Many people have been talking about how, with Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo are trying to further bridge the gap between fans of the traditional 2D side-scrolling platform adventures, like New Super Mario Bros. and the classic NES and SNES Super Mario Bros. titles, and the sprawling worlds found in games such as Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. However, rather than being a vast adventure with a few old school elements tucked inside, as with Super Mario Galaxy 2, the reality is that Super Mario 3D Land’s development team has almost lifted the template from both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, melded the two together and then sprinkled some of the delights of recent home console entries.
Everything has older players reminiscing over how full of ingenuity the 8-bit and 16-bit Mario platform games were. From the step-climbing at the end of each level to launch Mario at the flag-pole, to the means of overcoming Bowser’s advances on the final stage of a world, right through to smaller elements, such as visiting Toad’s house for special items (complete with his abode’s classic NES theme, remixed), the level of nostalgia found in Super Mario 3D Land is simply flabbergasting. What Nintendo has done for Mario’s debut Nintendo 3DS jump-and-run release is to take that classic formula and merge it with the more ‘open’ feel of the Super Mario Galaxy duo on Wii that was tragically missing from both New Super Mario Bros. on Nintendo DS and its home console big brother.
The aim is not merely to reach the final flag on each course, but also to seek out three special coins in order to fully complete the stage. In order to discover some of these, however, a sufficient amount of scouring is required, meaning that a close eye must be kept on the clock counting down in the top-right corner to ensure straying off the beaten track does not result in a loss of life due to the timer hitting zero. There are sometimes timers floating around that add vital extra seconds, so there is normally a modicum of extra room to play with, yet erring on the side of caution and traversing levels post-haste is always advisable. Some of the special coins can only be offered up by the mushroom-hat-wearing Toad, who is hidden normally high up somewhere and can only be spotted using a set of binoculars stuck to a stand somewhere around the current level. Upon coming into Mario’s field of vision, he waves vigorously and throws a coin somewhere around the stage, with the player encouraged to pan around to locate the important item and make a mental note of its location until they delve into the heart of the platform section.
There are some technical limitations that hamper Super Mario 3D Land, unfortunately. Whilst following coloured notes that play small extracts from the first level of Super Mario World will have long-term Mario aficionados grinning from ear-to-ear, the general pace of Mario is surprisingly slow throughout, making for a very laboured trek across each setting. Equally frustrating is the low camera vantage point, making it extremely difficult to see far in front of Mario, and there is no option to go into the first-person viewpoint found in 3D Mario adventures since Super Mario 64, so the only time long distances can be seen are via the fixed-spot binoculars mentioned earlier, normally at the very beginning of a level. Clearly this camera restriction has been implemented to cover up either weaknesses in the 3DS hardware itself, or an unrefined game engine. It becomes increasingly apparent that something was amiss during development when heavy pop-up issues arise. Wandering around an open world and suddenly having enemies and items appear at the last couple of seconds is surprising for a Nintendo-produced title, and whilst it is not terribly drastic to the point of causing untimely deaths, it can be startling at times and mars what is otherwise a sterling effort.
For its niggles in the technical department, there is simply no denying how deliciously tasty Super Mario 3D Land is for the most part. In general its 3D worlds are filled with the usual Nintendo level of fine detail, there are plenty of enemies running around, traps for Mario to stumble over, hidden sections that are cleverly disguised by the added three-dimensional depth, and a plentiful supply of throwbacks to the classic NES Mario of old, to the point of transposing old sprites from the 8-bit era directly into Super Mario 3D Land (as seen with the small Mario on the touch-screen’s level-select map and even in certain stages).
Super Mario 3D Land excels in its level design, with the amount of variety poured into the journey proving to be truly immense. Those with a penchant for simple left-to-right stages will be pleased to know they are in abundance, albeit with an aesthetically pleasing 3D makeover. However, there is also a wide selection of sprawling stages that take Mario high up into the clouds, across touch-operated platforms, over panels that flip open or closed dependent on how many times Mario jumps, as well as traversing great distances by grasping a helicopter-style item, called a Propeller Block, and bouncing on Para-Goombas along the way. Special mention should go out to the suits that Mario can don whilst on his mission to save Princess Peach once more. The one advertised the most in the run-up to the game’s launch has, of course, been the Tanooki Suit that featured way back in Super Mario Bros. 3 from the NES, yet whilst it is a predominant feature of most stages, it no longer grants the ability to fly. Grabbing a Super Leaf gives Mario a tail to flick at enemies and hover from down from high ledges, as well as allowing the Italian hero to become statuesque, but the running and temporary flying element from Super Mario Bros. 3 is not to be found.
To top this off, Super Mario 3D Land is also strewn with such an amazing amount of special magic that it really is appalling tough to ever dislike it. Even the small Paper Mario-esque images that are shown between worlds are highly impressive, with the 3D effect playing a massive part in how superb the paper-thin imagery looks, with the added bonus of them being interactive, moving in subtle ways when shaking the 3DS unit, triggering the internal gyroscopes. For those struggling to cope with the completion of a particular level, Nintendo has brought back its extremely useful, yet perhaps condescending helper system, this time in the form of two special items: the Invincibility Leaf and P-Wing. The former appears after losing five lives in a row and leaves the player to breeze through to the final flag using complete invincibility, whilst the latter crops up when ten lives have been lost on one stage in order to transport Mario right to the end of a level, but with no achievements. Other than that, the Fire Flower returns for fireball shooting, the Star and its invincibility also re-appears, along with the Mushroom that enlarges Mario. The primary new accessory in Super Mario 3D Land is the Boomerang Flower, which gives Mario the opportunity to dress as the Hammer Bros. and wreak havoc in that way. It proves to be another example of how Nintendo and its internal teams are real experts in mixing old ideas with fresh new ones. Super Mario 3D Land, despite its technical drawbacks, is already one of the strongest Nintendo 3DS games on the market by far.