Originally written for www.7outof10.co.uk
This week, there’s been a phrase that I’ve used to describe Super Mario 3D Land to anyone who is foolish enough to catch my eye for more than a fleeting moment: “understated brilliance.” Compared to the testosterone and bravado of the Modern Warfare trailers, the thumping baseline of the Saints Row push, or the high drama of Assassin’s Creed’s cinema promotions, Mario has the quiet assuredness of a man who knows that quality will speak for itself. Quite how this dumpy plumber continually bucks all the current trends of what’s hip and happening must baffle a great many marketing executives, but spend five-minutes with him and you will see that quality shouts loudest of all.
From the opening moments running and jumping around that very first level, you should begin to sense that yet again Nintendo have found the mark with their prize mascot. From the tightness of the controls that you’ve come to expect from the Italian, to the presentation of the world about you, everything feels comfortable and right.
Stroll through the green pastures of the Mushroom Kingdom and all that you find has been placed explicitly for you to enjoy and play with. Gombas readily waddle over, almost eager to be squashed; platforms and ledges form an ever-enticing series of stepping stones that need to be traversed; whilst recesses hide warp pipes and conceal treasures. Indeed, World 1-1 has all this, luring you in to a microcosm of what to expect as a whole.
Forgoing his recent astronautic tendencies, Mario returns to terra firma and takes his cues from a mix of the NES’s Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World on the SNES. Aesthetically this means large, colourful blocks creating a backdrop and the meat of many of the levels. If this seems like a step back from the comparatively thematically driven Galaxy and Sunshine, where each location formed the very core of the experience, you need not worry. The return to an era where power was measured in bits places Mario in a world where the abstraction benefits the experience.
Many of the finer levels in his recent Wii releases have been the through the strange, floating constructions in space that brought to the fore his rasion d’etre. Here too, levels are foremost concerned with how fun or challenging they are, built with the sole purpose to please and leaving the worry about tying the visuals together until later on. Blocks float in space or span from tiny islands but are so carefully placed that each of the dozens of levels on show appears to be a master class in design.
This is also not to say that the overall appearance is shabby, either. Whilst the priority may be on your trip through the world, each is brought to life with characteristic Mario themes. From the classical, open, verdant lands through to Bowser’s brown brick castle, each are decorated with bold colours and shapes, complete with extra touches. Snow covered coin blocks shed their frosty load once disturbed, dandelion seeds scatter with the wind as you run past, and the night sky fills with the stars of Super Mario Bros. 3.
Each theme is used sparingly and all are mixed in together. Ghost house could follow desert, then on to a floating cloud before squeezing in a spot of diving off the Kingdom’s coast. Similarly, the variety of the very levels themselves continually changes, the whole package working together to keep you interested and engaged.
With mere platforms being no match for Mario’s talents, a slew of new obstacles have been brought in by Bowser. Among the variety of collapsing causeways and bouncy blocks a few stand out. The first of these is a platform split into two, whereby only half of it at any one time is usable, and that half alternates every time you jump. It’s a clever trick of using Mario’s own skills against him, and means that thought has to be put into every move that you make.
Likewise, there’s a panel on rails that trundles forward or back, depending on which half you stand. This contraption is usually found high above the ground, your handiness at its controls the only thing preventing it from derailing and plummeting earthwards. So many are apparently there to thwart you, but a little consideration before you leap and by the end of each heroic endeavour you’ll feel empowered to believe that there is nothing beyond the ability of this portly chap from the Bronx.
The strengths of the 3DS also added into the melting pot of ideas. For the most part the camera is fixed, watching you scroll along the level, and to its credit not once does it feel as though its framing needs to be tweaked; a rare property in 3D cameras. At times, however, it will switch, shifting to shoot down the length of the scenery as though recreating early Crash Bandicoot, or pan upwards and stare towards the floor to frame what a drop of seemingly several kilometres that Mario has to then brave. Each time the 3D effect is subtle but effective, never overburdening the eyes but handing you a fresh challenge to overcome. Running down a tunnel out of the screen whilst a large fish chases you, jaws gnashing, is a moment that definitely sets the heart racing.
Further refugees from SMB3 can be found in the form of the Tanooki Suit and the Koopa Kids. The latter return replete with compulsory floating pirate ship, whilst the former becomes the title’s go-to power-up. Though the fire flower or boomerang suit have offensive benefits, the freedom that comes from turning Mario into a flying racoon is unmatched. Hold down the jump button and he’ll glide, legs frantically pumping and tail waggling, across great stretches of the world. Whilst making some of the more tricky platforming slightly less stressful, it also serves to allow exploration, expanding your range and giving you that piece of mind that should the worse happen you can always float back down to earth safely.
Undeniably this extra sense of exploration is what elevates this handheld Mario from his previous DS outing. There was a certain degree that he played it safe last time, again hitting that quality bar but not really pushing himself. Here, the forking routes, the hidden treasures and the sense that you’ve been handed as much a playground as a level in many instances makes New Super Mario Bros. pale by comparison.
There is very little to fault at all with Super Mario 3D Land. Even those elements that I have tried to – such as the typical Mario time limit on each level – are only because I want to stay in the world and carry on cavorting. Each level is a short burst of pure gaming joy, refined to the point where no gimmicks or tricks need to be pulled to ensure that you feel good about what you’re doing; the levels themselves see to that.
As cynical as I can be with Nintendo at times, they have utterly delivered with what should have been a launch title. From the nostalgic nod to Marios of old, the impressive camera, and the sparing but effective use of 3D, all have been brought together to form the reason to own a 3DS. In short, Super Mario 3D Land is simply understated brilliance.