If the 3DS needs anything right now, it’s a game that makes buying one worthwhile. Nine months after launch the console’s only must-have title is Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D – a 3D update of a twelve year old game – and it’s still looking for a game that can define it. With not one but two Mario games shipping before Christmas, there’s a sense that Nintendo’s plucky plumber has more on his plate than simply saving the princess from the clutches of the evil Bowser. This time, the fortunes of an entire hardware platform are at stake.
If so, Mario is up to the job. Super Mario 3D Land is an absolute corker; a game that cheerfully pinches elements from 26 years of Mario history and ingeniously reworks them for the 3DS. If it’s not as revolutionary a game as Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy, it’s certainly as rich, as ingenious and – most importantly – as much fun.
It’s also not quite what you might expect. Previous handheld Marios – with the exception of the early DS remake of Mario 64 – have been 2D affairs with 3D trimmings. With the 3DS’s analogue pad and stereoscopic screen, it seemed logical that this outing would ape the 3D style of Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy instead.
In fact, Super Mario 3D Land is a cross between the two. Mario has full 360-degree control and can run in and out of the screen, but the levels are still fundamentally linear affairs played from a fixed viewpoint, even if sequences follow Mario from front to back instead of left to right. Each level even finishes with the famous flagpole-grab that’s been around since Super Mario Bros 1. In a way, Super Mario 3D Land ties together the best of the two Mario traditions, combining the old-school platforming thrills of Super Mario Bros. 3 with the playfulness of Super Mario Galaxy.
But even this doesn’t do justice to its sheer inventiveness. You’d think that after 26 years Nintendo would have run out of ideas, but while Super Mario 3D Land relies on established costumes, enemies and formats, it’s constantly spicing them up with new mechanisms, new platforms and bizarre new foes. It’s a game that has no problems resurrecting the Raccoon and Fire Mario suits from Super Mario 3 or the classic ghost house level, yet can still hit you with tricky switching platforms, helicopter box hats, travelling platforms and traps you haven’t seen before.
It’s old-school, but it never feels old. In fact, Super Mario 3D Land is the perfect tonic for anyone who feels jaded by today’s big-budget shooters; even when it’s recycling old themes, it’s always working hard to twist them, while reminding you of what made video games so much fun back in the good old days.