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Super Mario 3D Land is an unconventional Mario game. But to overlook the playful charms for the lack a score or steep difficulty curve is to miss the point -- and more importantly a good reason to trade up to a 3DS.
Super Mario 3D Land is the latest in a long line of Mario platform games. On the 3DS it takes advantage of features like the 3D display and ability to look around the world by just moving the console around physically. It also makes great use of the Circle Pad to run around in 3D.
Ironically though, it's this 3D release of Mario that actually returns the level design and play style back towards the classic Mario games of old. At first I wasn't sure how much I liked this, but I soon realized this 2D feel is what I had been missing from recent Mario games.
Call me old fashioned but 3D Mario games never quite felt like, well, Mario games. The densely populated worlds I fell in love with in Super Mario World, Super Mario Land and even the original Super Mario Brothers became sparse and unintelligible when stretched over that unforgiving third dimension.
I could read a 2D Mario level as clearly as if it was a letter written just for me. Each block, each Koopa and mushroom suggested nooks and crannies where other rewards and discoveries were hiding. Acting on this instinct and seeing the world give up its secrets was my singular delight in platform games.
Mario 64, Mario Sunshine and even Mario Galaxy were all great games, but they lacked the simple readability of those earlier, more limited, two dimensional iterations.
Super Mario 3D Land finally reconnects the dots and makes 3D platforming wonderfully intelligible again. I'm not just talking about the ability to use the 3D window on the world to better judge jumps and runs. It's more than that, the 3DS's screen size and portable sensibilities have reintroduced the sense of a bounded universe that made 2D platform games so playable -- now there's a word I haven't used in a long time.
Super Mario 3D Land takes the bite sized ingenuity of Mario Galaxy, the Tanooki Suite from Super Mario Brothers 3 and generous scoops of the original Super Mario Brothers to create a game that functions like a 2D game but in 3D.
Super Mario 3D Land finally reconnects the dots and makes 3D platforming wonderfully intelligible again.
The genius here is that it doesn't fight the limits of the system, it works with them, turning them into minor victories of design. Levels by necessity of the smaller screen need to be more contained, the amount of depth that the 3D screen works with needs to be carefully directed and Mario needs to be controlled with a single analogue stick. This could have felt restrictive and compromised, but in fact feels like this is the game the system was designed for.
I was initially disappoint that it sidesteps (a little too quickly in my mind) Super Mario World's vast levels, meta-games, rideable Yoshi and greater focus on action. But although Super Mario 3D Land is more fragmented, each level pretty much exists in a vacuum with not even a score to tie them together, it recovers the feel of that classic 2D Mario platformer. Now this is the right sort of compromise.
This is a game that has to do more than that to earn its supper though. Alongside delivering to core gamers it also has to bring in the new and the curious to the 3DS. It's here that we find the reason for the noticeably low difficulty setting (that in itself challenges the assumption that games should get harder as you play them) and absence of other standard videogame elements like that missing score.
Perhaps the biggest gimme for new and young players is the ability to save after each level, gone is the New Super Mario Brothers insanity of only being able to save at certain points, or when you had enough coins.
If it wasn't for Super Mario 3D Land's confidence and sheer endless depths of imagination I might have felt short changed. The central thread of levels only lasts in the region of six hours for a competent gamer.
It's unconventional in many ways and will pay for that in the hardcore press.
But here Mario has learned a trick from Zelda. Just as you feel like the end is in sight, another peak looms in the distance and you realise that the princess really is in another castle.
Super Mario 3D Land is a game to buy a 3DS for. While it's unconventional in many ways and will pay for that in the hardcore press, its genuine charm and simple desire to return to the core of what made Mario great is a treat too good to pass up.
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