Super Mario 3D Land isn't the game we wanted. When we heard that Nintendo's EAD Tokyo studio was working on a Mario game for the 3DS, our imaginations ran riot. "Imagine Gusty Garden Galaxy", we cried, "but in 3D." "Imagine Melty Molten Galaxy," we exclaimed, "but in 3D." "Imagine Throwback Galaxy," we swooned, "But in 3D!"
Obviously, we're not very imaginative. But we don't need imaginations - that's what the magical idea generators locked up on the top floor of Nintendo's Tokyo offices in the room guarded by the starving Chain Chomp are for. The point is, we imagined Super Mario Galaxy on 3DS - and what we're getting is something rather different. But after an extended hands-on with the title, we're relieved to be able to say that that's no bad thing.
There's a lot of Galaxy DNA in there, for sure. As well as supplying a generous portion of 3D Land's assets (though none of the Wii games' soft curves - 3D Land is a much squarer place to be than out in space, apparently) some of the Galaxy approach to level design has returned.
There are levels here that offer 3D platforming at its very purest - surfaces hanging in an otherwise empty sky disappear as soon as Mario leaves them, only for the next in the sequence to assemble before he lands. The strict time limit (which can be extended by nabbing stopwatches) means there's even less place here for Mario 64-style open levels than there was in the Galaxy games. And when they do turn up, you can't help feeling a little rushed to go through them.
Nonetheless, Super Mario 3D Land is very different to its Wii-based older brothers. And so is Mario. He's forgotten how to triple jump, for a start, which means the holy aural trinity of "Yah! Hoo! WAH-HOO!" is nowhere to be heard. Contrary, however, to earlier reports (blame Matthew) the backflip has returned - it just needs to be charged up for a couple of rather unnecessary-seeming seconds. The result is an undeniably more restrictive moveset - you'll be relying on a basic jump more than you have done in some time, with no spin attack to make last-second adjustments before landing.
This is probably because Super Mario 3D Land's levels are smaller and tighter than in any 3D Mario so far. Indeed, they seem to be the result of crossbreeding 2D Mario levels of old with their 3D successors - you're usually heading from left to right, with little in the way of distraction between you and the flagpole at the end of the course.
NEW SUPER LEVELS
What they retain from Galaxy, however, is EAD Tokyo's steady drip-feed of fresh ideas. You'll bounce through courses made entirely of rubber ropes crisscrossing over a drop; creep though haunted houses where stepping on certain tiles will teleport you around the room; run through courses that fall apart behind you; scamper through top-down levels where the 3D effect creates the startling impression that Mario is attempting to leap out of the screen to punch you in the face; and you'll jump through courses where platforms appear and disappear in time to a rather funky beat.
Each level, in other words, is a fresh and delectable little morsel of Mario goodness, trimmed of fat and served up piping hot in a 500-second portion. They're not as challenging as Galaxy's levels, they don't wring quite so much material out of their ideas, and they sadly offer none of that series' gravity twists and perspective tricks, but they offer something unmistakably Mario. Not that you could possibly think otherwise, given all the retro-themed self-referencing on offer.