It's been a while since I've played a true Mario game in its entirety. I've dabbled briefly with New Super Mario Bros on the Wii, as well as Super Mario 3D World on the Wii U, but for whatever reason Super Mario 64 is the last Mario game I've actually played from beginning to end. And what a great game that was. Other than that, the only Mario games I've played since the days of the Nintendo 64 are the spinoffs -- Mario Kart, Mario Party, Mario Golf, and so on.
I'm a bit rusty and out of the loop in terms of the mustachioed plumber, but when I received a Nintendo 3DS XL (with zero games) for Christmas Super Mario 3D Land seemed like the natural place for me to start. After all, you'd think Nintendo's flagship series would best encapsulate their vision for the 3DS, and 3D Land is exactly what I would expect from Nintendo -- a solid platformer that ultimately feels a little uninspired and which relies a little too heavily on pure nostalgia for its selling value.
According to research, 3D Land is the first game since Super Mario Bros 3 to feature the super leaf/tanooki suit that allowed Mario to fly and whip enemies with his tail. That much alone is an obvious callback to the glory days of the series meant to satisfying fans that have been long clamoring for the tanooki suit to make its return, but nearly everything else about the game's design suggests it was built around nostalgia. Most (if not all) of the in-game music is taken from previous Mario games, and the linear style of levels is obviously meant to emulate the original side-scrollers, albeit in a new 3D perspective.
The tanooki suit in action.
None of that is inherently bad. Nostalgia is a very powerful thing, and if there's one thing Nintendo has proven over the last 30 years, it's that their games can be fun and enjoyable even as they continue to rehash and recycle the same gameplay formulas. Super Mario 3D Land is not a bad experience -- it's actually pretty good. It takes the gameplay style of the 2D Marios and applies it to an actual 3D space almost as well as Metroid Prime did with the classic Metroid formula. Super Mario 3D Land felt fresh to me -- something I can't say about the New Super Mario Bros games.
In the end, however, I grew a little disappointed with 3D Land. My biggest issue with the game is its incredible, almost insultingly easy difficulty. There are, I believe, 48 "main" levels, each containing a mere three star-coins to collect. Each of these 48 levels can be completed in just a couple of minutes, and for the most part, each of the star-coins is in a completely obvious location that just requires you to approach them and jump. More often than not, I was able to collect all three star-coins in each level on my first attempt. Upon finishing the first runthrough, I had only missed seven out of 144 star-coins.
Besides the star-coins, there's not much to do within levels except going for a better time. There are numerous hidden areas and smaller challenges to complete, but for the most part these only grant you coins and one-ups, which are equally worthless because you get so many lives that an actual "game over" screen is impossible to obtain. I spent approximately the last quarter of the first runthrough with 100+ lives, never once going back into levels to farm coins or one-ups, because they hand that stuff out for nearly everything you do. To make matters worse, if you die enough times within a level, the game grants you an invincible tanooki suit that lasts the entire level, ensuring that even when the game presents a moderate amount of challenge, you have the option to remove the challenge completely.
Fire Mario in an underwater section.
It wasn't until I reached some of the levels within the final "world" that I started running into any sort of actual challenge -- levels that required a lot of precise jump timing and obstacle-dodging with little room for error. Otherwise, up until that point, I was rarely ever in any danger of dying, and it was only by attempting to explore off the beaten track or through fluke accidents that I ever died.
There are ultimately more stars to be obtained within 3D Land as compared to Mario 64 (many, many more if you include the alternate "special" worlds that unlock after beating the game the first time), but unlike in Mario 64, there's no sense of discovery or challenge in collecting the star-coins. In Mario 64, each star had some kind of objective to complete, and many of them changed characteristics of the levels when you went back for more stars, encouraging replay value and exploration. It required a specific determination to hunt down specific stars. In 3D Land, most of the star-coins are just incidentally stumbled upon in course of exploring a level for the first time, making them feel very unrewarding to collect.
Even the world map lacks any kind of fun exploration. In older Marios, you navigated a type of world map to select levels, and you could usually bet on there being branching paths or hidden levels to discover by completing certain actions within levels. In 3D Land, every level is placed along a completely straight line -- you beat a level, you move to the next one. There's no variety to be had in picking your course to the final stage of each "world" and no way to explore off the beaten path.
Running from a sand monster.
Even the worlds seem to lack thematic cohesion. In past Mario games, you'd have multiple stages within one world, and each one seemed to contribute to the overall theme and progression. In 3D Land, it just seems like we have a bunch of random ideas jumbled up and tossed together in an arbitrary order. On the world map, each world has some sort of theme in the background, and transitions between worlds feature Mario running through a new landscape. But in a seemingly sky-themed world, you visit a tropical island, an Egyptian pyramid, and a haunted mansion. Meanwhile, in the molten lava world, there are an awful lot of lush, green forests and canyon levels.
After making it through the 48 main stages -- a process that took me maybe five hours at a leisurely but competent pace, acquiring 95% of the stars -- you unlock alternate "special" worlds that consist of alternate versions of levels in a seemingly new jumbled order. The alternate levels are the same basic layout as their original counterparts, but with new traps, new powerups, different enemies, other challenges, and three new star-coins to find. In addition, you unlock the ability to play as Luigi. I felt kind of underwhelmed at how easily I beat the base game and was pleased to see more content, but these "special" worlds feel more like content padding than actual content to me.
I'm only partway through the special worlds, and I'll most likely continue to work through them, but only as a way to pass the time. Unlike Mario 64, which had me compelled to obtain every single star in every single level, and which kept me coming back to familiar levels looking for new discoveries and seeing how things changed with each star objective, going back into the levels in 3D Land feels like an exercise in tedium. Part of it's that the levels were so small and fleeting that I never got a chance to familiarize myself with them, which makes the changes hard to notice or appreciate in the second run.
Using the new propeller block to fly straight up in the air.
So that's a fair amount of criticism for Super Mario 3D Land, but there are quite a few things to like about it, too. As you'd expect from a Mario platformer, the controls feel pretty solid and responsive, although the circle pad slider doesn't quite do the job of simulating a full control stick (I had numerous deaths because I didn't correctly gauge my momentum from what I assumed was correct on the circle pad). The levels all offer a variety of gameplay experiences with unique challenges, and I encountered quite a few new mechanics that were pleasant to discover, though in fairness some of them may have been recycled from Sunshine or Galaxy against my knowledge.
Perhaps unfairly, Super Mario 3D Land's biggest failing is that it simply pales in comparison to Mario 64. With the improved technology of the 3DS, the device seems prime to provide a more non-linear, exploration-based Mario game that was popularized with Mario 64; Super Mario 3D Land has brief touches of this within levels, but instead resorts to something simpler and much more straightforward. Despite the relative step backwards, 3D Land is a good execution of a simple (albeit sometimes shallow) gameplay formula.
Not every game needs to be the next Mario 64, and some games are really good for what they're designed to be. I think Super Mario 3D Land is a pretty good mobile platformer with just enough of Nintendo's classic charm and with a fresh enough twist (classic Mario gameplay in three-dimensional stages) to make it definitely worth playing if you have a 3DS -- it just lacks the magic, polish, and overall staying power that Mario 64 and some of its predecessors had.