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Super Mario 3D Land

20:0705/12/2011Posted by Simeon PaskellOne Comment

On the back of the box for the UK release of Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo describes the game as ‘A Pick-Up-and-Play 3D Mario’. As far as promotional statements go, this seemed a little unnecessary – haven’t Mario platformers always been ‘pick-up-and-play’? Isn’t accessibility in a Mario game a given? It’s not until you actually start playing that the significance of this hits home, as you realise that for Mario’s first platforming adventure on the 3DS Nintendo have gone back to basics, stripping away many of the embellishments that have attached themselves to the series since the plumber first appeared on the NES all those years ago. But, in stripping away so much, is the resulting game a lean, mean platforming machine or just rather emaciated?

In true old-school style, Super Mario 3D Land provides little to no contextualisation for Mario’s latest adventure. The plot, so that it is, goes something like this: Tanooki leaves get blown off tree. Princess Peach gets kidnapped by the dastardly Bowser. Mario sets off to rescue her. The end. There are no new plot-centric characters to meet, hardly any dialogue, few (if any) twists or turns and no real narrative drama. Nintendo has instead focussed on letting the action stand on its own, which could be considered a brave move – especially when you bear in mind Super Mario 3D Land has seen many of Mazza’s abilities removed.

For the most part, Mario controls much like a 3D version of the original Super Mario Bros. – there’s no triple jump, his sprint has been reduced to a spritely jog and there’s not a fancy-schmancy flying cape or platform creating cloud-suit in sight. You are given a few toys to play with – namely a new Boomerang suit that lets Mario throw…er…boomerangs, the hover-enabling Tanooki suit (as made famous in Super Mario Bros 3; here with its flight capabilities removed), Fire Flowers and propeller-topped boxes (worn Solid-Snake-style) that allow Mario to rocket up into the air and hover slowly downwards. For the most part, however, these power-ups rarely take centre stage and are even quite rare later on in the game, meaning that your basic platforming skills have to be up to scratch.

Though Mario is obviously the official star, the real stars of the show are the blocks and platforms that litter the game’s generous selection of levels. It really is an astonishing feat that 26 years after Mario first made an appearance Nintendo is still managing to come up with new designs. Nearly every level features new types of blocks or platforms that turn, twist, move, vanish, appear and/or react in a dizzying number of ways and that combine to create worlds that are truly alive and constantly surprising. One particularly wily highlight (or, after repeated deaths, lowlight) are platforms that switch every time you jump, resulting in some of the most concentration-demanding platforming we’ve experienced for some time.

Another of Super Mario 3D Land’s great successes is that it manages to pull elements from nearly every Mario platformer ever while at no point feeling like a Frankenstein’s monster of a game. Structurally, it borrows heavily from New Super Mario Bros – with linear level progressions on a side-scrolling map, but the levels fizz with aesthetic and design elements from Mario’s rich history, all expertly blended with new ideas all of its own. One minute you’ll be arriving at an 8-Bit castle straight out of Super Mario Bros, the next you’re partaking in a tribute to Super Mario 64’s Tick Tock Clock. Even other Nintendo titles get in on the fun with a rather nice tribute to The Legend of Zelda.

You may notice that thus far we haven’t even mentioned Super Mario 3D Land’s use of the third-dimension, the reason being that the game makes such expertly efficient use of the 3DS capabilities that in some ways you don’t notice them. In fact, you could possibly take this even further and suggest that this is how Mario should have been viewed all along, with switching the slider back to 2D coming as something of a shock – did we really get by like that for so long?

Some may feel a little disappointed with the pared-down size of the levels in comparison to Mario Galaxy, but their dinkiness feels perfectly at home on the 3DS screen and this doesn’t feel like a concession on Nintendo’s behalf. There are also plenty of ‘Wow!’ moments, from Bullet Bills screaming towards the camera to an overhead view that makes Mario appear to be in danger of leaping out of the screen and into your lap, but for the most part the 3D effect is used to bring an impressive degree of solidity to the worlds and to help you navigate the tricky platforming. The 3D then, is integral to the experience, but never overbearing and never, ever gimmicky.

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