I half walked into Super Mario 3D Land expecting a rushed production: it’s a high-profile Nintendo game that was announced, revealed, demoed and released all in the same year. And at a time where the platform is having its rocky road, surely Nintendo fast-tracked it to get it to stores?
Yeah, that’s obviously not the case. I’m writing this without having 100% completed the game and it’s clear that Super Mario 3D Land got all the love and attention of the best of Nintendo’s “A” games. I’d go as far as saying that this handheld version nearly reaches Super Mario Galaxy 2’s brilliance in design and fun – it’s certainly the best handheld Mario game to date, and easily one of the best Super Mario games developed.
There’s not much “new”to the Mario blueprint here as it lifts its design from games that come before it. There’s a lot of Galaxy and Sunshine platforming, tweaked with jumping abilities seen in Super Mario Bros. 3. Lots of timed jumps on stationary and spinning or rotating platforms, and, naturally, a ton of block smashing and goomba stomping. And just like in most Mario games, deaths are plentiful but so are extra lives.
What I think is special about Super Mario 3D Land is its near seamless merging of 2D and 3D, bringing the platformer back to an old-school feel by locking players into a designed set. It was a hint of things to come in the Galaxy series: Nintendo taking camera control away from the user and letting them explore the 3D-rendered world on its terms, only giving back that control when it’s absolutely necessary. Here, the camera is even more restrictive to the point where you’re stuck with what the level designers give you. That is not a bad thing.
With a camera that’s locked into position, you now simply work within the confines of what the designer wants you to see. Back on the NES, you didn’t — and arguably shouldnt — have the freedom to stop and scroll ahead, and yet in the majority of levels you only needed to see what was immediately surrounding you. In this game, the camera is constantly shifting and moving to ensure that you’re seeing exactly what you need to see to move forward. The designers use this as a tool to build their levels, going so far as to strategically hint and hide some of the all-important collectibles. And it’s done without those weird “in between” issues – you’ll never fudge a jump because the camera was moving from position to position.
It also helps that this camera strategy plays up the 3DS system’s core strength: stereoscopic 3D. The designer is now in full control over what you see, and many times the level designer will screw with depth to show off what stereo3D can mean to gameplay. Imagine a room filled with identical blocks stacked both on top of and in front of each other, and the camera positioned in such a way that it’s difficult to see, without a perception of depth, which is in front and which is beside. With a stereoscopic display it becomes evidently clear, and Nintendo’s designers have come up with some clever challenges that play up the pairing of platform layouts and camera positions to ensure that the 3D slider on your system is turned on.
But it’s also obvious that the designers had to appease those who can’t see – or don’t want to see – the impressive depth perspective. For every “you gotta see this in 3D!” there’s a way out, either by the buttons that can skew the camera left or right or by an in-game trigger that will shift the camera to a flat-friendly view. It’s a smart give-and-take that ensures everyone can play this game to completion. Even cyclopses and pirates.
Any way you look at it, Super Mario 3D Land is a beautiful game, one that shows the visual power of the handheld. At this point you should understand that the 3DS system, just like every handheld Nintendo’s released since the Game Boy, can’t stack up to the current generation of systems on the market – but even so, there’s a lot of power in the 3DS and Super Mario 3D Land pushes it with graphics that feel right at home in today’s gaming age. It might not be running in Galaxy’s silky 60 frames per second environment, but there are times where even the most basic use of shaders can impress – reflections on rotating walls or the shimmer on the water surfaces. And it’s all enhanced with the addition of depth, and there are times you have to just sit and admire those visuals as they jut off into the distance.
Much of this game is based around what 1990’s Super Mario Bros. 3 brought to the table, but not when it comes to moving from level to level. Instead of unlocking challenges in a branching path, it’s a slightly uncreative linear design that mirrors the “one level after the next” of the original Super Mario. It’s not much to complain about, and if it’s because the designers had to focusing on the level challenges over how those levels are presented then I’m hugely glad they did.
The 3DS could have used a game like Super Mario 3D Land right at launch and we could have avoided the last six months of public doom and gloom. But whether a Christmas release was always in the cards or the game just needed another few months in cooker, the 3DS got itself one hell of a system seller within its first year. It’s a must-play, absolutely.
Now let’s see what Nintendo designers can do with stereo3D-enhanced “New Super Mario Bros.” on the handheld. My money’s on a Holiday 2012 release.