Because you gotta have the plumber wherever you may go.
You can always count on Mario delivering the goods, at least it seems. Nintendo has been one disgusting company for quite a while now, releasing obnoxious games in a landslide, but Mario is Mario, you can't miss it. Lackluster spin-offs and a few disappointments here and there aren't enough to scratch the plumber's credibility. The formula is so carved in stone it's almost impossible to screw up; still, Nintendo has a way of striving for the new whilst retaining key features.
As most of us probably know by now, Nintendo has a thing for brand new concepts. It doesn't really matter if the concept is acceptable at all as a video-game concept, as long as it's new and fresh, it can be exploited. Mario Galaxy was one of these crazy ideas that turned out great. Mario Sunshine on the other hand wasn't. The handheld releases, or 2D Mario's generally, didn't really try to reinvent anything, and we thank Nintendo for that. Super Mario 3D Land tries a few known ideas in a new environment turning them fresh.
This game is probably the half-way between Super Mario Bros. 3-inspired installments and Super Mario 64. Sure it's 3D, but the courses are mostly a corridor which at the end you'll encounter a flag-pole to try jumping as high as you can to complete the level. You do have full 3D control, however. It was probably a good choice not to make it too loosy, Mario generally keeps moving in a straight line unless you make a drastic movement with the analog stick. Judging how unwieldy the handheld can be at times, it was a good move.
The courses are brief and should not offer much problem to any kind of gamer. If the main campaign was composed merely of the first playthrough my thoughts on this game would be much different. Still, after you beat all the stages in each of the 8 worlds you get to play a special version of the game. Every course gets a tougher variation, often consisting of the same overall design of the stage with a few hassles thrown in for good fun.
The changes in these special stages vary greatly. Sometimes you play with a shadowy version of Mario/Luigi trying to hunt you down, while others the clock is ticking and you only have a limited amount of time to complete the level; sometimes you get time boosters within the level, sometimes you get time added for killing baddies. These special stages enlarge the playtime a lot and I couldn't really think how this could be a successful game without them.
As it's become frequent since Mario arrived in the Nintendo DS each stage has 3 golden coins the player can try to find within each level. Both the regular levels and the special ones have 3 of them as an added bonus for those looking to further the challenge a little bit.
In the end of each world a Bowser's floating ship awaits the player; pretty much like Super Mario Bros. 3, with the exception that it doesn't get to cruise the world when the player fails the first time. Actually, the stage-selection screen is pretty barren, we could have used a bit of navigation like basically any game since the third NES release, though the 8-bit sprite in the selection screen is a welcome blast to the past.
The bosses are easy enough. I can't remember a Mario game which had difficult boss battles and this one is not an exception. There's no variety here, wait for the opportunity and jump on his/her head three times and you're on. I can't complain since I never thought boss battles were the high-point of any Mario release; on the contrary, I'm kind of glad the courses are the main focus as always.
Besides the single player campaign there's nothing to be done at all. Again, score for Nintendo for not feeling the need to add in mini-games just for the sake of having them there. We see it a lot these days, especially coming from Nintendo. It seems every developer tries to input as much value with as low cost and effort possible. Mario 3D Land is great for what it is, not because it has thousands of features differing from the central point of the game, 3D platforming.
Nintendo uses good level design to make the adventure as pleasant as possible. Not too easy so that only 6-year old kind would enjoy, not too hard only hardcore platforms would have a blast. It feels right. At least you don't end up with thousands of lives before reaching the second world like New Super Mario Bros. 2.
Of course, no Mario release would be complete without the upgrade items that transforms Mario into several types of things, giving him unique power-ups. The flying raccoon Mario upgrade (officially Tanooki Mario) doesn't allow Mario to fly anymore, but simply glide across a limited distance; the spin attack using the tail is still present. Fire flower Mario functions pretty much like always. There's also the boomerang Mario which adds the skill of those boomerang koopas often found in most of Mario games.
The most recognizable item, the mushroom is present as well. In the special levels the red mushroom is replaced by a toxic one that does the opposite to Mario. Instead of run away from the player is follows them, inflicting his venom if it ever touches him. New moves are also included, like a rolling dash when you duck and press the running button; good for breaking boxes otherwise unbreakable if not wearing a cape power-up.
Controlling Mario shouldn't be a problem for most people. Aside from running, jumping and dash rolling -- as I've mentioned --, Mario can perform two moves that debuted in Super Mario 64. The frontward super jump triggered when you press the duck button (R or L) and jumps right after. In the Nintendo 64 days it was performed by running forward, pressing Z and A right after. The back-flip super jump can also be performed. What differs from the Nintendo 64 days is that Mario used to get catapulted backwards. It also was instant, you ducked and pressed A . This time, probably not to confuse newer audiences, the player needs to build up power by holding down the ducking button for a second or so. It must have been modified to prevent the player from inadvertently using the frontward dash instead, though it didn't work as planned.
I might have a problem with having to wait to perform the back-flip jump but I understand it makes the game more reliable at times. What bugs me is that both of these two "super jumps" don't feel powerful at all. The gain from using them is not as apparent as it used to be, and the fact it's much harder to perform them in a handheld on a much smaller screen might have something to do with that. That works both ways though, it might go wrong more often because of the handheld, but it also should be much more rewarding for those attempting it. This is probably my main complain about this game.
This game is pretty sweet. Another great 3DS release that successfully flaunts the Mario brand high and proud. This should please both 2D and 3D Mario enthusiast. Even speed-runners are bound to find a great deal of fun because it now has a built-in record system for the fastest time in each of the stages. Those aching for a new 3D Mario might have a better feast, but this is a great release nonetheless.