Way back in the Dark Ages when games generally only carried 2D sprites, the plucky plumber named Mario went though a bit of a rise and fall.
Once king of both the arcade and home markets, Shigeru Miyamoto's brainchild fell into mild obscurity, and suffered from waning inspiration. That was, until he was reborn in glorious light – with a crucial additional dimension in his Nintendo 64 debut, Super Mario 64.
Since then, there has been a raft of excellent Mario games on a variety of platforms – perhaps most notably Super Mario Sunshine for the GameCube – and his first outing on Nintendo's newest console, Mario finds himself well and truly at home in one of the best games of his career.
Super Mario 3D Land gets straight to the point. After very swiftly moving though a save-game creation, the title drops the player right into the action. It's a nice respite from the current generation of titles which deem it necessary to gloss everything with a cut-scene and character development. We know the drill, here; there is no experience to gather, just stars, coins and power-ups. There is a Princess. There is Bowser. Trouble ensues.
On Mario's journey through nine increasingly challenging worlds he will be burned, squished, drugged, dropped, stamped, drowned, poisoned and shot to bits. It's all in a days work for the Italian national, though – taking things in his stride. The controls have been tweaked to within an inch of his life, allowing for very precise and fluid control. Having an extra dimension to consider adds a degree of fun to the game that didn't fully sink in on the larger console versions due to the 3D technology inherent in the 3DS.
Being able to truly jump behind or in front of an object as it observably moves in space just feels right in 3D Land. The early game is fairly easy, leading to a bit of a shock when things start to ramp up at just past the halfway mark. Luckily, Mario is killed enough times the game grants him invulnerability to get the player past the trickiest parts. This move helps keep the fun-train on the tracks, and is a great boon for players who have limited time, skill or an embarrassing combination of both.
The landscapes Mario has to conquer as part of his quest are exquisitely designed in this 3D Land. Basic side-scrolling zones dripping with fan-service detail give the player a gentle warm up for the much more complex 3D areas which will move, change and break apart before their eyes.
The level design rarely strays from functional, the core gameplay elements of timed jumps and vanquishing foes feels interlocked with the levels. This might sound like the game is set too easy – far from it. The sense of familiarity the player develops only leads to their downfall; clever changes and tricks are always around the corner ready to send Mario to a screaming death.
As is typical, the levels are split roughly in two with a checkpoint in the middle. Mario is rewarded for collecting coins with a 1UP and for being persistent in collecting all the hidden items scattered around the world.
Innovation in this area comes not from the items themselves, but their interactions with the 3D world. Taking a Tanooki Suit assisted jump requires not only a quick calculation of height and distance, but depth as well.
The binoculars are a new feature which makes good use of the 3DS’ gyroscope. Standing on special platforms dotted around the word brings the game into a first person view that lets Mario survey the upcoming onslaught. It’s a novelty feature, leaning more towards form than function but it still feels neat.
Speaking of features that the 3DS has to offer, StreetPass – Nintendo’s new push to bring players together in real life – is present in Super Mario 3D Land. Finding another player to swap bonus items with can be a bit tricky if you’re past the acceptable age to go around bumping handhelds in public, but other than that the system is easy enough to use.
The 3D aspect of the game is some of the best to appear on the new system since its inception. It’s possible to play with the 3D turned on for a couple of hours at a time without receiving an industrial strength headache and the 3D really gives the player an advantage in navigating the game-world.
By combining the slick 3D polish of modern-era console Mario with the pure and simple challenge of the classic platform era, Nintendo have created a true gem. The frustration one encounters falling off a slick edge for the 14th time is outweighed by the addictiveness of achievement. It’s linear, to the point and perfectly tuned for a portable experience.