The home console Super Mario titles have become blueprints for good platforming adventure games. Every entry, from the original NES classic to the latest Wii game Super Mario Galaxy 2, demonstrates that Nintendo can still create a great adventure starring the famous plumber after more than 25 years. The portable games, however, aren't as clear cut. Super Mario Land felt too short and detached from the series while Super Mario Land 2 brought back some familiarity with selectable levels on an overworld map. The rest of the portable entries were ports of existing console games, and it wasn't until New Super Mario Bros. that the portable finally got a brand-new Mario adventure — one that was so good that a Wii version was released afterward. With the 3DS barely a year old, the company decided to release a brand-new portable Mario adventure that's done in 3-D. Super Mario 3D Land not only delivers the same quality as a home console entry, but it is also one of the best games on the system to date.
In Super Mario 3D Land, a massive storm has blown through the Mushroom Kingdom. Nothing was destroyed, but it seems that all of the leaves from the great Tanooki tree in front of the castle have blown away. After seeing the damage, Mario and a few Toads get a mysterious letter with a picture proving that Princess Peach has once again been kidnapped by Bowser and his minions. Taking the last of the Tanooki tree leaves with him and wasting no more time, Mario is off to rescue the princess once again.
Upon starting up the game, you'll instantly feel familiar with what you can do. Just like before, you can run, jump, duck and butt-stomp on enemies. Fire flowers give you the ability to throw fireballs, and the leaves not only place you in a Tanooki suit but also let you float, hover and swat at enemies with your tail. You can do wall jumps, climb poles and somersault for extra height on leaps. Taking a page from New Super Mario Bros., you can store an extra power-up item and use when you feel the need to do so. As for health, taking one hit makes you lose the power-up you were using. Another one takes you down to mini status, and one more hit after that eliminates you. Thanks to these timeless gameplay mechanics, the title remains just as easily accessible as the original Super Mario Bros. game from many years ago.
The general gameplay is also familiar in terms of how things are laid out and how they function. While the gameplay is done in a 3-D world, the game structure is more 2-D, as you are constantly moving toward a goal area. There is no score, but there is a timer that counts down, and levels are only completed when you hit the flagpole. The overworld map contains no shortcuts or alternate paths, but it contains mystery boxes, where you can gain star coins, and Toad's houses, where you can gain items. In short, this feels like a classic side-scrolling Mario game, with the added novelty of 3-D.
There are a few issues with items, both new and old. The Tanooki suit may let you float and hover, but you can't really fly with it. Fireballs shoot two at a time, and they can bounce against a few walls before disappearing. Mario can duck, but now he's capable of a duck walk to help him get through tight spaces. New items include a boomerang plant that lets you wear something similar to Koopa armor and throw boomerangs at enemies. A helicopter block can be worn over any other suit and lets you propel to great heights before slowly floating to the ground below. Also, there are stopwatches that add more time to the clock in either 10- or 100-second increments, depending on the size of the clock.
The game is quite beguiling when it comes to level of difficulty and overall length. Compared to earlier entries, Super Mario 3D Land starts out quite easy and remains that way for a while. There isn't much enemy resistance, and very few enemies take more than one hit to permanently down. Power-ups are plentiful enough that you shouldn't find yourself playing as mini Mario for long. If you die over and over again, the game has built-in ways to ensure you'll finish the game. Dying five times in a level gives you the chance to wear a white Tanooki suit with invincibility that lasts for the entire level. Dying 10 times in the same level gives you the option of grabbing the P-Wing, which instantly warps you to the end of the level.
The other reason the game feels easy is due to the variety of ways to earn extra lives. The standard 1-up mushrooms are still here, and the 100-coin rule is still in effect. You can also get 1-ups if you hit the very top of the flagpole at the end of the level, and you gain extra lives after hitting a certain number of enemies while in possession of the invincibility star. The coins are more than plentiful, and that's where the problem lies. With so many coins being doled out at all times, you'll hear the 1-up sound quite often, leading the lives counter to hit double-digit or triple-digit readings by the time you get through a significant part of the game.
That sense of the game losing its challenge starts to go away when you notice a few things. As usual, levels get more complex, and the required acrobatics are more demanding. There are some levels that are entirely optional, but require you to start collecting large star coins. They won't be much of a bother until you get to Bowser's castle in World 8 and realize that you need 100 of them to enter. Fulfill that requirement, and you'll see how difficult it is to pass a Bowser encounter without power-ups to negate the damage. Pass that, and you come across a twist that leads to another level that needs to be completed. Beat that level, and you suddenly open up even more levels, with the more difficult enemies residing there. It is at this point that the game becomes much more challenging and feels like a proper Mario game, where those extra lives should come in handy.
To that end, the game strikes a perfect balance between short, portable fun and a longer, home console-like experience. The levels are short enough, and the game constantly saves at the completion of each level. Not even boss fights take up large chunks of time, making this perfect for gaming on the go. At the same time, the short levels are offset by the final level, which is about as long as two normal levels. The game feels like a console experience in that it'll take several hours to properly finish. It is a good enough balance that one hopes other 3DS games will follow this lead.
Super Mario 3D Land uses the StreetPass feature, but the functionality is limited. All players can do is send each other Mystery Box rooms to give and receive items. It is a nice feature, but it feels unnecessary, as there aren't lots to manage in the first place. You'll appreciate it if you suddenly can't seem to retain items for very long, but most likely, you'll forget the feature even exists in this game.
The trend of excellent graphics continues with this entry. Like always, Mario's world is filled with bright colors to the point where even darkened houses retain a cheery, cartoon look. That world is packed to the brim with details, thanks to some clean texture work and little details like footprints in the sand. Enemies share that same colorful tone and attention to detail. With few exceptions, you can read the facial expressions of each quite well, so it's a treat to see the Boos blush when you look at them or the giant moles act shocked when you squash them down the first time. Like always, Mario is well animated, and seeing him move fills you with the same awe as it did in Super Mario 64. There are a good number of particle effects, and they're all done well. Smoke puffs from starting up runs, falling leaves, brushed off snow, and embers from nearby lava all add life to the atmosphere and make this one gorgeous-looking portable adventure.
Almost all Nintendo 3DS games have a 3-D effect that isn't really necessary to play the game. Super Mario 3D Land breaks that streak, as it is probably the first game on the system to make the use of 3-D almost a requirement. The game provides two different levels of 3-D outside of what can be gained by using the system's slider. The effect does the usual things, such as add depth to scenes and make a few elements (e.g., the HUD) pop out more, but that separation of items is more beneficial when judging the distance from one platform to another. It's not as if the same thing can't be done in 2-D, but instead of seeing the distance and acting on it, you'll spend time manipulating the camera to get an idea of what needs to be done. Considering how this game really feels like it's built on the use of 3-D, you should only use 2-D alone if you want to make things tougher on yourself.
The Mario series has always been known for great controls, and this is no different. The circle pad is a good replacement for an analog stick. Controlling Mario's every step feels responsive enough that you can make pinpoint leaps with it and edge close enough to a falling block without being hit. The d-pad is used for camera control, but only for panning left and right since the game already has fixed angles for every level. Despite the number of buttons on the system, there are only three actions in the game, and the other buttons simply repeat those actions. For example, both A and B let you jump, and holding down either lets you hover if you have the Tanooki suit or super jump if you have the Propeller Box. The L and R bumpers let you duck and perform the butt-stomp when done in conjunction with the jump. The X and Y buttons handle running when held down but also perform the fireball throw and the tail spin attack. The controls remain simple, but the combinations can do a plethora of moves that hold just as much depth as other button-heavy titles.
Like the game, the sound has the tendency to mix the classic and familiar with new twists. He and the rest of the characters are just as chatty as before, so you should only expect them to speak during the beginning and end of levels — as well as the few cut scenes between worlds. The sound effects are exactly the same as before, which means that the fireball-throwing noise still sounds more like a pot being hit rather than fire being magically conjured and thrown. The music will really bring on the nostalgia, as a majority of the levels carry tunes from classic Mario games, especially the original Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3. It isn't a note-perfect rendition, though, as it is remixed with new beats and different instruments. Longtime fans will appreciate the new take on the old classics.
Super Mario 3D Land is easy to recommend as a must-have game for any 3DS owner's library. The graphics are impressive for a handheld, especially when you use the system's built-in 3-D. The sound and gameplay mechanics are great. With the multitude of secrets in the game, along with the big twist near the end, Super Mario 3D Land can be rightfully called "deep," even if seems easy when you start out. There's hardly a bad thing to say about the title, so Super Mario 3D Land should be in your collection.
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