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22 Reviews

Super Mario 3D Land

A sting in the (tanooki) tail?

One of the greatest injustices in modern gaming is 2D Mario's success over 3D Mario. As Mario Galaxy mines the magical depths of the human imagination, it's New Super Mario Bros - safe, reliable New Super Mario Bros - that does the business.

Why bother, eh? Why bother flipping gamers inside out and upside down when all they want is to walk in a straight line? Nintendo believes the problem is accessibility: despite navigating a 3D space on a daily basis, people can't apply that knowhow in game. Ironically it is those who sit still - gamers - who understand 3D worlds best.

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Super Mario 3D Land is the cure, or an attempt at one. EAD Tokyo injects the third dimension into 2D ideas.

On a basic level, the game speaks the visual language of Super Mario Bros 1 and 3. Destructible bricks, question mark blocks and bottomless pits lead to a reassuring flagpole. Mario shrinks with a hit, grows with a mushroom. A more specific debt to SMB3 sees the revival of Tanooki tails, musical note blocks and battleship bosses. On the surface the game says "Don't be afraid 3D non-believer. You know this stuff."

Below the surface bubbles subtle attempts to ease newbies in. Large landmasses are all but removed in favour of linear obstacle courses. Side branches lead to Star Medals or 1-up opportunities, but for the most part Land's A to B dashes mimic Mario 64's Bowser gauntlets or Sunshine's abstract void stages.

Part of Mario 64's cleverness was letting us rotate the camera to a side-on view to make complex 3D spaces manageable. Nintendo enforce the view here so granny needn't get upset at camera controls. The grandmas of the world salute Nintendo. The arthritic ones just smile.

We'd argue Super Mario Galaxy 2 was already heading in this direction. In fact, some of its better galaxies inspire stages here.

Beat Block, where platforms shift in time to a metronome, returns, as does the notorious Flip-Swap. Ah, Flip-Swap. Without Mario's spin jump, platforms reverse on his common jump, turning it into a purer vision of hell. Throw in some cosmic clones in a later return visit (more on that in a second) and the stage is about as fist-gnawingly brutal as 3D Mario gets.

Point is, linear needn't be shorthand for easy. Problem is for the first half of Land, it is.

Super Mario 3D Land has the easiest Mario campaign since Super Mario Land 2. Yes, more so than New Super Mario Bros on DS. A mix of ailments does for the difficulty: an overabundance of power-ups keeps enemies at bay, while the massively overpowered Tanooki flutter is basically a shortcut over Land's more fiendish level design.

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Ironically for a story about a Super Leaf epidemic, the tail derails the devs, too. But when hasn't this been the case? There is a long tradition of unbalanced items - see SMB3's original Raccoon Mario or Super Mario World's floaty cape.

Level length is the real culprit. Stages are small, verging on micro - allegedly inspired by the time between the director's train stops.

The timer offers 400 seconds and rarely hits 200 before Mario has slid down the flagpole. Length prevents stages from blooming into true challenges. Where Galaxy introduced a level's gimmick in the first stretch and ramped it up from there, Land never takes ideas to gutsy extremes.

It is a game of enticing first stretches, slamming the ideas accelerator only to crash into a flagpole. We end up with ideas whiplash, and the sense of being short changed.

Deep down, we can see that this will be transformative for people who've struggled with 3D Mario before. We have siblings and parents who can't keep up on Galaxy's treadmill of wonder, and the idea of them finally knowing the satisfaction of a 3D Mario victory is pleasing.

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