bricks that’s in the way.
This wouldn’t be a Mario game without a few new power-ups and this might be the category where 3D Land truly delivers for fans of the franchise. Of course, your standard fare is present; Nintendo wouldn’t dare let you into the Mushroom Kingdom without Super Mushrooms, Invincibility Stars and Fire Flowers (thankfully the Fire Mario time limit from Galaxy has been done away with). But the true standouts in this excursion are the Super Leaf and Boomerang Suit.
The Tanooki Suit allows Mario to don a costume fans have clamored to see since Super Mario Bros. 3. Although the suit is a faithful recreation of Mario’s raccoon-esque power-up from his final NES appearance, it lacks the ability of flight that made Tanooki Mario such a joy to control back in the day. Fortunately, Nintendo’s offered a fair solution. Although there’s no flight in Super Mario 3D Land in the strictest sense, the propeller blocks from New Super Mario Bros. Wii make a return and, when bundled with the Tanooki Suit, make for an interesting combination. I dare you to climb to the highest point in any given stage with the 3D turned up and not succumb partially to vertigo; it’s a wonderful feeling. Although Tanooki Mario lacks the gift of flight from his last appearance, the ability to slow him down mid-fall isn’t just a life saver during tricky platforming segments. It also allows you to reach platforms a normal fall would render impossible.
The Boomerang Suit is another call back to the days of Super Mario Bros. 3. In that game, Mario donned a Hammer Bro. costume that allowed him to steal the Koopa’s signature threads and weapons. This time around, the pudgy plumber takes a cue from the Hammer Bro’s boomerang-slinging cousin to great effect. Not only do the projectiles defeat most enemies; they also retrieve far-away items, a skill that comes in useful when hunting for star coins.
If you acquire any of the aforementioned power-ups while armed, the suit you’re wearing moves to the touch screen and may be called back into action with a simple tap, much like the inventory system in New Super Mario Bros.
The best thing about the power-ups in Super Mario 3D Land is that they add a depth to the gameplay that’s been missing since Super Mario World. For most of the plumber’s time on 3D platforms, power-ups have been a contextual affair. Fire Mario’s time in Super Mario Galaxy was limited because you only needed him to solve certain puzzles before heading off to the next challenge. The Mini Mushroom in New Super Mario Bros. was also nothing more than a method with which to find secrets and complete the game with 100 percent of the collectibles. Sure, New Super Mario Bros. let you keep other suits as long as you weren’t injured, but retaining a power-up was more a matter of convenience than necessity.
Thankfully, 3D Land doesn’t continue the trend. As I said before, there are no time limits on any power-ups. If you wanted to, you could pick up the first Super Leaf that’s thrown your way and play through the game as Tanooki Mario, but that’s not advisable. There are some secrets only Fire Mario can access by setting torches alight and items that are impossible to nab without a boomerang. There are wheels scattered throughout the Mushroom Kingdom that require a quick spin from Tanooki Mario’s tail to spin. Once activated, they raise the platform you’re standing on to provide access to secret areas that may contain a star coin or a box containing more power-ups or a 1up.
Although 3D Land puts power-ups to good use, the adventure itself is far too linear for my liking. As I said before, there’s not too much deviation on the path to Bowser’s Keep in this installment of the franchise. Add the fact that there’s only one exit to any given stage and you can’t help but wonder if the spirit of exploration that dominated earlier Mario titles has been abandoned in favor of…well, I’m not entirely sure what the trade-off is here.
In fact, there’s not much to distinguish Super Mario 3D Land from any title in the series that’s come before it. The game does a great job of mixing some of my favorite elements from several previous titles, but lacks an overall sense of identity. Aside from the inclusion of the Tanooki and Boomerang suits, this may as well be Super Mario Galaxy 3D, minus the gravity gimmick.
Don’t get me wrong, the game’s use of 3D is excellent and without it you wouldn’t be able to completely 100-percent it, but you could just as easily turn the effect off — save for when it’s necessary — and still have an enjoyable experience.
The second quest is the perfect example for most of my beefs with the game as a whole. Once you beat the final castle in World 8, you’re given the option to start the game from the beginning, playing re-mixed versions of all the levels you’ve already beaten. The forced speed runs and inversed layouts of previous stages are fun and everything, but the experience isn’t as fulfilling as it was in either of the Galaxy games.
None of this is to say that Super Mario 3D Land isn’t worth checking out. This is easily one of the strongest titles in the Nintendo 3DS’ library and a must-buy for any Mario fan. But, Super Mario 3D Land is almost too good at treading the beaten path and sticking to recent series conventions instead of blazing its own trail and establishing an original identity.