Mario titles are at the very heart of Nintendo’s legacy of quality software. The original Super Mario Bros. reinvigorated the North American home console market, and the continued adventures of the rotund mascot have served as additional high points across the series’ 26-year history. When a new Nintendo console or handheld launches, it is assumed that a Mario game can’t be far behind, and some have postulated that the initially sluggish sales of the new Nintendo 3DS were due at least in part to a glaring lack of Italian plumbers in the system’s launch lineup.
With Super Mario 3D Land now available, the big questions concern its overall quality, its playability and of course whether or not this is the game that will help move 3DS systems off shelves during this year’s holiday rush. In short, is Super Mario 3D Land a legitimate reason for sometimes fickle gamers to pick up Nintendo’s newest handheld? In my opinion, yes, and my fellow GeekDad Andy certainly seems to agree.
But what is it that makes Super Mario 3D Land such a satisfying new chapter in the long-running series? I’m so glad you asked!
1. You Know the Story
The core mechanics of the game shouldn’t surprise you: run, jump, pick up power-ups, rescue the Princess. This is a tale as old as time, or at least as old as the contemporary platformer. Super Mario 3D Land does all this, and it does it well. The more surprising thing is how the game hits each of these benchmarks.
2. An Epic Confluence
Super Mario 3D Land is a glorious hodgepodge of Nintendo history. You don’t have to look too far to find nods to favorites like the original Super Mario Bros. (proper world-level layout), Super Mario Bros. 3 (near-constant suit changing), Super Mario 64 (three-dimensional movement), Super Mario Galaxy (gorgeous sprites and super-sized enemies) and New Super Mario Bros. (Star Coins).
3. I Did It All for Tanooki
The most obvious nod to Mario 3 comes in the form of the oft-employed Tanooki Suit. Sure, you toss your fair share of hammers, boomerangs and fireballs as well, but the plot of Super Mario 3D Land truly hinges on these furry accoutrements. Moreover, it manages to make the classic Tanooki Mario scuttle-jump a refined art. The addition of a Golden Super Leaf and the return of Superstar Saga’s Tanoombas mean that you’ll be seeing many a raccoon tail in an average play-through.
4. It Really Wants You to Win
One-ups are a frequent occurrence in Super Mario 3D Land because, at its heart, the game seems to truly want you to succeed. Yet while it starts off with a low threshold of difficulty and plenty of lives to spare, the platforming ramps up as you make your way to the big fight (and subsequent rescue) in World 8. Still, Super Mario 3D Land goes to great lengths to prevent frustration and gamer fatigue. The aforementioned Golden Super Leaf, for example, is provided by the game as a concession to players who seem to be having a hard time with a particular level. It’s that odd bit of hand-holding that is totally voluntary. You’re not penalized for continuing to go it alone, but the help is there if you want it.
5. Flying High
Another tweak on a preexisting series element is the Propeller Box. Like the Propeller Block or Mushroom of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, this power-up grants Mario the power of flight. It allows players the opportunity to really explore the dazzling vertical build of specific worlds, and, as a bonus, it can be stacked with additional power-ups. Drifting down next to an unsuspecting enemy only to bop them with a concealed Tanooki tail for the first time is likely to make its way into the pantheon of unforgettable game moments.
6. Gauging the Distance
This grocery list of recycled elements may not seem like much, but its blend of the old and the new helps to make Super Mario 3D Land the biggest leap forward for the series since the days of the Nintendo 64 thanks to Nintendo’s mastery of their 3DS hardware. For years we’ve seen Mario in 3-D platformers, but the ability to actively navigate this dimension of depth makes all the difference. In his review Andy remarked that the blend of proper level design and tight control make it “wonderfully intelligible,” and I can’t help but concur.
7. Come Aboard My Airship
Another great returning element within Super Mario 3D Land is the world-capping Airship battle. Though they’ve popped up in games since their introduction in Super Mario Bros. 3, the act of fighting Boom Boom within the bowels of such a flying fortress still takes me back to the summer of 1990. It’s important to note, however, that the game alternates between these mini-boss levels and the more traditional castle raids, thus providing a bit more variety to the action.
8. A Change of Perspective
Third-person platforming in genuine 3-D is exhilarating, but Super Mario 3D Land doesn’t limit its repertoire to that single trick. Navigating top-down, trap-laden levels (a la the original Legend of Zelda) looks and feels just as good, and it further provides that sense of variety that Mario titles sometimes lack.
9. Nice Lookin’
In addition to its mastery of 3-D visuals, the title also takes advantage of the system’s gyro controls. Binocular-style viewfinders can be found mounted in many levels, and, once approached, they bring the perspective into a first-person mode. Players can then manually move the 3DS left and right, up and down to get the lay of the land, and the more observant can find a hidden Toad that will release a new Star Coin or power-up item into the zone.
10. Internal Logic
Perhaps the strongest element of Super Mario 3D Land has less to do with its dazzling graphics, its flawless controls or even its perfect sense of space within all three dimensions. Super Mario 3D Land succeeds because it properly adheres to an established brand of in-game logic. Anyone who’s ever picked up a controller could likely dive head-first into this game without even the slightest hint of outside direction. (It’s important to note here that the game comes with only a minimal printed manual, though the full guidebook can be accessed from the cartridge itself.) Running, jumping, fighting, gauging distance and navigating terrain feels rewarding and natural. And when the game does veer slightly from controller canon — say, when it expects the player to descend a retro-style warp pipe without employing the traditional push-down-on-the-D-pad maneuver – it has the good sense and proper manners to provide an unmistakable prompt. In an era of incalculable combos and overwrought control schemes, this is truly a triumph of logical design.
Super Mario 3D Land truly is the total package in 3DS gaming. It looks amazing, it plays exquisite and, all exaggeration aside, it boasts what is likely my favorite platform action of all time. (World 7-5, in all its saw-bladed glory, might be the single greatest Mario level ever!)
Better yet, once you complete the utterly enjoyable core gaming experience, Super Mario 3D Land offers even more gaming goodness. These supplementary levels are even more innovative than some of the original content, so the classic “new game plus” motif truly warrants exploration.
Review materials and images provided by: Nintendo of America