As big videogame brands continue to age and entrench themselves in popular culture, the more we will see celebrations of their anniversaries marked with increasing sophistication and reverence. This year alone sees The Legend Of Zelda, Sonic The Hedgehog and Halo all celebrated to varying degrees, and in interactive form no less. Mario isn’t celebrating an anniversary this year, of course. That was last year and was honoured with the somewhat underwhelming (even cynical) Super Mario All-Stars – a Wii disc containing an old Super Nintendo ROM, half-heartedly bundled with a music CD and historical pamphlet. A year on, we can’t help but feel that Super Mario 3D Land would have served as a much better and more interesting way to commemorate the creation of gaming’s greatest icon.
Super Mario 3D Land isn’t being sold as an anniversary release, but it really does feel like one. Though made by the Super Mario Galaxy team and running on Nintendo’s most modern hardware, the callbacks to the plumber’s formative years are many. Super Mario Bros. 3 is the most obvious touchstone, clearly recalled through the return of the flight-granting raccoon tail that’s not just worn by Mario himself but also many of the enemies, creating flying variations of old favourites while almost suggesting a level of self-awareness to the characters, paying homage to their own career high point. The same game is also referenced in the familiar art style used to illustrate 3D Land’s curiously two-dimensional story scenes, while the original Super Mario Bros. also gets a nod in a new twist on the old Bowser boss battles, clever variations on the flagpole finales and the way in which the health mechanic has reverted from the coins of Mario 64/Sunshine/Galaxy back to the mushroom-activated change in Mario’s height.
If ever there was a game designed to appeal to the nostalgia of just about any Nintendo gamer then this is surely it. Yet, at the same time, there’s something altogether more original about Super Mario 3D Land when it comes to the actual gameplay. Sitting somewhere between New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy in form, 3D Land plays around with perspective in some extremely creative ways. Sometimes playing in full 360 degree environments, sometimes side-on, sometimes even top-down – and often transitioning between all three within a single level – it’s clearly designed to take full advantage of the 3DS’s central gimmick. Top-down sections, for example, deliver even more of a visceral punch when the 3D display exaggerates drops several metres down from one platform to another. And hidden areas, secreted in the off-screen space of the foreground, trade on Mario’s verve for exploration and discovery in ways inspired by, if not necessarily powered by, the 3D effect.
It’s when 3D Land blends its three-dimensional worlds with side-scrolling gameplay that its biggest flaw comes to light, however. Without the gravity of Mario Galaxy’s spherical worlds to keep our hero grounded, 3D Land’s floating platforms can cause the player to unintentionally jump off the bottom of the screen as the directional controls confuse the down direction with the foreground. Mario Galaxy’s life-saving, last-minute panic spin-jump would have been invaluable during these moments, and it boggles the mind to think that Nintendo, of all developers, wouldn’t implement such an obvious feature. Isometric levels similarly cause all manner of spatial confusion; it’s not uncommon to completely misjudge a leap and fall into oblivion. Which is both a problem that the 3DS display was originally mooted to eliminate and definitely something that has no right to exist in gaming’s finest series of platform games.
What makes this flaw all the more apparent is its contrast against the optional bonus stages that require the 3D effect be switched on. These isometric levels appear completely flat in 2D, but nudge the 3D Slider all the way to the top and the levels pop to life, revealing the true positioning of the platforms as well as gaps that previously appeared invisible. They’re a brilliant use of the console’s unique selling point but are squirreled away, presumably because not every 3DS owner is capable of seeing the 3D. In an ideal world the entire game would have been designed around this style of presentation but instead we’ll just have to make do with the bonus stages.
What Super Mario 3D Land does get right is what every Mario game gets right: a high benchmark for quality that virtually no other platform game series seems capable of matching. There’s a level of humour, invention and a sheer sense of joy that you only find in a Mario game. There’s the usual sprinkling of new ideas – a fresh power-up here, an original level design there – but there’s an underlying issue that the particular team behind this entry, Super Mario Galaxy’s EAD Tokyo, has set previous standards so high that even a great Mario game isn’t good enough to match them. Super Mario 3D Land is easily the best handheld Mario game, but it falls short of what previous 3D entries are capable of. And even with the substantial post-game bonus content included, these relative joys will last little more than a weekend. Which only raises further questions about the pricing, longevity and value of handheld videogame releases in the iOS age. Super Mario 3D Land will definitely put a smile on your face for a few hours, especially if you have a fondness for the series’ rich history, but this isn’t the game that will reverse the 3DS’s fortunes.