|Super Mario 3D Land|
|Buy from Amazon|
Upon starting Super Mario 3D Land, I was placing internal bets on whether the game would be filed with the 2D or the 3D Mario experiences. Miyamoto and the team say they combined the approachability of 2D Mario with the freedom of the third dimension, but one of the two styles must win out, right?
Exactly fourteen hours of playtime later, the answer still eludes me. There's bits of Super Mario Galaxy and pieces of New Super Mario Bros in the game, and it leans heavily towards the former. What's keeping me from committing 3D Land to the 2D Mario pile is all the Sonic Adventure mucking things up.
Despite the disappointment, elation, and outright disdain that those three names likely bring up, they ultimately mean little for the actual quality of the game. It would be difficult to argue that Super Mario 3D Land is anything other than the Nintendo 3DS's most compelling purchase to date. But it's also the first Mario title in several years that I can't just rave about.
To say that Super Mario 3D Land is classic 2D Mario brought to the third dimension would be lazy, but it's not far from correct. Moments after selecting "New Game", the player jogs and jumps through mostly linear obstacle courses, squashing goombas and collecting powerups and platforming over perilous drops until they reach the flagpole at the end of the stage. The World Map then pops up, you move Mario right onto the next stage's marker, and you race to the next flagpole until the Princess is finally rescued. None of 3D Mario's hub worlds, adventure puzzles, or gravity-foolery ever make an appearance.
In fact, other than the ability to roam in three dimensional space, Super Mario 3D Land shows only faint resemblances to the 3D half of its parentage. Mario's acrobatic array of long jumps, sideflips, and backflips return (along with a few new rolling maneuvers), but they so rarely hold advantage over the standard running jump that they are easily forgotten. A small fraction of the stages are shaped in the vein of Super Mario 64's sprawling adventure courses, but so much of the real estate is rendered pointless with but one path funneling to the only goal flagpole. Finally, the character models' pleasant roundness and the landscape's visual polish recalls Super Mario Galaxy's space opera splendor, but the angular architecture and primary color scheme often appear ripped right out of New Super Mario Bros and its sterile, pristine take on the Mushroom Kingdom.
The red brick blocks and white fluffy clouds are only the beginning of 3D Land's adherence to 2D Mario conventions. The powerup-based health system is in play, with Mario building his defenses through growth and fashion, vulnerable to death only when tiny and hatless. The iconic Fire Mario returns with his bouncing fireballs alongside the brand new (but functionally similar) Boomerang Mario. And, prominently featured in all of the game's marketing materials, the gravity-resisting Tanooki Mario appears after decades of absence, simplifying many of the game's trickier jumps and enabling some daring shortcuts. Star Coins, introduced in New Super Mario Bros, hide in plain sight and unlock optional stages throughout the game. Scrolling airship stages are imported from Super Mario Bros 3, boss battles against Bowser expand on the bridge-cutting showdowns of the 1985 original, and dozens of other fan-friendly winks show up from time to time.
Coating a modern-style Mario game with nostalgic trimmings is fine and dandy, but 3D Land stumbles where it tries to fix what isn't broken. The prime offender is the new (and old) dedicated run button. Super Mario 64 revolutionized character movement in a 3D space with its intuitive analog stick controls: push the stick slightly to tiptoe, ram it to the railing to run, and employ the various degrees between as necessary. It was elegant, comfortable, and timeless: every notable 3D platformer since has used the same setup. Nintendo, perhaps overzealous in its adherence to 2D Mario's rules, now requires a player to hold down the B button in order to reach top speed. This function is incredibly useful in 2D games where short precision hops and long running leaps each require degrees of control, impossible with the digital directional pad alone, but seems unnecessary with the 3DS's capable analog "circle pad."
I suppose that a dedicated run button might possibly benefit a 3D game using an analog input with the right implementation, but Super Mario 3D Land is not it. The reason is an inconsistent and opaque rule set that governs the function. It's difficult for me to explain, but the gist of it is that holding the run button and pressing the circle pad all the way forward can result in two different running speeds, depending on circumstances I don't quite understand. One is Mario's "acceleration" phase, where he runs close to top speed and jumps a bit farther than usual. The second is top speed, confirmed by a small puff of air under his feet and a jump distance that is nearly doubled. The problem is that Mario sometimes skips the acceleration phase altogether and begins at his top speed, and it happens often enough that I'm never quite sure what to expect when I send Mario into a dash. That uncertainty can be a killer while standing at the edge of a narrow precipice, staring at a gap that requires a full speed jump to clear.
And precision jumps are the core of the game's challenge. The majority of stages in the game require Mario to traverse a chain of tiny islands floating in the sky, each separated by a jump-length gap of doom. Enemies and stage hazards make their appearances, but the leading cause of death in 3D Land is the bottomless abyss that seems to surround Mario more often than solid ground. The constant scampering across stratospheric archipelagos makes Mario's 3DS debut feel more like Sonic Adventure, with its highways suspended over oceans and canyons, than the solid ground dashes of Super Mario Bros. Come to think of it, the level design in 3D Land reminds me of another rival mascot: Crash Bandicoot. The marsupial face of the original PlayStation ran and leaped his way through similarly restrictive corridors back in 1996. Where even the most linear 2D Mario games often sneak some welcome verticality into many of the stages by moving Mario up and down the screen height, 3D Land rarely deviates from moving into the screen. It could be the most claustrophobic Super Mario game yet.
Despite its often one-dimensional level design, 3D Land is Nintendo's vanguard of 3D gaming, tasked with proving the benefits of stereoscopic visuals on gameplay once and for all. Nintendo succeeds, but perhaps not without some cheating. As claimed, the added visual depth really does make it easier to place Mario and other game objects within their three-dimensional setting. For the sake of experimentation, I occasionally turned off the stereoscopic visuals; the difference was made plain enough when my death count started climbing. But I've made due with flat visuals before, and the reason was strong camera work: Super Mario 64's manual camera put every vantage point in your hands, while Galaxy's automatic camera always took the viewpoint optimal for control. 3D Land instead prioritizes the wow-factor of 3D over gameplay utility, adopting a view that maximizes the stereoscopic pop-out or visual depth rather than the view that makes it easiest to judge distance from one platform to the next. Some tricky segments in 3D Land are actually made tougher because Nintendo chose a from-the-rear camera rather than a three-quarters or side view of the action.
I was unable to articulate all these nitpicks until 3D Land's final stage highlighted the shortcomings of its controls, camera angles, and pitfall stage design. And that stage was the last pinch of the game's disappointingly adequate post-credits content. After rescuing the princess, 3D Land presents Special versions of all eight world maps. Some lazy remixes merely dispatch a Shadow Mario to tail you or shorten the game timer, though other stages are entirely new or heavily retuned for a greater challenge. You also need to retread all sixteen Worlds in Luigi's slippery shoes in order to unlock the ultimate challenge. I spent fourteen hours with Super Mario 3D Land, which would be a good length for a Mario game if not for the six I had to spend repeating every single challenge as the green guy.
These nitpicks, though unusually plentiful for a Mario title, don't entirely condemn the game. Where Super Mario Galaxy blasted the player from one experimental planetoid to the next in its ever-expanding universe of creativity, Super Mario 3D Land packs the player inside a compact clockwork, comparatively modest in size and luster but efficient in its moving parts. Although I don't care for the ironically claustrophobic level design, every piece of every stage feels deliberately placed to provide variety and challenge for both beginners and experts, with more than a few memorable gimmicks sprinkled throughout. The controls don't live up to the sky-high Mario standard, but they still prove serviceable for all but the most demanding bits of the game. And the stereoscopic effect really does add an impressive depth to the visuals, which outclass anything else currently available on 3DS by a generational margin.
Super Mario 3D Land is not a 2D Mario game, a 3D Mario game, or some you-got-peanut-butter-on-my-chocolate marriage of the two. It is an occasionally clunky adaptation of 2D Mario into 3D space, a setup that I can enjoy even if I prefer closer adherence to its inspirations. It is a good argument for the gameplay benefits of stereoscopic visuals, even if it often uses sub-optimal camera placement to make its point. It is the first 3DS game deserving of blockbuster status, though I wouldn't say it alone justifies the purchase of a 3DS. And it is a great and worthwhile game, even if it doesn't live up to the timeless revolutionaries of its name.