Whenever you bring up the subject of platforming games, everyone immediately thinks of Mario -- and for good reason. Mario has long been the champion of 2D platforming, but with the most recent Super Mario Galaxy series, Nintendo has completely revolutionized 3D platforming as well. Super Mario 3D Land builds on the brilliant platforming of the Galaxy titles and delivers what is easily the best gaming experience on 3DS thus far.
If you're looking for a game with a deep storyline and memorable characters, you're looking in the wrongest place. Princess Peach has been captured by Bowser, and it's up to you to save her. At the start of the game, and between each world, you receive a photograph showing what Peach is currently up to, aside from being captured. You can shake the 3DS lightly to watch the characters in the photo bounce around, but that's about as deep as it gets. It's hard to complain, though, as a storyline is something Mario platformers don't really need. The excellent gameplay is all the motivation you need to continue playing.
As previously mentioned, the platforming in Super Mario 3D Land is based on that of the Galaxy games. Unlike most 3D platforming titles, where you explore a wide-open space, the levels of 3D Land are generally a linear affair, and there's usually only one path from the start of the level to the end. Along with fighting off a variety of new and classic enemies, you'll navigate rotating blocks, player-controlled moving platforms, warp blocks, unfolding paths, and more. There's enough variety present, and enough clever design, to ensure that the adventure stays interesting even in the very last levels.
Nintendo has eagerly publicized the return of the Tanooki Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3, which lets players hover in the air for a short time; this can make certain sections of the game significantly easier, though it's not overpowered by any means.
One of the new power-ups you're given is the fairly self-explanatory Boomerang Suit; you're given the ability to throw boomerangs, which can not only attack distant enemies but pick up any coins, or Star Coins, it encounters along the way. Also new is the Propeller Box, which Mario can wear on his head along with any other powerup he might currently have; if you hold down the jump button, Mario flies up into the air for a short period, then hovers back down. You won't be given these power-ups often, and while they sound highly useful, holding onto them for a large portion of the game is nearly impossible. You can also store an extra item on the bottom screen, in case you get damaged or just feel like you need some other power. Note, however, that an inferior item doesn't replace a superior one, as that can happen when you start dealing with multiple different Tanooki Suits.
For the first time in any 3DS game I've played, the stereoscopic 3D effect feels like a vital gameplay element, as opposed to a novelty. When jumping into, or away from, the screen, players can now accurately judge the distance between all platforms and make jumps accordingly, addressing a long-held complaint about 3D platformers. There are also certain bonus rooms that are expressly designed to take advantage of the 3D effect, and if you're not using it, you might become utterly confused.
Nintendo has also attempted to mitigate the problems that usually surface when dealing with stereoscopic 3D. In addition to the standard 3D slider range, 3D Land offers two different depth options, one closer to the eye, and one a bit farther out. Whatever you choose, the total 3D depth range is limited to a fairly narrow range that's easy for the eye to process all at once. Objects that are farther out are brought forward a bit and shrunk, so they look the correct size, but they're still only a certain distance away as far as the 3D effect goes, which is easier for the eye to process. It's easily the best use of the 3D effect yet, and people who had trouble with the 3D in the past should give the effect a chance here.
3D Land also manages to cater to both newer players looking for a less frustrating title, and longtime gamers who are looking for a significant challenge. The first few worlds will be fairly difficult for newcomers, but not unfairly so. More skilled players who want more of a challenge can seek out the three Star Coins hidden in each level; some are easy to find, but most will require you to explore each level carefully for secret alcoves or hidden paths, which will prove to be difficult as the game goes on.
It should be noted, though, that Star Coins are eventually needed to progress, so everyone is going to have to go back and get at least some of them; if you do decide to go back to earlier levels later, though, you'll find the difficulty is usually comparable to the later levels you're stuck on, so the difficulty curve is impressively preserved. As an added bonus, those who die enough on the earlier levels will be offered a special gold leaf, which grants them an invincible Tanooki Suit to help them get past this challenge and on to the next; the truly hopeless will be able to skip the level entirely.
Once you get past the eighth world, however, is when the game truly begins. At that point, the Special worlds are unlocked, and the game's difficulty level ramps up immediately and significantly.
The number of enemies increases, and the jumps you need to make are harder; on top of that, other challenges can be thrown at you. Some levels will have you start with only 30 on the clock, and you'll need to pick up additional time bonuses all throughout the level if you want to survive toward the end. Other levels will force you forward by autoscrolling, and other levels will have you chased by a Cosmic Clone that mimics your every movement, damaging you when you touch it. The most mischevious levels will throw everything they have at you, and dozens of deaths can be expected before you finally reach the ending flagpole. Plus, if you ever want to see the last level, you'll need to collect every Star Coin you possibly can. No matter what level of challenge you're looking for, you're probably going to get it.
In another throwback to Super Mario Bros. 3, there are Toad Houses scattered across the worlds, which will give you a free power-up in case you need it; these are only good for one use, however, so be careful. Also available to play are the Mystery Boxes, which offer a number of smaller, ten-second challenges that can give you bonuses like power-ups, coins, or Star Coins. These Mystery Boxes can't be replayed right away, but will be restored after a day or so passes. You can get new boxes, however, if you connect with other players via StreetPass. They're a quick distraction, and most of the default ones are not very challenging; I haven't had a chance to look at StreetPass boxes, unfortunately.
Unfortunately, nearly every Mario game ever made suffers from a lack of boss variety, and this one is no exception. There are exactly three bosses in the game, and two of them are similar to each other on top of that. The most common enemy is the male Boom Boom, who will run around a small arena spinning his arms at you; the female Pom Pom is defeated in a similar manner, though she throws Boomerangs at you instead. You'll fight them several times throughout the game, with the battle rarely changing much. In the Special worlds, though, the arenas you fight them in can get significantly more challenging, such as one fight with Pom Pom that takes place entirely on fall-away platforms, which will force you to move quickly. It doesn't do quite enough to make the experience fresh, though.
The third boss, of course, is Bowser himself. This isn't a traditional battle, though; instead, you end up racing through an obstacle course, jumping over platforms and avoiding Bowser in order to hit the switch at the end and drop him into lava. These are far more entertaining battles, especially when you need to use Bowser to your advantage to proceed. The final boss battle of the game is an extended escape scene while you avoid Bowser's attacks, similar to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and it's frankly one of the most exhilarating boss battles in recent Mario memory. Mario is meant to platform, not to fight, and seeing Nintendo embrace this fact is very relieving. Nintendo is better at making obstacle courses than bosses, anyhow.
Though the overall look of the game is rather cartoony, 3D Land manages some impressively sharp visuals all the same. I'm still surprised whenever I stop into a Toad House and see the highly defined round shape of the building, or when I see light reflecting off the rain-slicked surface of one of the last structures in the game. The game's music repeats often, and you'll be hearing several of the same tunes many times, but this is less of a problem than one would think. While there are certainly no sweeping orchestral tunes of the original Super Mario Galaxy, it nonetheless feels quite Mario-esque and is pleasant to listen to. Mostly, though, it's another element that adds to the general atmosphere of the game, as opposed to something that's meant to stand out on its own.
The game has a little less than 100 levels in it, and each will take you a few minutes to complete, though large numbers of deaths can increase your playtime. Trying to fully complete the game and unlock the final level, which involves besting every flagpole, getting every gold coin, and beating every level twice, could take somebody one to two dozen hours to complete, which is more than a decent length for a portable platforming title. Even then, some of these levels are fun enough to go back and play for their own sake.
Super Mario 3D Land is another addictively fun platforming title, with very few problems marring the experience. The gameplay is easy to pick up and enjoy for anybody, but those looking for a challenge will find their expectations met readily. Wrap that up with a great presentation, and you have the best new game on the 3DS so far. This is a game that no 3DS owner should be without; if you own one without the other, then I have to ask, in the words of Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime: "What's wrong with you?"
Final Game Guys grade: A+
- by Jim Avery for news10.net's Game Guys
(This review's author self-purchased this game for review.)