Note - Due to vision issues, I won’t be able to review the 3D capabilities of 3DS games.
Super Mario 3D Land marks Mario’s debut on the 3DS and is also the first Mario Land game since the original Game Boy days. It combines things that make every kind of Mario platformer great and delivers enough gameplay variety to please fans of any incarnation of the franchise. As you might’ve imagined, Mario needs to rescue Princess Peach/Toadstool, who really needs either a leash, GPS tracker, or a warning whistle at this point because she has once again been captured by Bowser/King Koopa.
The core game is made up of 3D stages ala Super Mario 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy 1+2, but within those stages you also have straight up 2D-style platforming sections (including some 8-bit-styled ones), spherical areas ala Galaxy, ¾ overhead sections that bring back fond memories of Super Mario RPG, and even overhead stages that blend the old Legend of Zelda viewpoint with traditional Mario gameplay. Even underwater stages are represented, and are actually a blast to play. No matter what kind of Mario game you prefer, you’ll at least find a few stages you absolutely love in 3D Land. In that sense, the game is kind of a best-of Mario because it gives you bits of every gameplay style in the franchise’s history outside of his CD-I and edutainment offerings.
This variety helped make 3D Land my favorite and most replayed 3DS game yet. It’s also my favorite portable entry in the series because of that. I loved New SMB, but the addition of so many more kinds of gameplay beyond the usual great 2D stuff puts this game above it because there’s more to do. There are also more suits to wear here, including the debuting boomerang suit that does exactly what it sounds like, and the return of the tanooki suit, which is an absolute lifesaver in this game.
I enjoyed the suit in SMB 3, but here in a 3D game, especially one on a small screen where relying on your shadow to guide you to the next platform is a frequent occurrence, having something that allows you to float is a godsend. It’s a must in really platforming-intensive stages, like those with platforms that flip with each jump - ensuring you make each one count since one mistake can mean instant death. It’s also an easy way to get a 1UP on the stage-ending flagpoles. Likewise, the fireball suit is great against long-range enemies, and is all but a requirement to survive a ghost house unscathed. It’s also more useful than ever before since its flames now ricochet off of objects until either hitting an enemy or just fizzling out - adding an element of strategy to the power-up that was there before since you don‘t just need to aim at an enemy to kill them with it now.
The level design is outstanding, and doesn’t just give you a lot of things to do, but also rewards some creative exploration with special coins that can be used to either unlock extra stages within levels you don’t need to complete, or grant access to major levels like some castle and airship stages if you have a certain amount of them. Unlike the recent Rayman Origins, which also locked stages off with a similar tactic, the totals needed here are far more realistic. Also, the coin totals don’t deplete as you unlock new levels. Say you need to access a stage with 30 and happen to go all-out and wind up with 50 - you can now unlock both the stage requiring 30 coins and the one requiring 50 with that one serious attempt. It took me only a half-hour of extra play to get all the coins I needed, and then I wound up just acquiring a bunch anyway through just good luck within levels and careful jumping.
Like all Mario games, the game’s best stages are worth replaying not to mine coins or points, but because they’re fun. There are a lot of challenging levels here, but none that I can call truly frustrating. The game also gives you plenty of help along the way. Streetpass functionality allows you to get power-ups from friends, and if you die five times in a stage, you’ll gain access to a Starman-enabled tanooki suit good for that level only. This makes the game’s hardest battles, like one boss battle that sees you face two opponents in a flaming stage, or a platforming section with moving spikes and platforms into things you can look forward to instead of dread. Ten deaths grants you a P-wing with the ability to just skip to the very end of the stage, which will net you a pass on the level and allow you to continue, but obviously won’t grant you any coins you couldn’t get on your own, so you’ve still got incentive to go back and try again later. It’s worth noting that both of these items, while they are made available to you, are completely optional to actually use, so players not wanting to rely on them aren’t forced into doing so. This is the absolute best way to include something that is honestly a game-breaker that tips the scales in the favor of the players. It’s also fun to die a lot just to use the invincible tanooki suit and experience the thrill of bonking giant spike blocks or another similarly-satisfying activity.
No Mario game would be worth playing if it didn’t control well, and I’m happy to say that 3D Land controls wonderfully. I thought the circle pad worked well enough for Ocarina of Time, but really worried about how it would fare in a game where precise movement in a 3D world was of utmost importance. I’m glad to say that the controls work perfectly, although it’ll probably take many players maybe half an hour to get used to the circle pad for his movement. The precision it offers seems greater here than in any other game, and it might just be due to no game before this requiring it. I expected the worst as someone who played Mario 64 on the DS with the D-Pad, and thankfully, this greatly outperforms that. Mario will go where you need him to go once you’re completely acclimated to using the circle pad.
Visually, 3D Land is the best-looking game on the platform. It’s nearly on-par with the Galaxy games, although the character models and scope of the stages aren’t quite at that level, it is the best-looking portable entry in the series. As you’d expect from a Mario game, the colors are all vibrant when they need to be, like the sky-based levels, and more limited when that fits the stages, like the fire and snow-based ones. Animation is smooth for the most part, but Mario’s very limited animation moving around in-level flagpoles is quite jarring when you first see it. It does allow the pace to be sped up during those sections though, which comes in handy in a stage late in the game. 3D Land’s audio delivers the goods as well. The soundtrack is full of classic Mario series remixes and some new stuff that fits in nicely with them, while the sound effects are good too and even the voice quips didn’t bug me. I also loved the single Legend of Zelda sound effect chime during the aforementioned homage to that series.
3D Land delivers an experience that will satisfy long-time fans of the franchise while also making it accessible enough for newcomers to enjoy. The core game is incredibly fun, and gives you more variety than many Mario games. The scaling-down of the series’ console 3D gameplay to fit the small screen has seemingly enabled more creativity within the levels themselves, and it makes for a much fresher experience on the go. Whereas New SMB felt like an homage to the past, this feels like a truly contemporary game that is the new gold standard for 3D platformers on a portable.