Still Playing: Super Mario 3D Land

Super Mario 3D Land gallery

The natural reaction to Mario’s 3DS debut was to be ever so slightly underwhelmed. Sure, it earned a generous helping of praise on release but in most cases that was tempered with just a hint of gnawing doubt. Its closest touchstones, of course, were the Galaxy games, and next to their giddily adventurous spirit, 3D Land seemed a little safe; a little cautious, even.

Such comparisons were perhaps unfair, and a Galaxy game never would have worked on 3DS anyway: as noted by director Koichi Hayashida, this larger than life hero would have been a mere speck on the smaller screen. Besides, it soon became clear that this wasn’t so much about scaling back as zooming in, in the process getting closer to the nucleus of what makes Mario great.

Where Galaxy provided the plumber with large landmasses and spherical planetoids to scamper around, 3D Land gives him a little less space – in every sense – to work with. There’s less running, more jumping, with the return of Super Mario Bros. 3’s Tanooki tail just one of many callbacks to Mario’s 8- and 16-bit heyday. Indeed, in its irresistible blend of precision and playfulness, it’s the closest any 3D Mario has been to the feel of the 2D games.

That’s no accident, of course. 3D Land was always intended as a ‘bridge’ title, a welcome mat laid out to New Super Mario Bros. fans hitherto reluctant to set foot inside a three-dimensional Mushroom Kingdom. Indeed, on occasion it’s little more than a side-scroller with added visual depth: though Mario can move into or out of the screen on all stages, there’s often little reason to do so. Subtle perspective shifts offer a convincing illusion of freedom and variety – some stages are viewed from an isometric camera, but play out almost as if on a 2D plane.

The static camera makes for a more inclusive kind of 3D Mario game, and it frames the action so perfectly, so consistently, that it’s easy to take for granted. A neat side effect of the rigid perspective is that it allows Nintendo to deviously hide Star Medals in what otherwise might have been plain sight. Many players complain about 3DS not having a right analogue stick, but 3D Land proves that if your game is designed smartly enough you don’t always need one.

It does some pretty wonderful things with the left stick, too. That Mario’s movement speed isn’t analogue feels strange at first, but the need to press a button to break into a run is entirely in keeping with the feel of the 2D games. There are subtle shifts to the way he handles in every Mario game – here, he feels a touch slower than in the Galaxy games, but maybe a little quicker than in NSMB and its sequel – but his movement is consistently in tune with his environment. You’ll instinctively know whether you’re going to make a leap or fall short, whether you need a side-flip to reach that platform above or whether a regular jump will do. The more abstract stages – with no consistent theme, it’s almost like a collection of Sunshine’s void levels – feel more than ever like puzzles missing their final piece, intricate contraptions that each need one small, rotund, Italian-accented cog to make them whirr and hum into life.

Its courses are more compact than before – inspired, apparently, by the gap between train stops on Hayashida’s daily commute – but denser with it, and their short runtime leaves you gasping for more. That’s part of what makes it a more eminently replayable Mario: you’ll greedily consume these moreish little bites by the handful on your first playthrough, while their brevity makes them more appealing to speed-run.

While it may be a 2D game in spirit, it’s also a validation of 3DS’s featureset. Cheep Cheeps leaping out of the screen may be an obvious use of stereoscopy, but it’s no less delightful for it. Elsewhere, it adds vertiginous depth to a stage where you spend most time descending from the clouds, traversing the enormous gaps between platforms via enemy heads and trampolines. And in StreetPass, you’ll find another reason to return, as passersby send gifts and set time trial challenges that will gently nag at you until you’ve beaten them.

You might, however, find the simple joy of playing through these stages again is reason enough for a replay. Because while there’s a fastidiousness about their design that can make them feel almost machine-built, each is blessed with touches only a human hand could provide. It’s so generous with its ideas that you’ll have forgotten some of them: stomping on an ever-depleting stack of Goombas for a string of 1ups, getting your head stuck in a ?-Block, or bouncing three times on a musical platform that sends you on a breathless starman sprint, somersaulting through strings of coins and enemies before plummeting back to terra firma. World 5-1 is a single-stage Zelda tribute so note-perfect it makes your heart sing, while 7-1 has its finish in sight from the start, allowing you to reach the flagpole within seconds. And after the credits have rolled, it pulls itself apart and pieces everything back together in a different, more challenging order, with many stages offering something new entirely.

It’s the best of both worlds, then: a Mario for purists and for newcomers, a game that combines the rigour and sure-footedness of a 2D Mario with the range and ideas of his 3D outings. It might not have Galaxy’s freewheeling ambition, but it’s worth revisiting 3D Land and reminding yourself that Mario’s return from the edges of the universe ended with a smoother landing than anyone could have reasonably anticipated.