For the last few years the fine folks on the Nintendo Holiday Tour have parked their Mario-themed airstream trailer here in Columbus, Ohio, and invited us to sample their upcoming holiday titles. This year they started us off with Mario's latest adventure.
As with most things concerning the 3DS, I’ve had a healthy skepticism of Super Mario 3D Land. The announcement of the tanooki suit griped me a little too—it felt like classic Nintendo fanboy baiting over a weird Mario 3 powerup that is remembered mostly for nostalgia (admit it fanboys: Mario World is far and away a better game than Mario 3). What I saw of the game in trailers looked intriguing but also somewhat static and limited—like a pared down version of Mario 64 and Mario Galaxy.
Well it turns out that Miyamoto-san knows what he’s doing, as always. While I’ve thoroughly enjoyed portable Mario games in the past, they always fell into one of two categories—ports of 2D originals or their New Super Mario Bros descendants, and RPGs like the Mario and Luigi series. About the only exception was the DS port of Mario 64, and while I really loved that port it was a bit ill-suited to the DS’s unique controls.
3D Land is something altogether new—Miyamoto’s attempt to fuse the two styles of disparate Mario gameplay—2D sidescroller and 3D adventure—into one portable-friendly package. The game is presented in the 3rd person, behind the back platformer perspective that’s been the industry standard since Mario 64, but the gameplay is divvied up into small manageable chunks.
3D Land doesn’t follow the star collection formula of the 3D Mario games but instead opts for the timed, race-to-the-finish format of the old sidescrollers. There’s still ground to explore and secrets to root out but you’ll have that classic ticking timer urging you forward, and the level ends with an old-fashioned flag pole. This may seem restrictive at first but it’s the perfect setup for a portable Mario as opposed to a home console one; 3D Land takes the basic framework of the New Super games but reshapes it around elements from Mario Galaxy. It’s a superbly elegant mix of the two breeds of Mario game, and something I’ve been subconsciously wanting ever since I played Mario 64 all those years ago and found myself missing elements from the 2D platformers that didn’t make the transition.
Of special note is the 3D effect and what it does for the gameplay. The 3DS’s headlining feature has been admittedly gimmicky in most of the handheld’s games so far, but leave it to Nintendo to push their hardware when it matters. The 3D is more noticeable in Mario than in other games I’ve played like Pilotwings Resort, and it genuinely makes playing the game more engaging. It’s easier to judge distance in platforming and while the test levels I played weren’t exactly brutal like Mario Galaxy 2’s murderous gauntlets, the platforms, items and enemies popped enough that landing on them felt very natural.
Yes, there are nostalgic throwbacks like the tanooki suit and the airship fleet levels, but they’ve all been refreshed with the balance and polish from the Mario Galaxy games to the point where they work much better. Come to think of it, 3D Land shares some similarities with Mario World: it’s a game that refines the disparate pieces that came before, trims out the fat and then puts all the best elements into a new, better game. 3D Land might not have the breathtaking scope of the Galaxy games or the tense platforming in the New Super series, but it hits a sweet spot right down the middle.