It may have been developed by EAD Tokyo, but Super Mario 3D Land isn’t a 3DS spin on Super Mario Galaxy. And it might have that familiar raccoon tail wagging at the end of its logo, but 3D Land isn’t really a sequel to Super Mario Bros 3, either. What 3D Land is, then, is Mario, not quite as you know him today, but perhaps as you faintly remember him from days gone by.
He feels different. The supple gymnastics of the Galaxy games have been toned down by the removal of that exuberant triple jump, and the addition of a small charge time at the start of his backflip. These tweaks, together with a frankly plodding default walking speed (you’ll spend the most of the game with the run button held down), make for a plumber who comes as close to his NES incarnation as any 3D Mario so far, and one you can’t fling around with quite the same abandon as in recent years.
Levels often hang in Galaxy-like voids, but whereas the Wii games built their challenges around those signature spheres of fun, 3D Land’s timed courses are defined by the straighter edges of the cubes, blocks and tiles from which they are constructed. They’re no less tightly designed, however – the early levels are relatively spacious, easing your acquaintance with this new Mario’s abilities, before giving way to the pure, uncluttered platforming found in the later stages.
And these levels are enhanced by some of best, most subtle use of 3D on the system so far. The effect is pervasive, but never distracting, combining with the usually sidescrolling camera to make the game feel like a toybox diorama brought to fizzling life. Does the 3D effect aid players in judging the gap between platforms when making tricky jumps, as has been claimed? Well, it certainly doesn’t hurt, although we still relied on Mario’s shadow when it came to judging landings. But falling slowly with the aid of a new propeller power-up through hundreds of feet of sky, aiming for a lone platform suspended in the air, with 3D turned up to maximum, is a vertigo-inducing thrill. And playing through a level viewed via a top-down camera – meaning that every jump sends Mario leaping up to meet you – is a gimmicky delight. Even more gimmicky are the optical-illusion rooms – isometric platforming challenges that hide the gaps between platforms with a fixed camera angle, forcing you to rely on the 3D effect to judge their relative position. These elements come as close as possible to breaking Nintendo’s own rule about not making 3D essential to progress – or at least they would if players weren’t given the option of glimpsing the challenges from the side before making their attempt from memory.
That propeller isn’t the only power-up, of course. The Tanooki suit’s prominence in Super Mario 3D Land’s logo is wholly justified – you can find it in, or bring it to, every level of the game – and in fact, if you let it, it can come close to undermining the experience. Its tail attack is Galaxy’s spin attack transposed, but it’s the floating, Yoshi-esque flutter jump that’s a bigger issue.
A skilled player can abuse it without realising – only noticing after a restart the intricate positioning of platforms and carefully designed challenges with which it allowed them to only partially engage. And if there’s any doubt that this is precisely what it’s designed for, die too many times and the game will hand you a sparkling invincible version of the suit when you restart. The new boomerang suit, meanwhile, feels redundant, offering very little that a fireflower can’t. It’s difficult, in fact, to believe this is same team that conjured up Cloud Mario.
But if the power-ups are a let down, the game’s pick-and-mix approach to Mario history isn’t. The flags from Super Mario Bros mark the end point of every level (and figuring out how to nab an extra life by landing on the top of the pole is an optional but irresistible challenge). The airships from Super Mario Bros 3 rotate with Bowser’s Castle levels as end-of-world gauntlets. Galaxy 2’s flip-switches return. And new twists keep coming – Boo-packed haunted houses that send Mario running along the keys of a giant piano; switches that cause level geometry to unpack itself around him before folding back away; levels made almost entirely out crisscrossing strands of bouncy rope.
And yet Super Mario 3D Land feels surprisingly conservative – if only by EAD Tokyo’s own bountiful standards. Its seven-to-eight-hour length is hardly ungenerous, yet slight in comparison to previous games, and its opting for the simple reach-the-end-of-the-level approach inevitably leads to a less varied set of challenges than those offered by the stars of Galaxy and 64, which would intersperse typical platforming gauntlets with sillier, one-shot ideas. And its quasi-side-on, time-limited levels might be perfectly suited to portable play, but come at the cost of more open, explorative designs.
But there’s a joyousness here that wins out, a simple delight in the basics of running, jumping, collecting coins and bouncing into the air that leaves these mild disappointments behind, and a creative blending of Marios past and present that makes the unabashed retread that was New Super Mario Bros appear almost cynical. Super Mario 3D Land is a magpie of a game, but it fuses its 2D and 3D influences to make a Mario that feels fresher than any handheld Mario in years. It’s not a new Galaxy, but it’s an ideal companion piece to EAD Tokyo’s Wii games. Whereas they pushed up against the edge of the universe to show us what an unfettered Mario can do, Super Mario 3D Land does the opposite.
It homes in, with a clockmaker’s precision and a playful gleam in its eye, on what Mario does best.