What it lacks in originality, it makes up for with a challenging experience in slick 3D.
Great use of 3D
Doesn't do much new
The Nintendo 3DS has had a rough start throughout the first few months of life. But Super Mario 3D Land has come to ward off the shovelware and ports with the standard addictive Mario platforming. Bowser has once again kidnapped the princess and Mario must save her. Yeah, yeah we've all been here before except that this time the story is told in some well drawn 3D pictures. Aside from using the unique hardware of the 3DS the game doesn't cross much over into newer territory, giving us more and more addicting platforming in new, yet familiar environments with cool suits. And that's what Mario's all about. Having fun in some hectic and fun ways. What it sacrifices in new, it makes up for in challenge and slight frustration.
This early on in the life cycle of the 3DS, it's hard to get a grasp on the full visual power of system can be. Super Mario 3D Land is a, for the most part, very good looking game. The environments are bright and colorful as well as the models. A lot of the environmental aesthetics are very pleasing from the waterfalls to moving blocks that reflect light with the light dissipating as they spin. Some might say that it's visually on par with the Mario Galaxy games but it's a far cry. The water, while looking okay, looks a lot more flat and not as tasty as in said games. Also it's a little disappointing to see the hairier creatures not have as amazing looking hair textures as the Queen Bee. Little details like finger animation are pleasing compared to previous games and it runs at a silky smooth frame rate all the way through. A few hitches such as shadow pop in and draw distance issues are a little distracting but don't take away much of the game's overall satisfying visuals.
The main draw here is in the 3D. The game features two different options for 3D viewing as well as ust playing in 2D. A "pop-out" mode, where the visuals pop out of the screen more, and an "extended view" mode. Where it's basically like viewing the game through a window. The pop out mode was more satisfying for me so I stuck with that the way through. While it mostly relies on gimmicky things such as fireballs coming straight at you, it's hard to deny that jumping from platform to platform while in 3D certainly adds a little something with that extra layer of depth. It also uses some unique tricks that you might never be able to judge in 2D. For example, a block might look next to one but it might actually be closer, farther, or even under your current position. Even the gimmicky things can look cool. I couldn't tell you how many times I threw on the boomerang suit and threw boomerangs at the camera until I got tired of it. As neat as the 3D is, it is sadly useless to those unfortunate people who cannot see 3D. But for everyone else, it is probably the best use of 3D for the system thus far.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Super Mario 3D Land is the use of audio. It follows Nintendo's recent trend of reusing most of the same music as previous entries in the series. The songs sound as good as they always have, don't get me wrong, but it would be a lot nicer to see a soundtrack built from the ground up, for the most part. There are definitely some new songs but even those tend to be a bit overused while still being pleasing to the ear, fortunately. What returns from the Mario Galaxy games are the levels with the changing platforms that are based on rhythm and just as catchy as ever. Voice acting is kept to a bare minimum and hearing Peach yell "Mario!!!!" for about a thousand times will get on your nerves. A nostalgic voice sample returns from Super Mario 64 from when Mario falls a very long distance which, admittedly, got me giddy.
Super Mario 3D Land blends together elements of 3D Mario's and 2D ones. You move in a 3D space but in a strictly linear path, even more so than Super Mario Galaxy. The formula works but it would be nice to finally see another game with big open environments. Be that as it may, the game is filled with colorful levels that never feel repetitive. At one point you may be jumping across platforms that appear based on rhythm or jumping across floating graham crackers as the camera pans automatically. There's a surprising lack of swimming, thankfully, as swimming usually sucks in most video games. The levels that I though stand out the most were the ghost house levels. They provide a good mix of variety with their maze like layouts. At one point you'll be hopping across piano and the next you'll be hopping across platforms that only appear if you're next to them. Though it may take a while, the game can get pretty tough. One of the most notable tough spots for me was jumping across sound based platforms while a dangling spiked log was swinging over them. I must have died at least 20 times and it never felt cheap. Be prepared to dig in. It's only made tougher by the fact that you have to collect the three special coins in each world to play through every single level of Super Mario 3D Land. Disappointingly, after you beat the main game, there are eight worlds which are referred to as "Special". They're essentially the same as the normal game but the levels are remixed with interesting challenges such as Shadow Mario and strict time limits. While it adds an extra layer of difficulty, playing the same levels over again can be repetitive.
The boss fights start out pretty interesting at first. There is mainly Bowser and two of his underlings as bosses. One of them spins his arms super fast and the other throws boomerangs. They start out cool but as the game goes on they never change their tactics aside from teaming up at one point. Bowser is a lot more fun to fight. Similar to the original Super Mario Bros, you beat him by getting to the other side of the bridge and pressing the button. Only it feels more satisfying here. What really stands out is your last fight with him. A hectic chase up a crumbling castle. It's not as hard as the platforming, but it's definitely cool to watch.
One notable addition is the return of the Tanooki suit, which allows you to spin your tail to defeat enemies, flutter your way to ground, and turn into a statue in the special worlds. While it is a neat idea, it's disappointing that you can't fly in it. There's also no option for Mario just to have the ears and the tail, as opposed to the entire suit. Another new addition is the boomerang suit. It does what it sounds like, throw a boomerang and you defeat an enemy. It's also a good way to collect objects out of reach, like a Zelda game. It can, however be a pain in the butt that you only have one boomerang to work with and you have to wait for it to come back every time. There's also the standard fire flower suit and the helicopter block from New Super Mario Bros Wii, which is just as fun as it was there. Aside from those, there's a disappointing lack of suits and it would have been nice to see some more return.
The control system is similar to that of the 3D Mario games, in which there is a side flip, backflip, crouch, wall jump, etc. It may not have punching or kicking but it does add a new roll move. It's not too exciting but it can come through in a pinch. The controls work very well except that the backflip feels disappointingly useless as it does not go as high as you would expect. One last gripe I have is with the game's camera. It's usually static and will change depending on the situation. You can only move it so little and temporarily which causes some views to be obstructed and some blind jumping under the camera. But these moments are, thankfully, uncommon.
If you're looking for a 3DS game that's finally good, this is a no-brainer. It may not be a system seller in terms of quality, but for those looking for a new Mario game, it fits in perfectly well with the rest.