Is this the first must have title for the 3DS?
Despite sporting one of the most ungainly titles for a game in recent years, Super Mario 3D Land may just be the first title for Nintendo’s somewhat flagging 3DS that makes the system worth buying. Following a troubled time for the device since its launch, mainly down to the fact that there were so few games worth buying, it’s great to see that Nintendo’s much loved first party development teams are starting to churn out the good stuff once again.
But this isn’t about the 3DS, its perceived failures or the lack of quality that may or may not exist when it comes to its games. This is about Super Mario 3D Land.
Landing somewhere in the middle of Super Mario 64 and The New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 3D Land is a 2D platformer presented in a 3D manner. While you can certainly spend your time running in and out of the screen, the truth is that it plays along the same lines of the much loved classic Mario titles from days gone by.
Those of you expecting sprawling free roaming play areas will be disappointed initially, but once you accept that the limitations in terms of exploration actually make for a much more focussed and streamlined gameplay experience, it’s likely that your concerns will be truly forgotten. Those of you hoping for a back to basics style approach to Mario gameplay will be in for a treat.
It can often be difficult for developers of handheld games to get the balance between accessibility and longevity just right.
Many people keep their portable gaming forays exclusively for commutes, which means that the average play time may be between 20 and 60 minutes at a time, but rarely longer, while others think nothing of settling down on the couch with their system and getting stuck in to a few hours worth of gameplay. In order to keep both sets of players happy, developers need to be very smart with their design, difficulty curve and pacing – and Super Mario 3D Land just about manages to tick all three boxes.
The game is structured in the typical Mario way, with an overworld map providing gamers with an idea of what challenges lie immediately ahead of them. It also allows you to revisit previously completed areas with new abilities in order to unlock the last of their remaining secrets. It’s this appeal for the completionists that really takes Super Mario 3D Land and pushes it ahead of almost everything else in its niche.
There’s nothing particularly new to see in terms of gameplay. Your aim is to make it from the start of the level to the end, collecting all three start coins along the way if possible, without losing all your lives (something that will prove to be almost impossible to do, as we’ll see later). It’s all very basic, but there’s a reason that we love this kind of platformer, and there’s a reason why the Mario series has proven to be so popular down through the years.
To help you with your task, you’ll be able to equip Mario with a series of power up suits. These suits will afford you a new ability until you take some damage from your enemies, or your environment. Much was made of the return of the Tanooki suit, accessed via the Super Leaf power up, in the build up to the game’s release and, true to form; it is certainly the most useful suit available for the majority of the game. By utilising its dual ability of allowing you to attack by swinging your tail around, and hovering slightly in order to prolong your jumps, it more than makes up for some of the issues the game has due to the 3DS’s somewhat iffy thumb stick, and occasional uncharacteristic moments of shoddy level design on Nintendo’s part.
Other power ups on offer include the series’ trademark Super Mushroom which increases Mario’s size, the Fire Flower which enables you to shoot fireballs at your enemies, the Boomerang Flower which lets you throw boomerangs, the Super Star which renders you invincible to your enemies for a short period of time, the Propeller Box which allows you to add serious height to your jumps, and two brand new inclusions which aim to help players who are in need of a hand, the Invincibility Leaf which is essentially the Tanooki Suit mixed with the Super Star which appears when you die five times in a row on any given level and the P-Wing which enables you to fast forward all the way to the level exist (this is only available if you lose ten lives in a row in a level).
Some would argue that the latter two additions have somewhat cheapened the gameplay experience, given that it is now entirely possible to complete the game without being in the least bit adept at platforming – but there’s nothing forcing you to use either of them, and most players will have very little need for them (sudden unexpected difficulty spikes aside).
Additionally, for those of you who manage to unlock the Special Worlds, there’s also the Statue Leaf on offer, which is another take on the Super Leaf that allows you to turn into a statue when necessary in order to avoid damage from enemies.
Using each of these power ups at the correct time in the correct level is key to ensuring that you collect as many of the star coins as possible. Rather than being able to ignore them in order to make your way through the levels as quickly as possible, Super Mario 3D Land requires that you have a certain number of them in order to open up boss levels, so you’re going to need to average around two per level if you’re going to make it all the way to the end.
It’s worth noting at this point that despite the fact that Super Mario 3D Land is a bloody decent addition to the franchise, it’s not without its faults. As we touched upon earlier, a combination of the 3DS’s controls and some questionable level design can often prove your undoing during some of the more platform intensive sections of the game. This proves to be hugely frustrating, and it’s something that we’ve rarely come across in a Mario title. It’s by no means game breaking, and you’ll manage to get past each of the handful of times the problem arises relatively quickly, but it certainly does take the gloss off the game.
Aside from that though, the level design is delightful for the most part. With a variety of different settings on offer, as well as all the usual Mario enemies and scenery, you'll feel right at home from the moment you get started. The placement of some of the star coins can prove to be quite a challenge, and despite the restrictions in terms of leve size, you'll find that you're rewarded for trying alternative routes and exploring your surroundings.
The other issue of any real note we had was the seemingly random difficulty spikes. Now at this stage we’d like to think that we’re fairly seasoned platform pros, but there are quite a few times where we were faced with rather inexplicable increases in challenge. We like to be tested as much as the next person, and the first couple of times we noticed it, we got our hopes up that it was about to signal a sterner challenge for the remaining levels, but each time it seemed to be something of a once off, as the game very quickly settled back into its rather forgiving approach to play.
This may not necessarily be a bad thing for you though. If you enjoy the experience of playing platformers, but don’t like getting stuck on the same section for particularly long, then you’ll have a great time here. For those of you who do like to be tested regularly, you’re going to have to wait until you have unlocked the Special Worlds for the real challenges to become apparent. Getting to this point will likely take you between four and six hours, depending on how prolonged each gaming session is, but it’s not exactly a grind, so you’ll take plenty out of it.
The special levels ramp things up a notch and, somewhat unexpectedly, more than double the length of the game. After completing the eight main worlds and saving the princess, we must admit we weren’t expecting to see eight brand new worlds appear for our entertainment – it’s really a fantastic statement from Nintendo that they’re more than happy to give us value for our money.
Overall it’s really hard to fault Super Mario 3D Land in any meaningful way. It accomplishes everything it sets out to, it offers a huge amount of gameplay, it’s got plenty of variety and it sticks close to its well established roots. The 3D effect is surprisingly reasonable, although for us we tend to find that it gets turned off after the initial few hours of gameplay – we’re all for innovation in terms of technology, but when it comes to the 3DS, the 3D often proves to be more of a nuisance than anything, especially if you’re playing while travelling.
All said, Super Mario 3D Land is a fantastic way for the Italian to make his platform debut on the system, and it certainly suggests that it may be a little too soon to write the device off just yet, but it doesn’t quite reach the levels of some of the more iconic games in the series, and certainly doesn’t add anything new to what we’ve already seen from the series.