Review: Super Mario 3D Land
In opposition to the growing concern that Nintendo has lost its way, I'm of the opinion that the Mario series, speaking specifically of the proper console platformers, has improved with each iteration. If I were to list my favourite Mario games in order, my list would be topped by Super Mario Galaxy 2, and bottom out at the original Super Mario Bros.
In Galaxy 2, I saw Nintendo's most earnest and ambitious attempt at capturing what the Mario series has always been about- the joy of movement. The relative strength of each new entry has been directly related to the quality of Nintendo EAD's new mechanic for making you move. The F.L.U.D.D ofSunshine was a step in the right direction. For me, it was the first time Nintendo concentrated on Mario's strengths, and the levels seemed built around the water pack rather than the water pack around the levels. The problem was that the pack was a good mechanic tacked on to what Mario did well, and stuck out for that reason. The Galaxy games gravity sections held the same intent of the water pack, but rather than built on, felt like an organic extension of the Mario experience. The games were instantly likeable because the joy of understanding and exploiting gravity wasn't just an interesting distraction, but a necessary element of exploring the levels.
All of the above is written only to provide context before saying that Super Mario 3D Land doesn't play to its strengths.
The mushroom kingdom has made no advancement in terms of security, and Bowser has made off with the princess again. To save her, Mario has to jump his way through eight worlds, collecting up to 3 Star Medals in each level, which are used to unlock the castle or airship waiting at the end of each world. It feels as good to run around with Mario as it ever has, thanks to both the responsive feel of the 3DS' circle pad, and the whimsy of Mario as he shuffles through his run animation. The problem is the more indulgent the player is in the movement of the game, the less he will progress through it. The Star Medal requirements for the castle levels are high, so losing yourself in the great movement and level design instead of methodically pixel hunting through them will earn you a great deal of backtracking later on.
This doesn't start to reveal itself until the end of the game, but becomes a pain in what opens up after the princess is saved. This would be excusable, except that what opens up after the games "completion" is over half of its content. The Peach storyline is short (about five hours), and the while the levels are enjoyable enough, they're also unchallenging to a fault and low on surprises. It is in the game's (more than five hour) epilogue that things get tougher and the level design starts to show you things you haven't seen before. Replaying previously finished levels to find medals and unlock content becomes such a chore at this point that, as good as the new levels are, the time you'll have to invest might not be worth it.
There was a similar issue Kirby Mass Attack, another Nintendo developed portable game released this year. Like 3D Land, Mass Attack had a strong mechanic and smartly designed levels, but a coin collection mechanic that has you replaying those levels until you're sick of them.
This is a shame considering all of the Mario-isms you could want are in the game in top form. 3D Landretreads from the gravity mechanic of Galaxy and fully embraces the suit mechanics of old. The new tanooki suit doesn't allow flight, but acts more like Diddy Kong's jet pack in Donkey Kong Country Returns,letting you hover briefly after jumping to carefully place your landing. Like the jet pack, it's really a useful tool, and adds tension because once you've got it, you want to hold on to it. The remixed classic Mario tunes sound great as usual, doubly so because the Super Mario Bros. 3 source material they're revisiting is already classic.
The root of the problem seems to be Nintendo's concern that every player walk away from the game fulfilled. In theory, the short main story of 3D Land would be a good time for novice players to remove the cartridge and feel like they've "beat it." This would be fine; for those looking for more, there is still a plot to push you forward once the Bowser thread is over. But this idea doesn't work out when he second quest is held back by a mechanic that breaks what made the game shine in the first place.
Releases like this one go through extra scrutiny, because players not only want them to be worthwhile games, but a reason to buy a console. I can say that Super Mario 3D Land, faults and all, is the first great reason. Some nagging issues hold it back in comparison to the catalogue of Mario games, but removed from that context, they don't change the fact that it is a game you should play right now. Land is the best use of 3D thus far, in that it both effects the gameplay, and my vision is still functional enough to write this review. It's a shame Nintendo didn't nail it on the first release, but they do establish a formula that they can improve upon, and probably will during the 3DS' lifespan. But for now, 3D Land is at least reason enough to make the leap with Nintendo into the third dimension.