A Strong Case For The 3DS, But Not For 3D
Super Mario 3D Land is the game that should have launched alongside the 3DS. Unlike the rest of the games on the platform, it is of indisputably high quality and makes good use of the system's 3D capabilities. Although 3D Land falls a bit shy of the Galaxy games with which it shares a pedigree, it's still one of the most innovative and polished platformers on the market, to such an extent that it's almost worth buying the floundering platform just to play it.
The core Mario games have always been innovative, and 3D Land is no exception. In this entry, Nintendo attempts to justify the so far inconsequential 3D capabilities of their handheld by using the effect to add new layers to the game. Like Littlebigplanet, the game often appears 2D even as it offers three-dimensional movement through multiple planes. It can be confusing to look at in two dimensions, but flicking the 3D switch up will reveal hidden paths and other goodies hidden in the background. It's a gimmick for sure, but at the same time it feels fresh, as no game has taken such advantage of the extra dimensions provided by the platform thus far. As usual, Nintendo has taken upon itself to demonstrate proper usage of their platform, and it's this example that will probably reign supreme until they choose to release another game.
That said, the 3D never feels quite as integral as Nintendo probably thought it would. Even though certain sections of the game prompt you to flip the switch up with a little "3D" sign emblazoned in the corner, I never had any difficulty navigating the courses without it. It is a bit helpful in certain key areas, but by and large it remains an extraneous feature. Only in the 2D levels mentioned above does it make a noticeable difference, and it's a shame that the more numerous 3D levels don't take similar advantage of what could have been a key feature. As is, I ended up playing most of the game with the slider flipped off, a truth that Nintendo would probably prefer not to hear. The picture is more crisp and colorful this way, and it looks just like a Mario game should.
Despite this small failure, Super Mario 3D Land remains a ton of fun to play. It's pretty traditional stuff, with the Fire Flower and Tanooki suit performing as expected, but familiar can still be fun. There are even a few new suits, such as a surprisingly satisfying Boomerang suit which allows Mario to chuck projectiles, and a propeller suit that lets Mario soar high above the landscape. These new additions, while sparse, are just enough to spice up the tried and true platforming gameplay. Just try not to think too much about most of the game's core tenets; this is a franchise whose gameplay revolves largely around collecting coins and 1-Ups, but in this modern landscape such trivialities mean nothing. When you don't have to start the entire game over upon losing your lives, there's little point to jumping off that precariously placed platform to grab a few extra coins.
Luckily, the levels housing those coins are some of the most interesting I've seen in a Mario game in a long time. Although they rarely reach the soaring highs of the Galaxy games, their pedigree still shows. Just when you think you've seen all the game has to offer, it throws a handful of fun new scenarios at you. Whether it's platforms that appear and disappear each time you jump, ledges that shift side to side when you move, or an Indiana Jones styled boulder escape, every level offers up something great to play. The early goings are a little slow, but still pleasantly fun.
The good vibes keep going strong thanks in large part to the sunny visuals and infectious tunes. The music is largely classic Mario fare; if Nintendo ever departs from those timeless songs, I'd frankly be shocked. It's a good thing they're as catchy here as they were twenty years ago, then. The graphics are some of the best rendered on the 3DS, making this a treat for both the eyes and ears. If future 3DS releases can match or exceed the production values seen here, I can genuinely see the system putting up a strong fight against Sony's Vita. It's not like these are groundbreaking graphics or anything, but they're better than what we've seen on the handheld so far, and serve to restore some faith that had been lost in the post-launch draught.
Super Mario 3D Land is not an Earth shaking departure from what you'd expect a Mario game to be. The 3D can be nice when utilized properly but often feels unnecessary, and the traditional coins and 1-Ups don't really serve any purpose in the grand scheme of things. Existential issues aside, this is one of the best-made platformers of the last few years, and a strong reminder that when Nintendo sticks to their guns, they can produce some of the best games around.