Nintendo could have gone in any number of directions with its first Mario outing on 3DS: an enhanced remake of a previous game a la Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, an extension of the Super Mario Galaxy series or a sequel to the mega-selling New Super Mario Bros.. It's done none of these, or possibly all of them at once.
For a start, it's out with the coin-powered health system favoured in the 3D games: we started each level as Super Mario, with contact from an enemy taking us down to regular Mario (with no hat). Mario's missing a few of the moves he mastered to get through his 3D adventures too: you can't backflip from a crouch, for example, and the running long jump is gone too, replaced by Mario's new forward roll.
Tapping R while walking sends Mario into a short forward roll, while rolling on the run covers more ground. You can even perform a jump from a long roll, though it's got nowhere near the type of coverage the old running crouch jump introduced in Super Mario 64.
Such changes might seem subtle, but Mario's leaps are your tools and even the smallest changes can make a big difference. The levels available didn't seem to require mastery of Mario's new roll, but we're sure later levels will show it as a vital new ability.
Each of the four preview levels available put us in mind of a classic Mario stage of the past. The opening stage (as seen in this Super Mario trailer) is certainly reminiscent of Mario's first steps into 3D, whereas a later level played on elements of Super Mario Galaxy 2's devilish Flip-Swap Galaxy and the original Galaxy's Flipswitch, and seeing platforms unfold in 3D is quite a sight to behold.
Other stages play less on their 3D construction and just allow the screen's depth to take centre stage, with a fixed 2D-style viewpoint showing Mario going in and out of the foreground with pleasing effects. These stages, in which Tanooki Mario tail-whips Goombas, kicks Koopa shells and floats across gaps, feel like a traditional 2D Mario game with added depth, rather than the outright 3D revolution brought about by Mario 64 and the Galaxy series.
What we've played so far is a polished mixture of influences from previous plumber outings, all delivered with the usual panache you'd expect from Nintendo EAD. It feels at once instantly familiar and yet noticeably different, and shows Nintendo is taking the plumber in the same direction as always: forward.