Whether you ask the ones who own it or the ones who don't, most will say the same thing; the Nintendo 3DS software line-up is a bit lacking at this point, especially given that months have passed without a single noteworthy release. Thankfully, Nintendo is set to remedy the situation at the end of the year, with a couple of big hitters booked in for the Christmas release period. Of note among these is Super Mario 3D Land, another Goomba stomping entry in Nintendo's flagship franchise, set to offer traditional Super Mario platforming with a twist of stereoscopic 3D for good measure. To see (literally) just how Super Mario 3D Land is shaping up - and whether or not its worth getting excited about - Nintendo Australia invited us down for the day to go hands-on with the plumber and his collection of power-ups, including a few surprising returns.
At first glance Super Mario 3D Land strikes most similarities to the Super Mario Galaxy series, particularly in the aesthetics and presentation of the game, which retains the clean, colour rich style of the two Galaxy titles as well as a few shared assets, and a pleasantly smooth framerate in 3D. Though unsurprising given the team behind the title, the similarities begin to fall apart once you start playing, as we discovered Super Mario 3D Land doesn't play quite like Super Mario Galaxy at all, but something else entirely.
In terms of level design, its as if we exist in an alternate reality, back in time, where Super Mario 64 was never released, and Nintendo instead tried to do something different with their first 3D outing. As a result, Super Mario 3D Land feels like a hybrid of what we've come to know from 3D Mario titles, though with stronger traditional 2D roots, a blend best described as 2.5D Super Mario. Unlike Super Mario 64, the stages here are far more compartmentalised, making for shorter, focused platforming challenges over the open areas of Super Mario 64.
This hybrid design also extends to the controls and general flow of the stages. Instead of being designed as large, explorable locales, Super Mario 3D Land is designed to focus on eight directional play, not unlike the eight directions one can select on a d-pad. This tighter, directional focused level design results in some stages playing like a classic 2D platformer, adopting a side scrolling camera perspective or isometric angle, throwing enemies and platforming hurdles at the player at linear directions and sharp, precise turns.
Enforcing this eight directional play is the control scheme, which literally tethers the eight digital directions to the analogue pad. Though this control scheme works fine, given the tighter, eight directional level design, it does at first feel a little strange and arguably restrictive. Even though the levels are designed to account for this control scheme, we did experience a couple of moments where we wished we had proper analogue control of Mario, and fitting digital controls to analogue pad makes for somewhat of learning curve.
Nintendo's choice in eight directional level design serves a purpose though, and that is where the stereoscopic 3D comes into play. Camera perspectives are lined up in such a way that with 3D enabled, and thus the benefits of stereo depth given to the image, players can accurately perceive the distance between platforms and enemies to make those pin precise jumps. In fact, thanks to the locked camera perspective (often isometric) Nintendo has made use of some cute visual trickery, lining up platforms in such a way that in 2D an optical illusion of a flat image is created, while with 3D enabled the depth to the image makes it clear where everything really is.
Because not everybody can see the stereo 3D of the 3DS, and some just aren't fans, we gave a few levels a shot in 2D and found that even with the lack of depth to the display the game was still playable. 2D gamers need not be worried that the various platforming challenges in Super Mario 3D Land will be impossible to navigate without 3D. That being said, the game has certainly been designed from the ground up for a stereo 3D display, and those that use it will get the extra benefits of image depth, as well as some tasty visual effects
Thematically, Super Mario 3D Land is like a blast from the past. Though, as mentioned, many assets and style choices are shared with the Super Mario Galaxy series, this game also draws a lot of influence from Super Mario Bros. 3. In fact, coupled with the inspiration from 2D platforming roots, Super Mario 3D Land could almost be considered a sequel to Super Mario Bros. 3.
Many classic enemies and items return, and at the forefront of these is the Super Leaf, which turns Mario into 'Tanooki Mario' this time. Quite similar to it's original design, the Super Leaf allows Mario to do a tail spin to attack enemies, as well as a short hover to make those long jumps a wee bit easier. Other returning Super Mario Bros 3. staples include the musical blocks which, as expected, cause Mario to bounce high while playing a little jingle, and tiny Mario, the pre-Super Mushroom state that has only ever appeared in the 2D iterations of the Mario franchise. Super Mario 3D Land even features the classic end-level flagpole, another first for the 3D iterations.
All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Super Mario 3D Land, as both a familiar Super Mario game as well as something a little new. Nintendo's Super Mario Galaxy team has already proven to know just what is required to make a good 3D platformer, and Super Mario 3D Land looks to continue the tradition of high standards.
Though the controls are not without some concern, the choice to take the game in a different direction from the typical Super Mario Galaxy experience is a welcome change, and the hybrid 3D/2D level design gives the game a fresh presentation and play style that allows it to stand on its own. Compartmentalised level design should make for the perfect portable experience, and with 2D/3D optical illusions and an emphasis on stereo depth for platforming we could be looking at the best 3DS game yet.
Shout out to Nintendo Australia for having us down for the day. If you missed our previous hands-on impressions, make sure to check out our Mario Kart 7 and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword write ups.