Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: Super Mario 3D Land

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo

Years from now, when we're writing the history of the 3DS, we'll probably touch on its lackluster launch and how it appeared that all hope was lost after the first few months. We'll probably talk about the sudden price drop and the attendant fear of the 3DS going the way of the Virtual Boy.

Then we'll begin the true story of the 3DS with Super Mario 3D Land.
That's how big a deal Super Mario 3D Land is to the fortunes of the 3DS. This is the first important game built from the ground up for 3D, and it demonstrates what Nintendo saw in the 3DS in the first place. It's the next major step in Mario games, and it makes a strong case that 3D platform games should never, ever be released on normal 2D screens again.

Super Mario 3D Land plays like a cross between New Super Mario Bros., with its two-dimensional focus on pinpoint, precision jumping, and Super Mario Galaxy, with its focus on a wide world of possibility. They took the best from both games and combined it in to one brilliant mix.

As usual for a Mario game, the plot for Super Mario 3D Land is minimal. Bowser kidnaps Peach, Mario goes to get her. Tanooki leaves get spread everywhere, including onto enemies. Once again, it's not that complicated of a story. It's all in the execution.

If you decide to play the game in 2D, it's excellent by itself. The graphics are great, and it controls handily. However, it isn't until you play in 3D that you realize what's been missing in 3D platformers: Depth.

See, jumping in most 3D platformers can be difficult. You can kind of tell where you're going to land, but frustration can still set in easily when you misjudge your jumps. Nintendo realized this way back during the Nintendo 64 years, which is why Mario’s primary form of attack in Super Mario 64 wasn’t jumping on enemies, but throwing punches. Without that sense of depth, it's very difficult to tell where you're going to land, which makes jumping an exercise in futility.

In the past, we spoke of Rayman 3D as being good if only as a proof-of-concept, demonstrating that the 3DS is going to usher in a new generation of 3D platformers. Super Mario 3D Land proves that fact. It's easy to aim your jumps onto enemies or jump over to a platform because you tell where it is at a glance, without needing a whole lot of artificial markers to tell you where you'll need to land.

The most amazing thing about the 3D in Super Mario 3D Land is how unobtrusive it is. You could play the majority of the game in 2D and never realize that it's supposed to be in 3D. It's not a game that's constantly throwing things at the screen to get your attention, or resorting to cheap 3D gimmicks in order to justify its usage. It’s just remarkably confident in the fact that 3D makes the experience that much better.

For example, in one level, there are two lava spouts underneath a metal grate. When one goes away, one starts bubbling to the surface from deep down below. It looks good in 2D. It looks amazing in 3D, and it makes me jump every single time.

Because of the 3D, Super Mario 3D Land can attempt things that other 3D platformers can't. There are levels where Mario walks on a series of tightropes. In 2D, you can't quite tell how far back or forward a tightrope is, being that they’re only straight lines. In 3D mode, it's incredibly simple to pinpoint where the tightrope is in relation to your character.

At one point I turned off the 3D and played through a level. It felt like I was playing blind. I couldn't hit my jumps with the precision I liked. I couldn't time my enemy attacks. I just ran through the level, terrified about the lack of control. I escaped the level intact, but barely.

That's the difference here. 2D renders the game good and playable. 3D renders the game exceptional.

There's a lot more to Super Mario 3D Land than just the phenomenal 3D. The level design is incredibly tight and incredibly fun. Levels reference past Mario games and even other Nintendo series. They're short enough to complete in two or three minutes at a time, and usually have plenty of hidden secrets to unearth and discover. In every level, there are three Star Coins you can find, and they usually require some level of skill to get to. You'll need them in order to unlock some of the later levels.

In that sense, it reminds me of games like Angry Birds. In Angry Birds, you can usually breeze through a level by the skin of your teeth, but it takes planning and skill to master the level. Similarly, in Super Mario 3D Land, you might be able to slide through a level while missing all of the coins and still complete it, but you haven't mastered it until you find all of those coins.

The learning curve is amazing. While you might find yourself blowing through the early levels easily, it certainly doesn’t stay that way throughout. By the end of the first 8 worlds, you'll be surprised at what you're able to do and what Super Mario 3D Land expects you to do.

However, once you complete World 8, the real game begins. Beating World 8 opens up a "Mario Master Quest" of sorts, where you're able to play through remixed and brand-new levels. That's where all the challenge of old-school Mario games finally gets unleashed, and they'll put all of your skills to the test.

I'd also like to point out the music. I love it when Nintendo reuses old musical themes will still integrating new works, and that's what Super Mario 3D Land does. The main theme is bouncy and fun, and, if I might add, better than New Super Mario Bros. main theme by a mile. You'll hear music incorporated from Super Mario 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Galaxy. It's a great treat for people who are old-school Mario fans.

I'm hard-pressed to find a flaw in Super Mario 3D Land. Maybe you won't like it if you issues with 3D gaming, or maybe if you just don't like platformers in any way, shape or form. If that's the case, I would still suggest you play Super Mario 3D Land, if only to prove that 3D is more than a fad. It's a definitive way to improve gaming permanently.

Final Grade: A

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