Review by MTLH

"It's ironic that a Mario platformer that contains so many classic Mario elements isn't a bona fide classic itself."

Mario made his platform debut on a handheld in 1989 with Super Mario Land on the original Game Boy. Two more sequels would follow with the third one even placing Wario in the leading role. The Mario platformers that followed on the Game Boy Colour and Advance where all ports and remakes. It would take until 2006 before our favourite plumber once again took the lead in a handheld platformer with New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS. A good game yet also a bit derivative and, perhaps even more damming, also quite bland. With 2011's Super Mario 3D Land Nintendo seems to acknowledge the series' portable past while also trying to deliver the system seller the 3DS so desperately needed.

Super Mario 3D Land is certainly a pretty game. Even though it is largely played in a linear fashion, the levels themselves are a bit more open like in the Super Mario Galaxy games. The visuals do their best to look like those two and largely succeed. The environments are lush, detailed and colourful while Mario, Luigi and their enemies are well animated and detailed. The 3D effect is put to good use, adding depth without becoming too overpowering as it sometimes could be in The Ocarina of Time for example. Super Mario 3D Land may be the best looking game on the system yet.

The soundtrack offers a mix of tunes spanning from Super Mario Bros. all the way to the Galaxy games. Some are direct copies while others are remixed but all sound equally great. There are a few genuinely new tunes but they fit in so well with the old that their novelty isn't that noticeable. The sound effects are spot on and typically Mario, from the plok when he jumps on an enemy to his enthusiastic ‘let's a go' when the game is booted up.

This is a Mario game so it isn't too hard to guess what the plot is about, is it? Yes, once again Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser and Mario must naturally come to her aid. A twist this time is that a tree is striped of all it's leaves which magically bestow Tanooki Tails on everyone they touch.

For those few people who don't know, Super Mario 3D Land is a platformer. Mario can jump, run, duck and perform most of the tricks he gained in his last few games, like jumping off walls. Controls are spot on, enabling Mario to smoothly traverse the many platforms he encounters and defeat his enemies. Of course, our portly plumber also has access to several special power-ups. These enable him to shoot fireballs, a boomerang and grant him the Tanooki Suit. This last one, familiar to those who have played Super Mario Bros. 3, allows Mario to hover a short while and attack enemies with a swipe of his tail.

The game consists of eight world with generally around six levels each. Some levels, usually those at the end of a world, require a certain number of Star Medals to enter. Each level has three of such coins to find, mostly at hard to reach places. After finishing the first eight worlds, and certain conditions are met, a so-called special set is unlocked which offers eight more worlds. This may look like a lot but that second set mostly recycles the levels from the first batch but with an added twist, like different enemies for example or being chased by a shadow version of Mario. Still, this approach at differentiation works a lot better than you might think. There are a few consequences for the game's difficulty level, as will be mentioned later in this review.

Although Super Mario 3D Land's title alludes to the third dimension and visually quite closely resembles the Galaxy series, the levels are actually surprisingly linear and straightforward. In Mario's three dimensional console titles the levels are usually larger areas in which he must perform several tasks. In Super Mario 3D Land this isn't the case, with the levels being more akin to those from traditional side scrolling platformers. This is not a problem in itself and actually befits the game's handheld nature which does tend to favour shorter bursts of play.

What is more problematic is the lack of cohesion. There really isn't an overarching theme, both from a presentational and gameplay perspective, holding the levels of each world together. Each level is self-contained and in all honesty they could just as well have been presented in a long line instead of divided into several worlds. There is also no real progression in challenge and complexity between these levels. Again, these decisions are somewhat understandable when taking into account that Super Mario 3D Land will probably be played in short sessions. Having a number of levels form an interconnected, and potentially opaque, system wouldn't have been terribly convenient for a gamer on the go. But in it's present state, this approach turns Super Mario 3D Land into little more than a collection of ideas and concepts.

At least those ideas and concepts are something that the game pulls off very well. Super Mario 3D Land is filled to the brim with well executed classic Mario elements. Circumventing Bowser to reach a button that tears down the bridge he stands on, Mario's already mentioned abilities and power-ups, the flagpole, flying ships, Bowser's children, cannons that blast Mario onwards, travelling through pipes, Goombas, impeccable level design; Super Mario 3D Land has them all and more. The 3D effect is used well in several rooms where turning the effect on exposes what Mario can traverse. It would have been nice if there had been more of them though. At times the game feels like a sort of ‘greatest hits' collection, offering the player some of the best moments from nearly three decades worth of Mario history. It's unfortunate that there is so little to actually bind these together.

Super Mario 3D Land isn't the most challenging game around, at least during the initial playthrough. Getting through the levels is rather simple and that includes collecting all the Star Medals and lives are gained at an alarming rate. Expect to end up with a few hundred of them without even trying. Only towards the last world does the difficulty curve pick up a bit. The following special worlds are harder, at times very much so even. Occasionally the challenge crosses the line and becomes annoying rather than fun. There is a heavy reliance on using a Shadow Mario, a short yet replenishable time limit or a combination of both and these elements eventually loose their entertainment value through overuse. In short, Super Mario 3D Land never manages to hit that perfect difficulty level, where challenge and fun coalesce, that characterises the best Mario titles.

Super Mario 3D Land presents an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, the game shows all the signs of what makes a Mario platformer great. He has his usual abilities, the controls are spot on, the level design is great and there are just so many classic Mario elements, ideas and mechanisms. It is also good to see that Nintendo took the game's portable nature into account, resulting in a more straightforward structure. Finally, it is good to see the return of the Land moniker after so many years, demonstrating that Nintendo is aware of it's own history.

On the other hand however, there is little to no cohesion. Worlds don't share a theme, both from a presentational and a gameplay perspective. Instead, the levels are all remarkably self-contained. That is not a problem in itself but what it does show is that having these great and wonderful gameplay mechanisms isn't enough, there must be some sort of context and progression. It's ironic that Nintendo's attempt to make the whole experience more handheld friendly, in itself a commendable effort, is probably to blame for this.

I do understand however that there will be plenty of gamers who wont mind this lack of cohesion. Why complain about such matters when there is so much Mario goodness on offer? Yes, Super Mario 3D Land is undeniably a very enjoyable game. My point is however that this so-called goodness would have been even better when aided by a structure that would have strengthened the game's mechanisms .

What brings us to the structure that is there. Playing through the game the first time is just too easy, offering little of the finely tuned challenge most Mario platformers do have. The special set does increase the difficulty but not always in the best way. Tackling Shadow Mario one or two times is fun for example, perhaps even a third time, having to eventually do it every other level becomes annoying. It's unfortunate that the challenge apparently had to be increased through such contrived measures. On a more positive note, Nintendo did do a good job differentiating the two sets of, what are in essence, identical worlds and levels.

What we end up with is a solid Mario platformer that does most things right but does hang together like loose sand at times. Still, when compared with New Super Mario Bros. it becomes apparent that this time Nintendo was a bit more ambitious and, dare I say it, passionate.

OVERAL: a solid 8,4.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 03/05/12

Game Release: Super Mario 3D Land (EU, 11/18/11)

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