Review by SneakTheSnake

"Let's-a go!"

I wouldn't call Super Mario 3D Land a killer-app. First, I believe that term has become a bit passe; second, I don't find Super Mario 3D Land to be as great as everyone else seems to believe it is. That is to say, a killer-app is a console-defining title, sure, but doesn't it have to be, by definition, of unsurpassably high quality? I'll end up feeling a deep sense of buyer's remorse for having purchased my 3DS if this, Super Mario 3D Land, is supposed to be the crown jewel in the 3DS's current library, that is to say among the most critically acclaimed. I'll expect to be a bit crestfallen and will lower my expectations for the future a little bit. Super Mario 3D Land comes off as somewhat uninspired and, despite some very good graphics and a few fun moments here and there, the game suffers from repetitive music, poor sound design and many instances of primitive gameplay design and structure.

To be fair, Mario titles are partially a victim of their own reputation. There aren't allowed to be any less-than-excellent Mario titles, as they are supposed to break new ground and be wholly entertaining from start to finish. Therefore, just by name and brand recognition alone, Mario games are just meant to be representative of the console and of the company. A mediocre Mario game, by industry standards, is still an above-average platformer, but I don't find this to be a Mario game of such high caliber by any stretch.

It's a dichotomy, really. Yes, it's far above many of the other dredgy 3DS games I've played, but I think that's just because other developers haven't set the bar as high, or even at any height. Super Mario 3D Land doesn't exactly have heated competition yet because many other games I've played for the console are so mediocre. The game, perhaps in comparison to every other platformer on the market for the 3DS, will be seen as superior, but the others aren't really trying. Yet.

The story? Well, Bowser has captured Princess Toadstool. It's up to Mario to rescue her. What's new in the narrative department? Um... well, Mario has to rescue Luigi as well. Maybe it's been a while since Mario has had to rescue both (though I believe he's had to rescue Luigi at some point), so that's originality in its barest sense. The story of the game is told through brief cutscenes and, oddly enough, photographs Mario gets by airmail.

I quite enjoy the cutscenes; they're cute and they remind me a little bit of Super Mario World's cinematics. They're minimalistic, have much less text than the scenes in Mario World, but they're still pretty and expressive. They depict Mario as the same chivalrous, heroic plumber he's always been. And the Princess is still the damsel in distress. It's still not answered why Bowser actually wants Princess Peach, or why she can't get herself out of these jams, and the game doesn't bother to explain how Luigi got himself captured. And the photos.... consider it lazy game design if you must for them just throwing in still images instead of more cutscenes, but it makes me think of a Mushroom Kingdom version of the ransom note. Who's taking the pictures anyway?

Super Mario 3D Land is very much a return to basics with a new flavor. Mario hops and bops through this level and that in order to reach the flagpole at the end. A five-page Word document could be taken up with details of the mechanics or references to other games. Influences from other Mario titles are abound, from the flagpole from Super Mario Bros. to the Star Coins from Super Mario Galaxy. Hammer Bros. lob their little weapons all over the place to try to best the portly plumber. Ghost houses filled with Boos from Super Mario World pop up from time to time, and Mario's butt stomp from Mario 64 takes care of enemies and posts with short order. There's no score (like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario 64), but there is a time limit, and Mario can record Mario Kart-like “best times” for each stage. There are even some Mario 3- and Mario World-style P-Switches, as well as some New SMB-style red coin challenges, which, if I'm not mistaken, had their start in Super Mario World 2.

Because of this, the game plays very much as you would expect. Mario moves along an almost entirely linear map from level to level, and there's a boss confrontation with Bowser, an airship and / or one of the Koopa Kids at the end of each world. Beating the boss opens up the next world, and nabbing enough Star Coins gains access to harder levels or hidden ones all around the map. Perhaps the formula is technically new, but it is an amalgamation of several game formulas before it, and it's only new in that it is perhaps the only instance of this specific mixing of elements from other games. At any rate, it's an approachable game for newcomers or younger players.

And what's new in this game? Well, there's the Boomerang Suit which, like the Ice Flower in the New Super Mario Bros. titles, fits in well with the rest of the series. Mario can now throw boomerangs to take out foes and nab coins that are out of his reach. There's the propeller box, which Mario can use to soar to new heights and float gently back down. There's a type of platform which moves on rails and propels itself to the left or the right depending on which side of the platform Mario is standing on. A few new enemies and a few new other gameplay ideas are peppers into the experience as well. There are, granted, a few nice twists and turns to the gameplay, but it is safe to concede that there is not much original about the gameplay structure in Mario 3D Land.

Perhaps there's some validity to the “stick to what works” formula. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, right? The mechanics work serviceably and the older aspects, like the flagpole and the Tanooki Suit, have been restructured to work well in 3D. Also, Nintendo is certainly a company to dabble in its own legacy for a helping of fan service. But maybe these Mario games are stuck in a rut. Perhaps the series should pull another Super Mario Sunshine and just blow away players' expectations with something surprising, new, unexpected and original instead of just making “a Mario game for the 3DS.”

I have a problem with the camera in Mario 3D Land. One doesn't have much control over it, which can be troublesome; one can move the camera left and right a little bit, but that is the extent of camera control. This leaves the game to picking out the best angles for the in-game action. This is fine about eighty percent of the time. The times when the game does not provide a full camera angle can be intentional: the game could be trying to hide a coin from you when the camera is purposely leaving it out of the shot. For the other 15 percent or so, the game picks a camera angle that becomes very hard to work with.

It's because of the camera that, at many times throughout the game, Mario 3D becomes an isometric platformer much akin to Sonic 3D Blast. This three-quarters view becomes a detriment to the gameplay, because it becomes harder than usual to judge distances between platforms. Moving the camera six or seven feet left or right (when the game allows you to) or adjusting the 3D slider don't remedy the matter all too much, as the problem is with the pre-selected camera angle and the perspective. Sometimes the camera angles chosen are seemingly for sensationalist purposes and aren't convenient or helpful. For example, there are parts where the camera is almost at a top-down view in order to show Mario hopping on giant platforms, upward, “toward” the player. This isn't intuitive, this is show-offy, and it doesn't help. Also, have fun when the camera gets entirely too close up.

The game, I must admit, does occasionally elicit the same reactions I get (and I assume that gamers are supposed to get) when playing a Mario game: curiosity, enjoyment, peril and occasionally the triumph of accomplishment. The level design tends to borrow from Super Mario Galaxy a bit, and some of the levels seem to me to just be arbitrary collections of platforms and blocks. For a lot of the levels, there isn't much rhyme or reason to them; they pick an aesthetic and seem to think that the aesthetic or gimmick are enough to carry the entire level.

However, I remained mildly curious about what the next stage could hold. I did enjoy the experience at times, when there was a cleverly hidden Star Coin (of which there aren't many that aren't too cleverly hidden, at least for those who have much experience with Mario titles), or the numerous references to previous titles. I also enjoyed the occasional puzzle the game threw my way. In the particularly tough challenges in the latter half of the game (face it: almost the entire first half is a cakewalk), the game had me panicked and, I must admit, a little frustrated, not that the game was always being unfair but because some of the challenges were truly devilish.

It was a rewarding feeling to accomplish some of the game's goals, like beating Bowser for the last - then very last - then very, very last time. However, just a cleverly-hidden Star Coin, these moments of the hardcore were pretty fleeting.

Mario 3D Land is a pretty easy game overall. I imagine it was Nintendo's goal to make an accessible game for beginners, to allow players to enjoy the 3DS experience without being burdened by difficulty. There's a version of the Super Guide in the game too, for the first half of the game; die a handful of times and you'll get a P-Wing. For those looking for nail-biting challenge, not only will you have to play for several hours to find any, but those experiences will be admittedly few.

I have some issues with the physics in the game. My beef is not, by any means, with the controls. I've had no problem with the circle pad, and I find the gyroscope to be put to excellent use in using periscopes and cannons scattered throughout the game (it's very, very hard to misfire!). However, the physics feel a little off, as there's an issue with Mario's momentum. Mario's running speed doesn't always kick in at the intended moment, which makes timing jumps difficult. He'll look as though he's running full-tilt, but Mario will not make the full jumping arc, almost as if there's wind blowing toward him. There's no factor of wind in Mario 3D land at all.

Replay value is what you make of it. After the first eight worlds, there's an entirely different eight worlds to go after. This is a wonderful feature; a few of the stages are copies of the originals, just with harder conditions of completion, but many of them are new or are reworked enough to make them interesting again. The repeats will add something like a Mario doppelganger (called Cosmic Mario, I think) who follows your every move with a half-second delay. Sometimes he'll be big, and others he'll be much smaller than you, but you get hurt if you touch him or die if you're Tiny Mario. This means you can't stand in the same place for any period of time; you're always moving, even while you're figuring out how to get from one part to the next. The other type of challenge you'll find in the level repeats is the 30-second time limit, in which there's 30-second time limit from the start, and you have to rack up more time as you go by collecting clocks or taking out enemies.

Super Mario 3D Land is a game, then, whose level design is trite at times, whose challenge is very little, whose amount of content is especially surprising, whose unlockables take a lot of time to unearth (play through every stage as Mario and Luigi, get every single Star Coin, touch the top of the flagpole in every stage and beat Bowser a couple of times to unlock the final, final stage), but whose feeling is very, very good. It feels like a Mario game, and I suppose that counts for something. I would have liked the developers to have taken a lot more risk in the game structure and design. Who says we couldn't have a more open-ended adventure just because it's on a handheld? Why couldn't it be a 3D platformer instead of a game which comes off much more like Crash Bandicoot? Or, alternatively, why could the game not have been designed like Super Mario 64, but in 2D or in this 2.5D the game occasionally pulls off?

The music in Super Mario 3D Land is indeed upbeat. It fits the game well and sounds pretty high-quality, both in recording quality and in its content. The overworld theme song is quite memorable, but some of the tunes are taken from the developer's previous effort, Super Mario Galaxy 2, which in turn are restructurings of tunes from Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3. The one tune I especially liked from the game, the only one I find myself humming when I'm done playing, is also a restructuring. Remember that “It's Me Mario” song from Flipnote Studio? There's a redux of that song for the Special World 8 map screen. The sound effects are as you'd expect; Mario “hooh”'s and “hah”'s his way through the levels, and the coins still sound like... coins. Tiny Mario, though, has about the most annoying set of voice clips I've heard in a game in years. They just take the Mario voice, already a falsetto, and play them at an even higher pitch. Every time you'll die as Tiny Mario, your ears will hurt a little.

The game is a very pretty one, to say the least. Take a look at the character models up-close, when they're in an enclosed space: you'll swear they're the same character models from Super Mario Galaxy. Super Mario 3D Land is a very polished game from a graphical standpoint, and the attention to detail is truly surprising at times. Watch Mario's head as he moves around. He'll look up to blocks he can hit, and he'll even look at invisible blocks. Take a look at the petals that fly with reckless abandon as Mario traipses through a meadow, or Bowser's facial expression when he's knocked into the lava. Very nicely done; it shows that the 3DS is a very graphically competent piece of hardware.

Use of the touch screen is relegated to level selection and accessing power-ups stored away for future use. The 3D is used to good effect, as far as I can tell; the game was designed with 3D in mind, as the camera angles sometime lend themselves to stylistic (but not especially helpful) shots of Mario jumping into or away from the camera in order to simulate depth. There are a few bonus rooms in the first half of the game in which Mario is placed in an Escher-style room with blocks protruding everywhere, and Mario must climb them. The 3D is intended to help players navigate these sections more easily.

Is this the ideal Mario platformer? No; I would still put my chips on Super Mario World 2 or Super Mario Bros. 3. Super Mario 3D Land fills the “obligatory Mario platformer” for this new handheld system, and I get the vibe of obligation in the game's development. While the graphics are very good, and while the levels are fun from time to time, I would have appreciated a snappier soundtrack, a tougher difficulty, and a bit more effort in level design. This is a very good 3DS game, but a mediocre Mario game; If there's a sequel for the game, I would welcome it, but I hope there's more to it than more levels, the Ice Flower and the addition of Yoshi.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 04/16/12

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

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