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Review: Super Mario 3D Land

- November 19th, 2011

The 3DS finally makes sense.

But I’m concerned no one will notice, both because gamers are still lukewarm about the Nintendo handheld, and because Super Mario 3D Land arrived during the launch window of several obvious Game of the Year candidates. Because for me, Mario’s inaugural 3DS adventure is among the more memorable game-related things to happen this year. Why?

mariobowser

2D image of 3D game. Credit: Nintendo Co., Ltd.

Sure, Mario’s latest romp through the Mushroom Kingdom is designed by Japanese geniuses who know exactly where to place each block and Goomba in order to maximize fun, because they understand the genre better than anyone – heck, they invented it. Yes, it’s jammed with tricky jumps, shell-kicking, Goomba squishing, cheerful coin noises, happy tunes, and enemies with ridiculous looks on their faces. Yes, it will make kids squeal, and all but the most black-hearted adults smile. It’s Mario; would you expect otherwise? That’s not it.

Super Mario 3D Land stands out for proving—finally—that stereoscopic 3D can be more than window-dressing, good for some oohs and aahs. That is to say, 3D doesn’t just look cool here; it’s integrated into every inch of the game’s design. I frankly didn’t believe 3D could be implemented this effectively into game mechanics. It took a few months, but Nintendo has delivered the goods, folks.

Traversing the mushroom kingdom, of course, involves cloud-hopping, creeping through ghost mansions, negotiating oddball mechanized obstacle courses and bullet-dodging on treasure ships—the Mario landscape is always packed with unsteady structures and interesting materials. But 3D serves to make it more material, more interesting, and more unsteady. An illustrative example:

In one section, a narrow platform changes direction suddenly, and Mario must run along a catwalk towards the camera – one of the game’s early 3D ‘whoa’ moments. We all know what happens if you take a bad step off a platform in a Mario game, but the pop-out 3D effect, with said platform poking out of your screen and hovering in space, heightens the sense of danger.

mario balances

2D image of 3D game. Credit: Nintendo Co., Ltd.

The thing is, moments like this aren’t “thrown-in” to justify Mario’s existence on a 3D system—virtually every byte of the game is designed this way. And while technically the game is playable with the 3D effect turned off, players will come to depend on the pop-out/pop-in effect to get their bearings. Lone blocks floating in a chasm are easier to land on with the spatial information provided by the 3D, and perilous climbs up geometrically complex, morphing structures are more harrowing in 3D, while simultaneously easier to understand.

Every step of the game uses 3D in a useful, dramatic or pleasing way. Simply put, it validates the existence of the 3DS and finally provides a truly compelling reason to pick one up. Previously, I thought the 3DS was cool, but wasn’t entirely sure what the heck I was supposed to do with it. Now, I find myself excited about 3D in a way I didn’t forsee, and can’t wait to see what happens with 3D game development more broadly, knowing experiences like this are possible.

Previous 3DS games have done nifty things with 3D, but the ‘wow’ often faded quickly, and the 3D effect never felt essential. Incidentally, that goes doubly for PS3 and 360 games with optional 3DTV functionality. Clearly they weren’t designed to be be played in 3D, and often it just gets in the way, in many cases decreasing ones enjoyment.

Not the case here. The first wholely original Mario game in 3D has, in a fell swoop, written the beginnings of a textbook on 3D game design. I anticipate Sony, Warner and others leading the 3D charge learning a great deal by studying what works so well here.

Action is sort of a 2D/3D hybrid heavily inspired by Mario 3, and graphical fidelity approaches that of Super Mario Galaxy—it feels good being able to say that about a handheld Mario game. If the game has a flaw, it’s that it starts off rather easily, creating an inaccurate early impression about its overall difficulty. Defeating Bowser and rescuing Princess Peach won’t take experienced gamers very long. However, a ‘second quest’ in the form of Special Worlds which open up after beating Bowser substantially ramp up the difficulty, and Star Coins (there are 3 of these collectibles in every stage) will keep you playing and replaying.

Mario kicking a koopa shell at a stack of goombas

2D image of 3D game. Credit: Nintendo Co., Ltd.

And the level of polish is, of course, ridiculous. As in nearly everything Nintendo releases, every sound effect, flourish and incidental animation is the product of careful craftsmanship and a creative spirit. And 3D aside—the level design! Time and time again, I found myself marveling at how cleverly things are tucked away (hmm, this wall goes higher than it needs to, is there something up there? Of course there is…) and how enemies are placed, such that skilled players can make a perfect jump and bonk them in full stride without losing momentum, and how any given section is immeasurably more enjoyable, as a result of a decision to stick a particular platform in a particular place.

BottomLine

Worth buying a 3DS for, period. Super Mario 3D Land may be the most stunning handheld title to date, and it finally proves the viability of the fledgling 3DS, which began its life starved of great games. Not the all-time best Mario, but may prove to be the most groundbreaking since Super Mario 64.

Super Mario 3D Land
Nintendo 3DS
Nintendo
ESRB: Everyone
5 (out of 5)

‘Side Mission Chris’ Vandergaag loves hearing from Canadian gamers, both the core and the casual. Follow him on Twitter: @ButNoSeriously

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