I'm going to venture a guess there are going to be a lot of reviews popping up today calling Super Mario 3D Land the first system seller for the 3DS. It's the first game to utilize 3D in a way that actually works, that isn't just a gimmick and most importantly, you probably won't turn off. Mario's life cycle has been nearly without failure and without misstep, but it's also been about the lack of any significant evolution -- Mario games are always Mario games and the consistency makes it difficult to judge. This installment, like many of its handheld iterations, is interesting in its ambition -- it's clear they needed to show the 3DS at its best and to do so, they took a Best Of collection approach, foregoing the usual themes and instead concentrating on the one thing that really matters in a Mario game: level design.
At first, it's a bit jarring. The level selection screen is a linear path, plotting your way to the eighth world, which doesn't seem like a lot of content. But after you cruise through the first world, everything starts to click together. You have to let some of your previous experience with Mario go, especially if you enjoy the non-linear level choices of early games, or the hubs of the new ones, but once you do, Super Mario 3D Land provides one of the best Mario experiences to date.
If you've played Mario games since you were a kid -- or Nintendo games in general -- you'll know what to expect here, but when I say that, I mean, everything -- as in, every Mario game type is represented here, from the 2D era to the Galaxy era. If that's not enough, a few Nintendo themed levels also make an appearance, including a Zelda-style, top down level, complete with puzzle-solving chime Easter egg.
You will also get airships, boss battles, ghost levels, underground levels, air levels, water, fire, you name it, it's here. That also includes all the micro-games from Mario games past, including red coin grabbing, music notes, maze coins and pretty much every other secret Mario thing to ever grace any of the games. The game also utilizes the coin-unlock system that have been popular in the 3D console versions for a while, where each stage features three larger coins and certain boss stages and extra levels are unlocked once you have a certain amount. This adds a significant amount of value to each of the stages, meaning you'll need to explore them to their fullest.
Which isn't too difficult, as most of them aren't large and can be completed in just a few minutes. Some of the levels are pretty straight-forward, but many are tiered in a way that you have to really explore through the nooks and crannies to find all the gold coins. It makes for a nice dual experience, where you can play the game strictly as a platformer and complete it (you'll still likely need to backtrack to unlock new areas occasionally), or go all out for the 100 percent experience.
You'll also find all the usual enemies, characters (we're back to Bowser stealing the Princess too) and power-ups. Including the new boomerang outfit where you can, as you'd guess, shoot boomerangs.
The best one and the one that has been spotlighted the most already is the Tanooki suit, which is, without a doubt, one of the greatest power-ups available to any game, ever. It's also one of very few -- not just in Mario games -- that makes you work hard to hold onto it. With it, you can get through nearly any level with relative ease, but without, the game gets significantly harder, especially when you're dealing with one of the games bottomless pit levels.
If you suck at Mario, Nintendo has provided a means to make things a little easier. If you restart a level too many times, you're given a white Tanooki suit, or as I began to call it, The Unicorn Tanooki. This makes you invincible as well as providing the usual power of the suit through the course of the level. The game is also clever in how it gives you clues -- if you pay close attention to Mario's head, he'll look at secret areas and if you take your time, you'll be able to track down all of the coins in the game, even though some of them are so hidden away they'll feel impossible. You just need to stop and watch what Mario does and were the shadows are.
At first glance, the game is going to seem a bit threadbare -- actually, even after several glances and a credit roll, you might feel a little cheated. But then after you think you're done with it -- without ruining anything for you -- the game opens up wide and starts really pushing you. Like an onion, there's an entire game packed inside the surface and as you peel further into it, it starts to make you cry a little as the difficult ramps up.
The game is still a conservative approach to Mario, which shouldn't be much of a surprise. There isn't anything new here, its goal seems to be more along the lines of mastering the Mario history more than anything else and it does it well. It's referential to every Mario game you've ever played in some way, but the design is modernized enough that it usually feels fresh. That said, the linear design offers a weird duality of experience -- since you can't choose from a variety of levels, you lose any sense of progression. I might be one of very few people to miss the themed worlds, but they always gave me the impression that I was moving forward to a goal, whereas here the game feels flat when it comes to difficulty. There are two steps, hard and easy and that's about it. As much as hated ice and sand worlds, it turns out I rather miss them being offered in succession.
But that's really faulting Super Mario 3D Land for not being something it doesn't want to be. It's not really trying to be a progressive Mario game, it's more interested in highlighting the best of Mario's history. Maybe it was created with the Mario anniversary in mind, or maybe Nintendo, like the rest of us, is just nostalgic for older generations of games. The level design is insanely clever at times and -- as cliché as I'm guessing this is going to sound by the end of the day -- the 3D truly is a system seller because it's the first game to prove that 3D can enhance the experience, not just add to it.