Super Mario 3D Land

Developed in Japan by Nintendo
Published by Nintendo
Released in 2011 for the Nintendo 3DS

Foremost, Super Mario 3D Land is a solid introduction to the Nintendo 3DS, and was designed as such.  Marketing ahoy: “Use the augmented reality camera to hunt down power-ups through a set of binoculars!”  “Gain limited benefit for platforming sequences from the hardware’s stereoscopic input!”  “Tell the wirelessly-activated StreetPass™ to piss off!”  (Yeah, because apparently, I need “gifts” from nearby, active Nintendo 3DS users to complete a game where I had nearly 110 lives at one point.)  Hey, I didn’t say the implementations were interesting, I just said that 3D Land does a good job of showing what the device is capable of.  And sure, I can’t say that I like being told that I should take a break every half-hour, particularly when the catalyst for the warning (stereoscopic input) is the selling point for the damn device.  But I guess we can use the reviewer cliche that the developers did what they wanted to accomplish.

From here, it’s easy to understand the problem that Nintendo created for themselves.  Mario games have been an introduction to Nintendo hardware since 1989: Super Mario Land proves that concepts made famous on the NES can be adapted for the less powerful Game Boy, Super Mario World demonstrates the expanded memory capabilities of the Super Nintendo, Super Mario 64 makes full use of the third dimension, and Super Mario Galaxy makes full use of Nintendo Wii motion controls, even if Mario doesn’t really need them.  The chief selling point of the Nintendo 3DS is 3D.  So predictably, one makes a three-dimensional Mario game to market the device.  But see, two-dimensional Mario games always outsell three-dimensional Mario games, and two-dimensional portable Mario games are a time-honored cash-cow for Nintendo.  3D platforming is hardly quantum physics, but then again, Mario’s target audience is somewhere around the age of five, and there’s an entire adult audience that has fallen in love with the Temple Run class of shit platformer.  Part of letting the free market prevail is keeping things simple.

So here’s what Nintendo settled upon: Super Mario 3D Land takes place in the third dimension, but shares more in common with two-dimensional Mario games than Sunshine or Galaxy.  Nearly all of the stage designs are oriented towards movement in the cardinal and ordinal directions, and dash movement is locked to those eight directions when it is used in short bursts.  And despite the illusion of freedom in movement presented by 3D, level layouts are almost always moving north, south, east or west, and no tasks require deft rotation of the analog stick, ala the King Bob-Omb and Bowser fights in Super Mario 64.  And once again, it’s hard to argue that the design team didn’t do the things they wanted to do.  Movement is flawless, spatial awareness is hardly an issue, and mechanics traditionally associated with two-dimensional Mario games (particularly those involving projectiles) lose absolutely nothing in the translation.

But of course, in the grand tradition of Mario games for portable devices, the designers do absolutely nothing interesting with the concepts and formula.  In this case, the company can’t risk having the gateway game to the system become frustrating for kids and parents.  Now, there hasn’t been a difficult Mario platformer in over twenty years.  I’m not suggesting that the old Mario titles were super hardcore.  But I mean, come on.  You could skip entire sections of Super Mario World if you could find your way through the game’s super-cool (and often-difficult) experimental game levels, and you could find secret levels in Super Mario 64 by jumping through stained glass windows.  In Super Mario 3D Land, every half-thoughtful or interesting level design technique dies the second that you grab a Star Coin, and if you’ve been following along for the last half-decade, Star Coins aren’t much higher than Musical Notes and Bananas on the half-assed collect-a-thon checklist.  Any experienced player is going to look at the skills required to collect these coins and ask how come they’re not using them in the course of completing levels, and then they’ll realize that those Coins lead to the most challenging platforming sequences in the entire game, and sad faces ensue.

It’s not even as though they gimped the skill set for the portable adaptation.  Mario’s acrobatics are more diverse than those in the two-dimensional Mario games which inspired it, even if those skills will be judged against three-dimensional Mario, and the lack of a double- and triple-jump will be sorely missed.  Most everything else is there: Long-jumping, super-jumping, wall-jumping, backflips, and butt-stomping all abound.  There’s just no reason to use most of these skills.  Most amusingly, based on the way that difficulty is scaled, wall-jumping is portrayed as an advanced late-game technique, where it is only mandatory in later worlds.  It’s pretty good insight into the punches that Nintendo is pulling, with wall-jumping no harder to perform in the third-dimension, and no harder to perform than it was in New Super Mario Bros., where the technique could be used to positive benefit in the very first world.  Now, a lot of this may sound similar to what I’ve seen in Super Mario Galaxy 2, but at least the worlds in those games are (based on what I’ve seen) varied, detailed, creative, and otherwise fun to play.  And I’d love to make a point of comparison, but it’s difficult to pick out one level in 3D Land where things seem way too conservative, because it applies to most of them.

The end-result is a platformer where nearly every level in the game can be beaten by pacing yourself.  And this was by design, since 3D Land opts for a run button on a device with an analog stick that does a perfectly fine job of measuring input sensitivity.  In other words, “Run, but only if you have to.”  And I’m not saying that the levels in previous Mario games couldn’t be taken at the player’s leisure, but even in Super Mario Bros., you had to make the occasional series of jumps at full speed, keep pace in front of a Blooper, make a mad dash across a bridge as fish fly in every direction, use your window of opportunity to move past a fire trap.  As used in 3D Land, the adaptations of these mechanics hardly demand anything from the player, since you can simply walk around anything that you would normally have to engage or jump over.  Nintendo tries to avert this towards the end of the game, where over a dozen levels (most of which occur’s in the game’s Special Worlds) use shortened timers that are supposed to provide urgency to the player.  But it’s an exception to the rule, and one that comes into play many many hours after you started the game up.

(“But you’re missing the point!  The game tracks your fastest time!  After you’ve completed a level, you can go back and try to get your best time!  Can’t do that without running!”  The question is: Why would I want to?  I’m sure long-jumping has utility in speedruns, I’m sure the run button is critical for shaving a second off some unofficial world record, but if you’re playing a side-scrolling Mario game as a time attack endeavor, you’re doing it wrong anyway.  And yes, when I said side-scrolling Mario game, I meant it.)

And speaking of Special Worlds, anyone who was a huge fan of Super Mario World should refrain from their nostalgic gag reflex when they hear the term “Special World”.  In part of the game industry’s never-ending march to make sure players don’t skip over content, the eight Special Worlds are unlocked upon the game’s “completion”, rather than explored or discovered through hidden exists.  Yes, when you beat the first eight worlds and you have “beaten the game”, your reward is eight more worlds.  These Special Worlds are intended to be more challenging variants of levels played earlier in the game, but outside of the Special World Eight, it hardly feels that way.  In place of “super cool hidden exit”, the idea is that various levels leading into and through the Special World have to be unlocked through the collection of Star Coins.  And while Mario games have been using this mechanic since the Nintendo 64, you will hardly notice it, because Star Coins are so easy to get in the first place, and the quotas for these Coins don’t become demanding until the final two Special Worlds, where the expectation is that you’ve collected every Star Coin you have come across.  In-place of an exploration element, we have a mandated collection element.  And with that said, I’ll apologize for being unable to contain my excitement.

Through all of this, it’s very difficult to keep this lingering thought that the entire franchise is being Disney-fied, where an adaptation of classic characters has nearly reached the point where it can be described as sterile.  With the level design best described as “form fits function”, the worlds are heavily comprised of rectangular shapes, and lack the appeal of the level designs in the Galaxy games, which also float in endless, open space.  Most of the shapes and mechanics are ripped wholesale from Super Mario Bros. 3, featuring the return of Tanooki Mario, the music blocks, airships, numerous enemies made famous by Mario 3, and right down to the postcards featured in the 3D Land storytelling sequences, which are nearly identical in style to the promo art used for the 1988 platformer.  But like a classic cartoon brought back to life through modern animation techniques, none of it feels particularly right.

The end-result is a totally average platformer, and another unfortunate appearance of “I just completed a Mario game in a week and I remember very little about it.”  Although I could hardly argue that the game isn’t worth a try, and I can certainly give it a vote of confidence over New Super Mario Bros.  In spite of its artistic and design deficiencies, the game is cheery and colorful, it controls well, and the Mario formula (as simple as it may often be) hasn’t lasted over a quarter-century because it’s a boring one.  But at the end of the day, that’s all 3D Land is: An introduction to the Nintendo 3DS, and hopefully, one whose promise will be fulfilled by future, more competent games on the system.