For all Mario’s roaring success in practically everything he turns his gloved hand to there’s one angle of video games on which he doesn’t hold the monopoly – handheld platformers. Game Boy launch title Super Mario Land and its follow-up Super Mario Land 2 – 6 Golden Coins were both quality titles but not the industry defining paragons his home console outings were and they were both overshadowed by his alter-ego Wario’s own superior handheld series. The lack of difficulty and length offered more recently by New Super Mario Bros. on the DS made a missed opportunity out of an otherwise excellent game. There’s one exception, the outstanding update of Donkey Kong released in 1994 for the Game Boy but that was more of a puzzle platformer created with a very different design philosophy from the main series. Now the portly plumber is having another shot at bringing goomba-stomping and coin-grabbing to a handheld.
The shape of Super Mario 3D Land is both familiar and new. Your goal in the three-dimensional environments is not to hunt for stars but to race through series of linear levels complete with flagpoles. The health bar found in previous 3D home console iterations is absent in favour of the three-tiered system seen in the 2D series. If normal Mario takes a hit he will shrink (and lose his cap) whereupon another hit will cost a life. Grab a mushroom and you’ll return to full size with another power-up, such as a fire flower, elevating you to the third tier complete with an offensive ability. This marriage of 3D worlds and 2D sensibilities is jarring at first but once you accustom your gaming brain to the idea it becomes second nature and allows an old-school and traditional Mario experience to live in three dimensions.
The levels themselves are a mixture of the usual jumping challenges and gauntlets of enemies with a thoughtfully-integrated selection of Super Mario Galaxy style gameplay gimmicks such as the red and blue platforms that flip over whenever you jump. There’s a good amount of variety but not to the same degree offered by the Wii games, Nintendo gets a lot more mileage from fewer concepts here. The other focus is on the power-ups, particularly the much-loved Tanooki suit returning from Super Mario Bros. 3 which was at the centre of the hype since the game’s announcement and takes centre stage in Super Mario 3D Land where it occurs very frequently. The raccoon-shaped power-up works slightly differently in this game, you can’t use it to fly any more but instead holding the jump button will slow your descent so empowering your jumping ability with far more range, rather like Yoshi’s flutter jump. It’s a sensible alteration and while the suit can still make progressing through levels considerably easier than usual it’s an exhilarating experience blasting through otherwise challenging sections. In addition to this you can press B to perform a tail-spin to take out enemies. It’s among the most useful power-ups Mario has ever had and even highly skilled players will have trouble resisting the urge to abuse it. A notable new addition to the arsenal is the boomerang flower which imbues you with boomerang-throwing abilities used to bash baddies and grab distant items Zelda-style.
The basic and addictive purity of Mario’s gameplay is duly present but the level and balance of control you have isn’t as flawless as it usually is. The major drawback in the gameplay of Super Mario 64 DS was the lack of proper analogue control for movement (you could have analogue control with the touch screen but it was a dog to use), this meant having to hold B to run at full speed which works fine in the 2D games but felt awkward in three dimensions. Strangely despite the presence of the fully analogue circle pad with the 3DS hardware it’s the same deal here. Having to hold B to run properly isn’t game-breaking by any means but it makes things just a touch more fiddly than you feel they need to be particularly when it comes to precise jumping. Other than that the controls are pretty tight.
The game is arranged into eight worlds made up of half a dozen or so levels, among them challenging airship and castle themed stages that throw back once again to Super Mario Bros. 3. Most veterans of the series should zip through these without much difficulty but there’s more. It’s prudent to issue a mild spoiler warning here but the fact is that the game is far from over when the credits roll after beating world eight. Anyone who completes the main story is given another eight special worlds which double the length of the game. Many of these new levels are essentially the same corresponding stages from the original eight worlds tweaked to make them more challenging, for example you might be given a tight time limit or have to complete it with a Shadow Mario following you, but just as many are completely new. This is an important point to raise in the review because these bonus levels are more than a reward for compltionists, they’re half the final game and transform what might have ended up another comparatively short and easy title into something much more long-lasting, difficult and ultimately worthwhile.
The additional objective of gathering three star coins in every level makes a welcome return to boost the game’s lifespan for those that seek 100%, and is tied to a new rating system that shows up on your StreetPass profile, Nintendo again extending the longevity of their games by playing on gamers’ desire to show off. StreetPass hits will send power-up gifts to Toad Houses for you to make use of as well as showing you the best times other players have managed to complete individual levels, introducing a competitive edge that speedrunners will relish. It doesn’t make StreetPass essential to fully enjoy the title but it’s nice all the same.
Super Mario 3D Land was always likely to be the poster child for the console’s stereoscopic 3D, which is made better use of here than any other game on the system so far, offering the best depth of field. Then there are the rooms that employ clever optical illusions for which you’ll need the 3D switched on to see how to reach the tantalising star coin but these are few and far between. What the 3D doesn’t do is improve the gameplay and as such it’s looking increasingly like stereoscopic 3D will struggle to do this at all, working instead as a purely cosmetic enhancement. The brilliantly colourful and crisp worlds of Super Mario 3D Land look superb as it is, flaunting some of the best and clearest visuals seen on the handheld and the 3D gives them a slight edge.
The only slight downfall in the graphical presentation is the game’s relative lack of character. Super Mario 3D Land is a far cry from the vibrant open worlds of Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine or the adventurous wonder of Super Mario Galaxy, which gave a sense of context to the playgrounds you explored. The old-as-the-hills story aside there’s little real purpose to Mario’s traversal of these rather cut-and-paste level themes which play out like purposefully designed collections of platforms arranged in a 3D space. Of course that’s exactly what they are as it has always been but the designers have done very little to mask this. The airship and castle levels convey a sense of place but they’re driven by nostalgia and not original creativity. Everything else is very generic and lacking in detail. It’s pure efficient video game level design, not a bad thing as such, there’s an unfussy simplicity to it that reminds you of the design philosophy that puts gameplay ahead of everything else, but a well-judged deeper context to the craziness would have been nice. The game is constantly striving to entertain, never to immerse.
This fairly unimportant point aside what Super Mario 3D Land does it does very well indeed and delivers a richness of content and challenge that the character has never seen in a traditionally ordered handheld platformer before. This is the kind of game that gets into your brain becoming second nature. It’s got that one-more-go factor that perfectly offsets the level of challenge, never making success seem impossible or too tough to make its pursuit fun. The last levels can be absolutely devilish but the adrenaline associated with beating them overwhelms. Once again Nintendo have exploited their golden balance of appealing characters, gameplay simplicity and fiendish design to craft a must-have title that can satisfy the casual and the hardcore. It’s been a cliché for a long time but one of the best games on the console is a Mario game.
Presentation – 9
Clear, concise and well-ordered. The map screen is particularly reliable at showing all the relevant information completionists need.
Design – 8
Excellent use of platforming gimmicks and a faithful regard for the series’ history combine to great effect. It could have been more detailed though.
Gameplay – 9
That a game this addictive and fun is actually one of the loosest in controls should only be taken as a mark of the franchise’s enormous standards. It’s top-notch stuff.
Graphics – 9
Approaching a home-console level of colourful crispness. The visuals don’t show off, they just get on with the job of looking pleasing.
Sound – 8
The effects are all age-old classic chimes, bounces and thuds, the soundtrack an appropriately chirpy mix of old and new.
Difficulty – 8
A Mario game as rock-hard as the NES days wouldn’t really be appropriate for modern audiences but this still manages to provide something robust for veterans.
Longevity – 8
Beating every level should take you at least ten hours. Then there’s finding 100% and replays.
The long wait for a classic Mario platformer on handhelds is over. With its excellently judged marriage of styles, superb design and satisfying amount of content 3DS owners finally have an original one-player experience to shout about. Was it ever in any doubt?