Mario is Nintendo’s mascot and most recognizable character. Mario and friends appear in a lot of games of varying genres and quality, but the “true” Mario series is a platforming series. For nearly every Nintendo system Mario platformers have been considered genre highlights and console essentials. It’s a lot of expectations to live up to, but somehow Nintendo almost always delivers, and with Super Mario 3D Land they do again.
The game set up is the same as always. The evil Bowser, King of the Koopas, has kidnapped Princess Peach, and the heroic plumber Mario must rescue her. Nintendo seems to have recognized that this plot is not only well-worn but a bit ridiculous. The cut scenes that propel the story along are brief and not self-important.
Mario has been successful in both 2D and 3D platforming before. This is Mario’s first foray into 3D on a handheld. However, the levels are much more linear than the console 3D platformers. In each level you have to get Mario to the flagpole at the end and the path to follow is spelled out plainly. For each stage there are three Star Coins that can be found. In the early worlds just finishing the levels is enough, but in later worlds Star Coins are needed to buy new stages.
There have been so many iterations of Mario that it would have been easy for Nintendo to overload the game with mechanics, enemies, and power-ups. Nintendo has streamlined those concepts nicely here and only chosen the ones appropriate for this game. For example there are only a handful of power-ups but each one is perfectly suited for the enemies and levels.
In terms of gameplay 3D Land is a great mix of the classic 2D games and the more recent 3D forays. More specifically the game feels like a mix of Super Mario Bros. 3 and the Super Mario Galaxy games. Those are highlights in the series and mashed together they create something that feels familiar but almost completely new.
It is hard to define what makes the Mario games so more fun than other platformers. The enemies are imaginative and the level design is memorable, but I think the difficulty curve is a big reason. 3D Land starts out easy, but by World 8 it can get very challenging. The game does a good job of helping the player succeed without making it feel pointless. If you fail the same level many times in a row you are given a special power-up that makes Mario invulnerable to enemy attacks. The player still has to time jumps and judge distances correctly, because Mario is not invulnerable to falling. If you are still having trouble the game gives you the option of skipping to the end of the level.
The Mushroom Kingdom looks great on the 3DS. The game’s palette is bright with primary colors and the details are sharp. Mario and his enemies have the most character they have ever had on a handheld. There is a lot of moving parts but there are no frame rate drops or screen tears. With so much going on the visuals could have felt overblown, but the screen is always well balanced and pleasant to look at.
3D Land is one of the best examples of how the stereoscopic 3D should work on the 3DS. The 3D is used to add depth to the playing field. This alleviates one of the biggest problems with 3D platformers, the inability to accurately judge jumps. With the 3D slider on it’s possible to judge placement forward and back, not just left and right.
Mario’s soundtracks have always been endearing and memorable. 3D Land doesn’t create any new classic songs, but it does recycle familiar tunes effectively. The same can be said for the sound effects. There are only a few lines of dialog in the game and they are mostly characters saying each other’s names. Again, this is nothing new for the series but the character’s personalities come through nicely. It would have been nice if the newer tunes were as catching as the classic Mario tracks or if more voice work was added but Nintendo didn’t fix what wasn’t broken.
The game has plenty of replay value. Many players will want to collect all the Star Coins for each level. While some of them are easily obtained playing through the stages, some are well-hidden, and some require some hard platforming to reach. Additionally, the Special Worlds open up for play after the main game has been defeated. In the Special Worlds everything is slightly tweaked. The level timers can change, there are poisonous power-ups, and the enemies are also amped up a little.
All in all, this is a tremendous game and arguably the best game available for the 3DS. The graphics are great, the gameplay is addictively fun, and the 3D is one of the best examples of the 3DS’s capabilities. Once again Nintendo delivers one of the best games on its own system, and shows the other developers their systems’ potential. This game is must-have not just for Mario fans, but for anyone who owns a 3DS.
Replay Value: 5/5
Article first published as Nintendo 3DS Review: Super Mario 3D Land on Blogcritics.