I found myself a little apathetic towards Super Mario 3D Land when I first heard about it. Let’s face it, there have been PLENTY of Mario games down the years, and the central concept has changed little since the 1980s, leading me to start thinking the whole platform genre is getting a bit long in the tooth. But of course, I was being a fool: Super Mario 3D Land is an absolute joy to play from start to finish, and it only goes to prove that you can always rely on Mario to keep pushing in new directions while staying true to gaming’s old school roots.
It’s been a little while since I last played a Mario game, and frankly I’d forgotten how superbly polished they are. Often you find yourself forgiving a game for a sloppy camera or slightly iffy level design, but with Mario everything is completely spot on, all the way through the game, and if anything it gets better as you go along. Every new level throws in something new or refreshs an old idea with a new twist, and the difficulty curve is sublime: initially I thought it was far too easy, especially with the option of flying straight to the end of a level if you die several times in a row, but it turns out Nintendo were just luring me in with a false sense of security. Once you reach the ‘Special’ world, the difficulty really begins to ramp up, and the last few levels are some of the most cunningly designed and fist-shakingly difficult of the whole Mario canon. Beating the final level elicited a genuinely deserved sense of achievement.
But it doesn’t end there: if anything the game just keeps on giving. Finishing the game unlocks Luigi, who can jump slightly higher than Mario but is a bit less sure on his feet, which adds a whole new dynamic when playing through the levels. Then there are all of the hidden stars to find, well over 200 in all, and there’s also the challenge of hitting the top of the flagpole at the end of each level (a welcome throwback to the original Super Mario Bros.). Then when you’ve finally gone through every level with both characters, found every star and aced every flag, a new killer-hard level opens up that has to be the most difficult Mario level that’s ever been designed (I still haven’t beaten it… yet). All in all, despite its gentle start, Super Mario 3D Land has to be the most hardcore Mario game since Super Mario Bros. 3 (that’s the original NES Mario 3, when there was no save and you had to play the whole thing from start to finish in one go – kids don’t even know they’re born nowadays).
Speaking of which, I love the way the game pays homage to its 1980s forebears throughout, from the above-mentioned flagpoles to the return of the raccoon (technically, tanooki) suit, along with loads of little references scattered throughout the levels. You even get fireworks if you jump onto the flagpole with the timer ending on a 3, just like in the original game. And speaking of hidden things, the game is packed with Easter Eggs, like the weird ghost thing that appears in the trees at the end of the ghost house levels if you hang around long enough, and the Zelda sound effect that plays if you light three torches on one level. It’s a commendable way to celebrate Mario’s 25th anniversary.
The game isn’t all about looking back though: it has one eye firmly on the future, particularly when it comes to inventive level design that really makes full use of the Nintendo 3DS. Whereas the 3D effect is all but disposable for many games, here it really adds something, particularly in helping you to judge distances to platforms a lot more easily: I found a struggled a lot more on some levels when I switched them to 2D. There are also a few levels that look truly stunning, such as a vertigo-inducing level in which the camera switches to above your head and has you falling into the screen against the backdrop of some enormous waterfalls.
All in all, this game is a lesson that you should never be blasé about the latest Mario game: each one is a gameplay tour-de-force, and Super Mario 3D Land is up there with the very best Mario games – no, the very best GAMES – ever made.
[As dictated in awe by Lucius Merriweather.]