Review by Suprak the Stud
"For Being 3D, It Feels Rather Flat"
Nintendo works their franchises with all the empathy of a foreman at a factory solely powered by child laborers and puppy tears. And if the entire company is a factory, then Mario is the donkey underneath it that the whole company is precariously perched upon. They wheel Mario out for his traditional platforming games, but also call upon him for sports outing, go-kart races, mall openings, and I'm almost positive I saw him trying to sell people a Slap Chop at the mall. Mario hasn't had a holiday since the Reagan administration, but shockingly the quality of his games has yet to show the effects of his rigorous work schedule. Even recently, when a lot of the peripheral Mario titles, like Mario Basketball or Mario Olympics or Mario Perform Your Own Appendectomy appear to not have been released by Nintendo, but rather a group of sentient monkeys that have taken over the Nintendo offices, the core Mario titles have remained consistently good. Unfortunately, Mario's latest offering, Super Mario 3D Land, demonstrates that even the most established of videogame series can take an unexpected nosedive into a steaming trash pile. Super Mario 3D Land is short, boring, and lacks everything you associate with Mario (except the mustache).
I won't get too much into the story, because it is the same story in every Mario game and by this point every joke that can possible be made about it has been made. Bowser has kidnapped Princess Peach to get Mario's attention or because he can or because it was a Tuesday and he was bored. It never tells you why and it doesn't matter. Peach getting kidnapped is just something that sort of happens. The guards of her castle are little mushroom people wearing felt vests and adult diapers, and her enemy is giant fire breathing lizard. The kidnapping is inevitable. This time around Bowser seems to be extra cocky because he's keeps sending Mario 3D postcards showing Peach held captive, so apparently he thought the only thing his past failed schemes lacked was a photographer. The weird thing is he's also sending out the pictures when she's fighting back or trying to break out, which is strange because you usually don't send photos to the enemy showing how incompetent you are but Bowser has never been one to waste film.
But no one plays a Mario game for the story, unless you're a really boring person and can be entertained by the story in your Alpha-Bits cereal. The main draw of the Mario games has always been the gameplay. Super Mario 3D Land should feel familiar to anyone who has played any of the older Mario games, as it borrows things from older titles with such regularity that it is pretty much the unwelcome neighbor of Mario games. This is a new title the same way a photocopy of a drawing is technically a new drawing. It uses a lot of the same conventions from the early Mario titles, including a time limit that is far to generous to ever affect you unless you need a map to navigate your way past your driveway and the end of level flags that, simply by jumping on, switch the territorial control from Bowser to Mario, demonstrating the Mushroom Kingdom still doesn't really have much respect for property rights. To get through each of the levels, you must get past a variety of familiar obstacles, from switchboards and reversible platforms, to Bullet Bills and Chain Chomps, to a nagging sense of deja vu because nearly every good idea has been stolen so haphazardly from prior Mario titles that they didn't even have time to get them to a chop shop and repaint them. I have no problem with them reusing ideas, but these same ideas have been used more effectively in the past games and it is like the designers really had no idea how to integrate the various set pieces. There are sporadic portions of levels that are designed well, but too many portions that lack important things like creativity or cohesion or fun.
The biggest difference to this title is the attempt to blend the styles of the 2D platformers with the more recent 3D adventures. It plays more like one of the old Mario titles, with a focus on platforming through a linear level, but incorporates it in a way that doesn't have you side scrolling throughout all the levels. The levels themselves typically have depth, so instead of going left to right, you might go left to right, back to front, right to left, or any other direction the game can think of sending you. This might seem fairly unique for the Mario series, but the only real effect it usually has is which direction you are heading. It is far more closely tied to its sidescrolling roots, only changing the perspective on what the "side" is. The game also features some 3D functionality, but this adds almost nothing except for the graphical improvement. There are maybe four separate puzzles that require you to use the 3D to see the depth of similarly colored platforms, but this feels like a gimmick more than anything else. Either you have the 3D on and you see it, or you don't and you don't. These are less puzzles are more diagnostic tests to prove to you that the 3D is working.
Beyond the level design and 3D functionality, the other main draw to the game seems to be the tanooki suit, and when it was released long time Mario fans completely lost their minds, throwing parades and building golden idols to the suit and forming some weird cult in Montana. The game has some bizarre obsession with the suit, because every character seems to have one they've been saving in the back of the closet until they came back in style. They've been out of vogue since Super Mario Bros. 3, but now that they're fashionable again, Goombas, Thwomps, and even bullets jumped on the fad. I have no idea why a flying bullet needs a suit that allows them to fly, but this game abuses the tanooki suit so much that I have to assume that PETA has already created some sort of online position to get it put in protective custody. I'm glad Nintendo threw a bone to its fanbase by including something most of them appear ready to trade in their first child for, but the problem is the tanooki suit kind of nerfs the game to the point that most levels aren't even fun. The tanooki suit is to platforming what a jetpack is to rope climbing. Holding down a certain button while in the tanooki suit allows you to float from place to place, which sort of kills the need for precise jumps or timing or anything that people like about platforming. Nintendo set you up for a fist fight, but then gave you a gun and a helicopter. This is about the time that rapid, blind Nintendo fans like to point out that you technically don't need to use the tanooki suit and you can ignore it like it just made a big mess on your rug, which is technically true but it is also technically true the game is more difficult if you try to play it with your head in a bucket. Either way I'm putting an artificial challenge on myself; it isn't like I entered some cheat code to get the tanooki suit. The game usually throws one at you every level like they have to move the old inventory before the new models come in.
But the tanooki suit itself isn't really to blame; it would be like complaining that Larry from the Three Stooges is ugly because his pants are out of season. No, the main problem with the game is that the levels just aren't very good, tanooki suit or not. These feel like rejected set pieces from other, better Mario games. There is no cohesion, no unifying theme to any of the levels. It feels like the level designer just closed his or her eyes and started plopping down obstacles at random. The game doesn't properly capture the precision platforming of the early games or the sense of exploration or grander levels from the later titles. It tries to do both, but fails to accomplish either. The levels all feel small and generic, and even without the tanooki suit the entire game is far too easy. You have a variety of moves at your disposal, but you rarely have to use anything other than the standard jump. There are a couple of fun levels every once in a while, and the final bonus level is legitimately great, but these standouts are few and far between and the typical fare feels like they were put together in about half an hour by someone who was vaguely familiar with the Mario games but didn't quite understand why people liked them.
It isn't just that the levels are mundane. That would be bad enough, but the level designers keep using the same flavors of boredom over and over again. If you're going to feed us mush, I'd at least prefer if the blandness came in a couple different flavors. Occasionally I want my steamed rice mixed up with some boiled couscous. There are around 95 total levels, but almost half of them are only slightly modified versions of earlier levels. A lot of them even have the exact same layout, with only placement of the enemies or some added challenge added so you can tell them apart. I would this is a clever attempt at padding the content, but it isn't even clever. The designers were too lazy to even cover up the fact they were pretty much stealing early levels, and it would be like if a crook tried to steal your wallet by tapping you on the shoulder, introducing himself, and then sticking his hand your pocket. The worst part is it isn't just reused levels that pad the amount of content. The same three boss battles are repeated throughout the game, with only minor changes occurring to differentiate them from the previous encounter. And in order to unlock everything, you end up needing to play through all the levels a second time with a different character and get to the top portion of every single end of level flag. All of this adds up to Super Mario 3D Land being more artificially padded than Pamela Anderson in a push-up bra. Removing all of the redundant content and needless filler would make the game probably only a couple of hours long, with all the genuinely fun bits most likely concentrated down to about fifteen minutes time.
Beyond going through the levels, there really isn't much else to occupy your time with in the game. The star coins are back from the New Super Mario Bros. games, in what appears to be an attempt to copy at least one thing from every past Mario title. There isn't even any reason for the coins, and in past Mario games that at least gave some sort of pretext for collecting stars or shines. This time though the coins seem like a completely arbitrary addition, except for the fact that every once in a while you need to have a certain amount to get to the next area. Apparently Bowser is hard up for cash and has started charging for site seeing tours or something, because there is no other reason to require the coins to have you progress through the game unless the developers needed another way to artificial lengthen the gameplay. I collected them all my first time through because they were all incredibly easy to find, but I would imagine it would be infuriating if you couldn't get to the next level because you had failed to find enough of the arbitrary collectables in previous levels to move on to the next one. It is nice to have something else to do while going through each of the levels, and a couple of coins are at least cleverly hidden, but there wasn't enough done with them to make collecting them especially worthwhile.
The visuals are very nicely done, and from an aesthetic standpoint everything works very well. I know some people complain about the 3D effects in games, but I didn't have any problems with the ones in this game. Everything looks great, and there is definite depth to the worlds. Besides the four aforementioned "puzzles" that utilize the 3D, nothing feels gimmicky about the 3D functionality either. It works, improves upon the visuals, and never goes out of its way to do that whole "WHOA COMING OUT AT 'CHA" thing that bad horror movies used to do in the 80s and 90s when 3D first became a thing. The music is nicely done as well, even though I am nearly positive I have heard all of these tunes before. Still, what is there is nice and at least gives the game a very nostalgic vibe, which is appropriate since the game as a whole seems to be hoping that nostalgia is enough to carry it.
This is possibly the first Mario platforming game that I cannot recommend to fans of the genre. It does nothing you haven't seen before, and everything that it copied was done significantly better in past titles. Both New Super Mario Bros. games are a better homage to the classic Mario titles, which shouldn't be a surprise because Super Mario 3D Land is copying them so hard that I'm surprised it remember to put its own name at the top. This is a Mario game like I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing is an Aerosmith song; yeah, its technically the same guy out there but all it serves to do is depress older fans by reminding them that they actually used to make something good. This just seems like a lazy attempt by Nintendo to get a Mario game out for their new console; less of a true new Mario titles and more of a collection of all the rejected Mario levels from the past ten years. The game is short, lacking any new ideas, and even using their old ideas poorly in a series of unconnected, unremarkable levels that don't have enough fun segments to fill a loading screen of past Mario titles. Even the much touted tanooki suit ends up making things worse, completely undermining the platforming segments that have been the greatest strength of past Mario titles. Fans of the series might find something to like here, but I'd recommend passing on this Mario offering. Although I guess Super Mario 3D Land manages to do one thing most Mario titles in the past have failed to: disappoint.
Let's-a Go! (THE GOOD):
+Visuals are impressive; 3D works nicely
+Some well designed segments that utilize some of the best obstacles of the series
+Enjoyable final bonus level
+Gameplay is somewhat enjoyable, even if it is a bit distilled
Mamma Mia! (THE BAD):
-Levels are highly repetitive and many are complete copies of earlier stages
-Level design is fairly poor; lacks the creativity and cleverness of previous games
-Gameplay feels nerfed; many moves are entirely unnecessary unless you feel like showing off
-Tanooki suit makes the entire game overly simplistic and kills any of the precision of past titles
-Almost all ideas have been used in prior Mario titles and have been used significantly better
Ow-How-Wa-How-Wow-How-How!!! (THE UGLY): One of the many returning power-ups is the Boomerang Bros. suit, which allows Mario to throw a boomerang and play catch by himself during his copious amounts of alone time after Bowser has kidnapped all of his friends. The strange thing is that you can pick these up from defeating Boomerang Bros., sort of implying that you have stolen their skin after you killed them. I'm just hoping Mario hasn't completely snapped by the next game and shows up wearing a Goomba head as a mask.
THE VERDICT: 4.25/10.00
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 02/03/12
Game Release: Super Mario 3D Land (US, 11/13/11)
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