Review by discoinferno84

"I need perspective..."

You've got to wonder about Bowser. He's been a villain for over twenty years, but his career is defined by miserable failures. He never learns from his mistakes. Regardless of any gimmicks, his plans always boil down to the same scheme: kidnap the princess. That's it. Once that is accomplished, he stops thinking – or at least what passes for it – retreats into his castle, and waits for Mario to show up. While strategy obviously isn't Bowser's forte, you'd think he'd do something besides sitting around and waiting to get his scaly hide kicked. The guy has legions of monstrous turtles, carnivorous plants, ghosts, airships, cannons, fireballs, and enough raw strength to topple buildings. If he used his resources intelligently, he could crush the Mushroom Kingdom in a single, focused crusade. Why does he even need to capture Peach? It is some kind of perverse obsession? A weird hobby the three characters share? With the princess nabbed again, Mario has no choice but to keep the cycle going.

His latest crusade will take him through several areas of the Mushroom Kingdom, each with a small assortment of regular levels and a castle or airship at the end. Rather than allowing for free-range exploration like most 3D Mario titles, Super Mario 3D Land uses linear paths seen in the older games. The map is remarkably streamlined; rather than backtracking from level to level, you can just tap an icon at the top of the screen and skip to whatever places you've already beaten. Progression revolves around the same setup used in Galaxy 2; while beating a stage allows you to move on to the next area, you'll occasionally come across parts that can only be accessed by earning enough Star Coins. There are three of these shiny pickups strewn throughout each level, and several of them require a good handle on the platforming mechanics and a bit of exploration. Finding all of them is a surprisingly difficult task; you'll have beaten the game long before you've nabbed the last coin. That's aside from the golden flags that appear if you reach the tops of the Super Mario Bros.-style poles at the end of every level. They make for rewarding incentives for completionists looking to get the most out of the game.

There's plenty to take find, too. At its most basic, Super Mario 3D Land operates with the linearity of a 2D platformer within three dimensional structures. Take Bowser's iconic boss fight, for example. In the older games, you were stuck on a bridge over lava and jumping over fireballs. You just had to wait for Bowser to jump, and then you'd run underneath, grab the axe, and send the monster plummeting to a grisly demise. This time, you have the option of running side to side to avoid the attacks. You don't just wait for Bowser to jump; you can stand on the outer edge of a platform, just beyond his attack range. Running in a straight line will get you killed. The game takes the idea and runs with it; you have to jump at angles to avoid hazards, build up enough momentum to leap onto far-flung platforms, and occasionally retreat further back into the scenery to avert certain death. While the game starts out easy, the difficulty curve steadily creeps into ridiculously high levels. By the time you've reached Bowser, you'll have had to dodge dozens of spinning spikes and fireballs, guiding movable platforms through legions of enemies and death traps, keep your balance along endlessly rotating blocks, and narrowly avoid dropping out of collapsing structures…

And then you'll get to play the Special Stages.

While the first eight worlds are typical Mario fare, the game throws you a curveball; beating Bowser's castle is the halfway point. You'll be then treated to a gauntlet of levels designed specifically to test your platforming and handling skills. You know that level you mastered a couple of worlds back? Let's see how you do when you've got a gigantic, evil Mario clone chasing you. Or how about that stage with the platforms that appear in synch to the music? Wonder how you'll do when the orders are inverted. Or how about taking on one of Bowser's castles with a thirty-second time limit? Not to mention getting all of the Star Coins, some of which are so ludicrously positioned or hidden that it'll take multiple tries to get them all. It's entirely possible to waste hundreds of extra lives on the final level; the sheer amount of precision and timing required to beat it is staggering. It's possible to beat it, but it'll take lots of practice and even more patience to do it. Even if you're using the Raccoon Suit – the finely-tuned jumping item makes a triumphant return from Super Mario Bros. 3 – you'll still be in for a serious challenge.

While the quality and complexity of the stage designs are much appreciated, it suffers from a lack of variety. Barring a few notable obstacles – hordes of sentient lava beasts and ships covered in retractable spikes come to mind – many of the castles and airship fleets look the same. Did the game really need that many giant evil clone chases? How many times will you go through the same underground labyrinth with only slightly changed objectives and enemy placements? Granted, there are plenty of ideas; there are platforms that toggle on and off to your jumps, ledges that move depending on what part you stand on, and whole stages that rotate upon their axes or unfold like huge pop-up books. It's some of the best stuff the Mario series has seen in recent years, and Nintendo uses them all in creative ways. It's fine, but it's also limited. Super Mario Galaxy 2 set a precedent when it came to design; it introduced plenty of interesting ideas in such a way that every level felt unique and fascinating. While Super Mario 3D Land succeeds in doing the same for its first half, it falters later on.

Does that make it a bad game? Of course not. Super Mario 3D Land is easily one of the best entries in the franchise, and it's arguably the best title currently available on the 3DS. It takes the linearity of the old school games and combines it with the visual depth that only a three dimensional game can offer. It's not just about running to the end of a stage anymore; you've got to weave your way past the obstacles and hazards, using the surrounding environment to your advantage. What the game lacks in exploration, it makes up for in terms of complexity and challenge. Many of the levels – particularly those in the latter half – are some of the most brutal and demanding that Nintendo has designed in years. Thanks to the inclusion of the Star Coins system and the golden flag endings, there's enough of an incentive for gamers to complete everything. While it is entertaining and satisfying throughout, the game suffers from a lack of variety; many of the stages are reused with slightly altered structures and challenges. Despite its repetitive nature, however, Super Mario 3D Land is a finely-crafted platformer. Saving the princess is still fun.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 01/04/12

Game Release: Super Mario 3D Land (US, 11/13/11)


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