Super Mario 3D Land isn’t a revelation, nor is it an evolution; with Mario’s previous exploits rooted in the boundless playground of the cosmos, it’s impossible to imagine a more expansive game residing on the modest hardware of the Nintendo 3DS. What it is, however, is an exercise in endless joy, a multi-coloured giggle-fit of a game, and the first original title to justify the 3DS hardware. Resting between New Super Mario Bros and Super Mario Galaxy in terms of design, it could even be the purest amalgamation of the Mario series yet, merging both classic and contemporary design with the seamless grace that Sonic Generations failed to achieve. While this simplifying of the Mario formula may seem like a step back after the mesmerising scale of the Galaxy games, SM3L contains enough concentrated joy in its bite-size levels to render it utterly irresistible, and no less essential.
The shift to a handheld format sees a more streamlined approach to the Mario formula; in spite of full three-dimensional movement, exploration is kept to a minimum, the levels designed to channel the player along a strict path. The inclusion of time limits and the legendary end-of-level flagpoles ensures that SM3L adheres to the traditions of previous hand-held Mario games, success measured in progression rather than objectives. In the wake of the superb Wii games, it’s easy to accuse the game of over-simplifying the Mario template, but in the competitive portable gaming market it’s merely indicative of a Nintendo that knows the importance of pick-up-and-play gaming, the bite-size approach to playing that has seen titles such as Angry Birds become so popular.
Even so, with such a simplified game structure it’s possible that many will find fault with the game’s difficulty. SM3L’s zero-tolerance policy to failure – in that it doesn’t punish mistakes but does everything to ensure they rarely occur – might disappoint platform game veterans used to the current trend of hard-as-nails titles, the Super Meat Boys and ‘Splosion Mans. In SM3L, extra lives are handed out with ludicrous generosity, while the threat of repeated deaths is alleviated by helpful power ups that appear after five failed attempts at a level. Those seeking challenge need not apply.
SM3L makes a lot of controversial decisions, some of which might deter the long-time Mario player. Yet even if we were to label these deviations as ‘wrong’, their inclusion remains forgivable after everything SM3L gets right. Launching the game begins a short demo video, one with the typical visual clarity we expect from a Mario game, but also a demonstration of Mario’s best-looking handheld game yet. Behind the added graphical power of the 3DS, the vibrant colours and deliberately chunky models are bought to life by a 3D effect that knows the importance of subtlety alongside its ability to delight. In SM3L, we see perhaps the best use of 3D on the system yet, exaggerating itself for perspective-based puzzles but reserved enough during stages to never be distracting.
It helps that the levels themselves contain not one inch of wasted space. Each one is a succession of challenges and dizzying mechanics, the levitating platforms and shifting floors freed from the shackles of context, all taking place in a surrealist diorama that begs to be experienced. If a certain idea finds itself repeating between stages, it’s often done with enough variation to feel fresh again. Between platforms that disappear in time to music, floors that shrink in size as they’re cut up by floating buzz saws, or tiles that flip over whenever the player touches the jump button, there’s enough variety to balance the lack of challenge, with a need to constantly switch techniques on the fly. Meanwhile, players intent on finding all three hidden coins in each level will discover that the most difficult ones to find often require a much keener eye or sharper jump than simply finishing a level could ever require. Collecting them unlocks further levels and challenges, enough to effectively double the game’s 5-hour story mode, and despite the main game’s relative brevity, the rewards for finding star coins are substantial enough to not be spoiled or revealed here.
There are some minor missteps, and though they’re pedantic they’re all the more obvious amidst the game’s otherwise masterful designs. Mario’s new power-ups – the boomerang and the Tanooki suit – are an unbalanced pair. While the boomerang resembles a sluggish twist on the Fire Flower power-up, useful for collecting far away items and little else, the Tanooki suit features with an almost satirical prominence, to the extent that even some enemies share its unmistakeable traits. The power-up itself slows Mario’s descent, making for easier jumps, yet in the right hands can be used to effortlessly flutter over certain obstacles in one fell swoop, lending further assistance in an already lenient game. One could argue that in a game designed to make use of the 3D effect, the Tanooki suit adds gravity to the game’s dizzyingly high jumping challenges, and occasionally needs expert handling to collect some of the more fiendishly hidden star coins, but the urge to exploit its power for an easy ride is occasionally too hard to ignore.
None of this, however, is damaging enough to break the spell of SM3L, and as such it remains a triumph. Compressing the Mario staples into an easily-digested, handheld formula might have required certain omissions, but in doing so Nintendo have distilled the Mario template into a pure, tightly-designed adventure that barely ever lets up or loses focus. It’s the jewel in the otherwise lacking library of 3DS games, and a spectacular romp in its own right.