Where Nintendo would be without their flagship franchise, the Super Mario Bros. series, we have no idea. Perhaps they wouldn't 'be' at all. So much more than a stepping stone to global success, Nintendo has, for most part, managed to keep the playful plumber as inventive and relevant to today's world of gaming as he was over two decades ago in his Donkey Kong debut. With a some-million strong army of loyal fans, and more spin-offs than you can shake a fire flower at, Super Mario Bros. goes with the Nintendo territory, and if there's any guarantee one can give it's that if you buy a Nintendo platform, you will get a Super Mario Bros. game eventually.
For owners of the Nintendo 3DS, that time is now. Super Mario 3D Land jumps to the system after eight months of a sporadic software releases and underwhelming titles, arriving at a time more important than ever on a platform with much left to prove. With the big question of 3D relevancy to gaming and worries of the platform lacking that truly system defining title still lingering, it really shouldn't be surprising to see Nintendo's premier franchise set it's sight squarely on quelling these concerns, let alone doing so a degree of polish, creativity and value that proudly matches the series' consistent high standard.
Taking a few cues from traditional 2D Super Mario Bros. (mostly thematically from Super Mario Bros. 3), with a dash of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy for good measure, Super Mario 3D Land conjures the best of all worlds and blends the pieces together to create something else entirely. Absent of gravity defying shenanigans and other gimmicks, here Mario and co leap and bound between platforms as the game distills and focuses on the most basic running and jumping platforming fundamentals and trademark tight controls that have served as a backbone to the series for all these years.
The open, free form design of Super Mario 64 is forgone in favour of compartmentalised stages geared towards quick bursts of play, even more so than Super Mario Galaxy 2, with short and snappy designs aimed to fill in time on an early work commute or while waiting for your call to the dentist chair. Levels are heavily grounded, composed mostly of linear pathways and floating platforms that hybridise structured 3D platforming environments and traditional side scrolling for what can best be described as '2.5 Super Mario Bros.'.
Usually perceived through an isometric camera angle that goes hand-in-hand with the stereoscopic 3D, from the very first stage it is clearly evident that Super Mario 3D Land was built to encompass the visual advantages of stereoscopic imagery, either as a cheeky visual gimmick to show off an impressive vista or optical illusion, or as a surprisingly functional gameplay aid to help perceive distance between two platforms for the most accurate jump. We don't doubt that Super Mario 3D Land would be quite playable in 2D, but there's no denying how thoughtfully Nintendo has designed stages and perspective to capitalise on the system's unique selling point.
The overflowing well of creativity that is the Super Mario Galaxy titles unquestionably acts as a significant influence behind the level gimmicks prevalent throughout Super Mario 3D Land, sometimes directly replicating the most memorable ideas from the former games, such as musically and jump timed platform switches, though on a smaller scale. Influences from Super Mario Bros. 3 are perhaps most obvious, successfully integrating numerous classic items and set pieces into a 3D game environment, while the iconic Tanooki Suit makes a welcome return, not just on Mario himself, but anything and everything Nintendo felt they could stick a tail on to make it spin and float. To prevent cheapened retreading of old ground, Super Mario 3D Land makes sure to introduce it's own host of new enemies, items and tricks, doing an admirable job of coupling these twists on familiar features for every single stage of the basic eight worlds.
The push for a consistent flow of inventive gameplay holds strong for most part, though at a few unfortunate points slips up and exposes some of the more unpolished corners of the game. As enjoyable as the Tanooki Suit is, as well as the new introduced Boomerang suit, there's no denying that the former is grossly overpowered, far more versatile and useful for all stages than any other item. And though the stages themselves are inventive, Super Mario 3D Land drops the ball on boss fights, recycling the same two Kooper bosses (Bowser excluded) throughout, sorely lacking the varied bosses found in the Super Mario Galaxy duo. Issues like these coupled with an almost criminally easy eight worlds that can be completed in the blink of an eye run the risk of leaving players asking "Is that it?" as the credits first roll.
But deceptive presentation soon surprises as post game content literally doubles the game's offerings and at least triples the difficulty with additional challenges and stages that too introduce their own new mechanics and ideas, keeping the experience fresh and inventive until absolutely everything has been conquered. Mastering every stage on offer, which includes finding the three star medals hidden in each, is no small task, and when all is said and done it's hard not to step back and admire one of the most content rich games available on any portable Nintendo system.
Though it channels multiple Super Mario Bros. titles in gameplay, the aesthetics most accurately resemble the Super Mario Galaxy games, capturing the same impressively clean visual fidelity, while calling upon the system's graphics processor for more advanced shader effects to counter more simplified geometry. Many of the visual effects truly come into their own when playing in 3D, as flower petals gently floating atop the breeze pop out of the screen, and layered downfall of snowflakes give a tremendous sense of depth to the imagery, all at a rock solid thirty frames per second and comfortable 3D that rarely, if ever, stresses the eyes. Moments like running past the rain drenched stone walls of Bowser's castle, glistening in the illumination of nearby torches, are quite a sight to behold and littered throughout the entire game, leaving little room to doubt that Super Mario 3D Land is nothing less than the best looking game on the system.
Expecting an orchestrated score in line with Super Mario Galaxy would probably be asking too much, but nevertheless audio production here follows a little too closely to the New Super Mario Bros. musical formula, made up of your typical Super Mario Bros. beeps and boops and remixed backing tracks that, while inoffensive to the ears, simply lack the punch of original, catchy compositions that keep you humming well after the game has finished. Thankfully the audio samples themselves, for both the music and sound effects, is of exceptional quality, leaps and bounds over the Nintendo DS, making Super Mario 3D Land the crispest sounding portable Super Mario Bros. title ever released.
There's always room for every game to grow and improve, but the best are the ones you don't feel need to, and Super Mario 3D Land sprints much closer to the latter than the former. A steeper difficulty climb would have been welcome, especially for platforming veterans, but ease of play cannot detract from the wealth of creative level design and inventive mechanics that keep the game stimulating and joyful from start to finish. The amount of love, care and polish poured into Super Mario 3D Land acts as yet another note on the pile of mounting evidence that suggests Nintendo's EAD Tokyo Mario team is in their absolute prime.
As a stand alone video game, Super Mario 3D Land is yet another top tier entry in the Super Mario Bros. franchise. But as a Nintendo 3DS game, it single handily validates the system as a whole, both as an impressive showcase for stereoscopic visuals and, most importantly, as a gaming machine capable of delivering the goods. It is the title Nintendo needed at the system's launch, but as they always say, it's better late than not at all, and for what the plumber lacks in timeliness he makes up for droves in wonderful gameplay. Super Mario 3D Land is a must-have for all Nintendo 3DS owners.