For all its eye-popping 3-D graphics, playing Super Mario 3D Land sometimes makes me feel like it’s 1990 and I’m holding an old black-and-white Game Boy.
What I mean is, back in the day most portable games were downscaled versions of the games you loved most on your home console, the mechanics and playfields borrowed from the “real” version and shaved down to fit on the tiny monochrome screen. It wasn’t quite as good, but you could take it with you in the car.
Now, some of these games overcame these limitations and kicked a whole lot of ass. That’s Super Mario 3D Land, to be released for Nintendo 3DS on Sunday. It’s one of the best games of the year. Other videogames cry themselves to sleep at night wishing they were this awesome.
But every now and then, that nagging realization creeps in, telling you that this is more like a bite-sized version of the Super Mario Galaxy Wii games rather than a truly original spin on the series.
Spoiler alert:Some Super Mario 3D Land spoilers follow.
3D Land is the killer app that 3DS has sorely needed, a surprising, engaging, challenging action game fit for newbies and veterans alike. The levels are designed not only to look good with the system’s glasses-free 3-D display (goals are often placed in the background away from the camera, giving a sense of depth) but to encourage players to mess around with the system’s 3-D slider, seeing how the environments change as you flip between dimensions.
While Mario’s goal is always to run to the end of the level and jump on the ever-present flagpole, there’s plenty of time for detours along the way. Pairs of sightseeing binoculars are installed in certain places, letting you view the rest of the level and view the location of hidden secrets. Each level has three Star Coins hidden in out-of-the-way places, which you’ve got to grab if you want to keep opening up more worlds to play in. There’s a careful balance of linearity and exploration.
There’s another reason it gives off 1990 vibes: The gameplay design liberally borrows elements from the 21-year-old Super Mario Bros. 3. This was the game that truly established the design sense of the Mario series, a cartoon world where every shape is rounded off, even the spikes, and where everything is painted in primary colors and has a face, even the clouds and bushes.
More than that, it introduced the Tanooki Suit, a power-up that let Mario fly. In this game, the fuzzy fur suit with its big ears and bushy tail (besides doubling as fashionable evening wear in several San Francisco nightclubs) lets Mario float in the sky, making tricky jumping sections significantly easier to navigate. Not to mention you can take out enemies by swinging your tail at them instead of having to carefully jump on their heads.
If that’s not easy enough for you, there’s even more help: If you die enough times on a level, the game will offer you a super-powered invincible Tanooki getup that will let you plow through the whole thing unimpeded. (And since there doesn’t seem to be a penalty for using it, it’s extremely tempting.)
For the first few hours, you’ll zip right through the game. As the great castle of the Koopa King (where the princess has once again gotten herself stuck) looms ever closer, you’ll think to yourself, “Is this it? Is it this short, this easy?”
Then comes the biggest surprise in a game full of them: Once you finally send Bowser packing, you find you’re only half done, and that eight more worlds of remixed challenges await. These are all based on levels you’ve already played, although many of them are so dramatically altered as to be wholly new experiences.
Quite a few rely on speed-running: You’ll start the game with only a tiny bit of time on the clock, and have to book it through a level grabbing more time while avoiding death — oh, and you have to get those Star Coins while you’re at it. There are no invincible fursuits to help you. These are real nail-biters. More often than not I’d hit the flagpole after finally doing a perfect run and find myself taking a colossal intake of breath, having held it all the way through the last part of the level.
Of course, the thing about speedruns is that there’s no time to stop and smell the fire flowers. All of the innovation, laugh-out-loud surprises and clever 3-D optical illusions are front-loaded into the first half of the game, and the back half is about going as fast as possible through increasingly more familiar territory.
3D Land is a grabby borrower of a game — enemies from Mario 3, music from 2006’s New Super Mario Bros., gameplay from Galaxy. Eventually it starts borrowing from itself. It’s an excellent game because all of these things work so well together; the only thing keeping it from perfection is that it cries out for more innovations to call its own.
WIRED Clever 3-D graphic design, tight play controls, new spins on classic music, challenging (eventually).
TIRED Borrows more than it invents, runs out of creative steam in the back half.