Is Super Mario 3D Land game of the year? Hard to say, what with so many amazing games having just dropped and some major contenders coming in the next several weeks (seriously, publishers? There’s this thing called Summer…perhaps you’ve hear of it.) What I can say is this: not only is Super Mario 3D Land the best 3D Mario game since Super Mario 64 and the greatest portable Mario game ever released, there’s also serious merit to the argument that this is the best Mario title in 30 years.
3D Land seems, at first, to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. Level design that initially appears to mirror the scope and proto-sandbox nature of Super Mario 64 quickly gives way to an overwhelming sense of linearity, as, despite the 3D space the levels are presented in, players are clearly funneled along a path that invariably leads to a flagpole – just like the ones at the end of Super Mario Bros. Indeed, most levels can be beaten in 2-3 minutes, and with the assistance of the fan-favorite tanooki suit, usually much quicker. However, the game is designed to delight both newcomers and seasoned players alike, and there’s ample reward for those who choose to go off the beaten path, despite an ever present timer reminding them that they’re going to die if they don’t touch the flagpole in a few short minutes.
Scattered throughout each of 3D Land’s 45+ levels are 3 star coins: some well hidden, some not so much. In Mario games past, this kind of collectible would serve to artificially extend the value of what are sometimes considered very brief games. Here, there’s real merit to collecting them, as a number of levels require a set number of star coins to be accessed. And I’m not just referring to the handful of locations that can be unlocked, but skipped, during the course of Worlds 1-8. No, the true reason for players to find and collect every single star coin in the game is found in 3D Land’s surprisingly robust post-credits content, which includes an entire extra game worth of new and remixed levels, challenges, and even a few new play mechanics (try a ground pound with the scarfed version of the tanooki suit for a nostalgic surprise). Best of all: unlike Worlds 1-8, which can be beaten in less than two hours, the World S levels are considerably more challenging to beat with 100% completion. Be thankful for the abundance of 1UPs in the first half of the game…you’ll need ’em.
Through and through, Super Mario 3D Land is a love letter to the entire series, one that is oozing with fan service – the return of the boomerang, a crown in the lives counter, and Bowsers that turn into lesser enemies upon defeat being just a few examples. Amazingly, all this nostalgia does not get in the way of the core experience offered here, which is yet another example of why Nintendo cannot be beaten when it comes to the platform genre. Controls are tight, level and character design is as fun and colorful as you’d expect, and the soundtrack is among the best in the series (something I’m considerably thankful for as the last portable Mario game was severely lacking in this regard). Finally, the glasses-free, sterescopic 3D is beyond impressive and you’ll probably want to play with the effect turned all the way up, but, like all 3DS games, it can be turned off if your eyes can’t handle it.
If there’s one complaint I could make about Super Mario 3D Land, it’s that the game could have benefited greatly from Nintendo’s newly announced support for DLC. Imagine being able to buy additional levels and new power ups for a Mario game without needing access to an e-Reader! Oh, well: if Japanese sales are any indication, this game is going to do exceedingly well for Nintendo, and I’d be shocked if we didn’t see a sequel within the next two years.