Super Mario Galaxy
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Super Mario 3D Land does what very few games have had the bravery to do and play with the 3D space, rather than around it. What it lacks in cohesive adventure it makes up for with a wealth of fresh ideas.
Mario bounded from ledge to ledge, scaling an impossible structure which floated high and unsupported above a ground which was so far below it had begun to vanish into a haze. He moved with grace and style, falling into a musical rhythm as he moved from block to block. The hero was stopped dead in his tracks by the appearance of a terrifying giant enemy. "Stop!" it yelled in challenge, "what is your quest?" Mario opened his mouth to speak but found the words stuck in his throat. Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered he had fought his way here to the castle, but... He was so caught up in the excitement of the action itself, he'd quite forgotten what it was he was doing there.
Super Mario 3D Land is in a very rarefied position of being able to play around with player expectations. I find that most games - even those with a comedic bent - approach the mechanics of gameplay too seriously and as such are unable to subvert player expectations in any meaningful way. Super Mario 3D Land provides such a variety of variations on the theme of platforming that it is able to experiment and take chances which other games would not dare. Once again, Nintendo demonstrate the experience the 3DS is meant to be.
It impressed me early on with its use of the 3D display. The first approach to Bowser's mighty flying galleons met with my approval as the game flicks into a kind of landscape presentation so that the incoming giant bullets prompt a response of real terror and surprise in 3D. Then, suddenly, the game introduces some 2D concepts, in clear homage to earlier Super Mario Land games. Locations and classic moments from retro Mario platformers are recreated and remixed into 3D with a knowing eye.
Locations and classic moments from retro Mario platformers are recreated and remixed into 3D.
Except that the catch is that they aren't 2D at all. These are still 3D scenes and it is only with the benefit of the 3D switched on that one can see the slight of hand at play. This is where Super Mario 3D Land introduces its subtle trickery. What appears to be a block immediately ahead is revealed to be some way above Mario and some careful jumping will be required. It is unusual and refreshing to find a game which actually uses the depth of the display to introduce new gameplay ideas.
Like Father Ted explaining to Father Dougal the difference between cows which are small and cows which are far away, what appears to be a straightforward set of jumps is distorted into a complex hop and skip to navigate into that third plane of reality. Thrown into an interactive Escher painting, our expectation of platforming reality is warped by perspective and it is only the introduction of the vital third dimension that allows the optical illusion to be resolved.
It's a pity that Nintendo have to live with the reality of players (or parents) choosing to turn the 3D effect off. In order to avoid frustrating the flatter gamer, any scene featuring 2D/3D illusions is forced to telegraph its moves with a little icon indicating the depth trickery at work. It's a pity that some of the hidden surprises have to suffer from such spoilers, but they are still interesting and remarkable moments.
Super Mario 3D Land is an addictive platformer and is perfectly suited, in form and style, to the 3DS handheld. It's a highly portable game, more so than any previous old-school Mario platformer. Unlike retro Super Mario Land titles, which require time and stamina to see all the way to the end in a single sitting, Super Mario 3D Land saves conveniently between levels and features worlds which can be completed in a few minutes, making this a perfect companion to travelling or filling in between other tasks.
Incoming giant bullets prompt a response of real terror and surprise in 3D.
If there is an element of Super Mario 3D Land which I personally found a bit less engaging it is the lack of an encompassing narrative. Super Mario Galaxy had a pretty thin plot, but at least suggested a wider story and a finale which must be reached. I found that Super Mario 3D Land doesn't fill me with a sense of grand adventure and I feel that I am simply progressing from level to level.
Maybe it is the dislocation between each level; maybe it is the lack of an overall hub-world or clear end goal. Whatever the cause, in the same way that Metal Gear Solid's VR missions featured all of the gameplay mechanics of MGS without the thrill of character and setting, Super Mario 3D Land contains all the fun, imagination and gameplay of a great Mario title, but without the escapist fantasy that would make it such an engaging fairy tale.
Perhaps it doesn't matter to most. This certainly isn't a game which is going to benefit from a complex multi-threaded plot and protracted cut-scenes. But as a storyteller myself, my approach to games is all about the context for my actions. I feel I need a good reason to continue my journey and press on to the end and if I'm honest the basic premise of Peach's kidnap by the repeat-offending Bowser has not only worn thin, but is barely given lip-service in this tale.
But that isn't to say that each individual level isn't an amazing journey. Once again it amazes me that after all these iterations, Mario games still manage to find novel new twists on simple platforming ideas which pay off with aplomb. It isn't the entirety of the journey which makes Super Mario 3D Land stand out; It's the bringing together of a hundred little moments of brilliance which make it so compelling and so addictive.
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