Super Mario has been a staple of Nintendo systems since the original NES over 26 years ago, and while the series has evolved to a great degree over time, one immutable fact remains: Mario games sell systems. That's why it comes as no real surprise that the plumber's first foray onto 3DS has been about as hyped as any game in recent years. Although it's not going to set new standards for originality, its hefty dose of classic influences make it a veritable greatest hits collection of past Mario moments.
The Super Mario gameplay has evolved in many different directions over the years, but Nintendo decided to take a trip back to earlier releases when putting the level designs together for Super Mario 3D Land, even resurrecting the classic flag pole jump with a new 3D twist.
Much like the 8-bit titles, the worlds are broken down into four or five individual levels, all leading up to a boss fight at the end. Instead of having only one standard type of boss encounter, this time there's two: the old-fashioned Super Mario Bros. Bowser fight, where you'll have to make your way around the Koopa king and pull the bridge out from under him, or the Super Mario Bros. 3 Air Ship rendition which has you chasing one of the annoying Koopa underlings around a room, jumping on their head in order to dispatch them. Both are equally challenging, but there's just something about going head-to-head with Bowser that feels a bit more engaging and traditional.
Although there's a basic theme to each world, there's a huge level of diversity between the individual levels contained within them, with everything from colourful forest levels to spooky ghost houses that can be found in most worlds. There are even a handful of underwater levels to keep you on your toes. Each level features a very distinctive array of challenges, some as simple as riding moving platforms, to more challenging sections where you'll have to avoid giant spike rods twisting out at you in every direction. And to make things even more challenging, there are also three Star Medals hidden in each level for you to locate and pick up, something far easier said than done.
Since you're going to be faced with a barrage of hazards and enemies, the game offers up a series of power-ups to help even out the odds a bit. While the basic power-ups like the Super Mushroom and Fire Flower are in heaping supply in each level, it's the special suits that really make things interesting. The classic Tanooki Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 is the most prevalent suit in the game and will give you the ability to not only tail swipe enemies, but also hover around levels and reach areas that couldn't be accessed without it. There's even a special Invincibility Leaf that you can pick up if you lose several lives in a row that will make you completely untouchable by hazards and enemies. Of course you will still be susceptible to falls, but it's a nice touch for gamers whose skill levels aren't quite up to the challenge.
To add a new wrinkle, the game introduces a unique diversion called Mystery Blocks on the map screen in between certain levels. These are basically just short mini-games that consist of nothing more than gathering up a group of coins or dispatching all of the enemies inside of the block within a strict time limit, rewarding you with a Star Medal. You'll even be able to gain new Mystery Block challenges from other Super Mario 3D Land owners via StreetPass, a good way to build up Star Medals that you'll need in order to access later levels.
The sheer number of classic Super Mario influences strung throughout Super Mario 3D Land is quite staggering. At times the game feels like a cross between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario 64 in its level designs and presentation. And since no two levels really look or play the same, you'll never be at a loss for new challenges. Mario is also stacked to the brim with moves from past adventures and additional abilities brought on by the power ups and suits, lending you all the moves you'll need to scale every square inch of the game and the responsive controls with which to do it. You're even likely to find yourself coming back to the game in order to pick up any Star Medals you might have missed the first time through.
When it came to creating the world of Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo wasn't shy about borrowing from just about every Super Mario Bros. game ever crafted. There's a slight majority of elements snatched from Super Mario Bros. 3, but there's a level of variety in the backdrops that we're just not used to seeing in one single release. All of the traditional vivid colours abound and the added depth the 3DS brings to the table really brings the world alive. Long time Super Mario fans will likely get the most out of the package as it's quite amazing to see some of the old 2D Super Mario Bros. areas transformed into full 3D with this type of depth. It might have been nice to see the distant backdrops feature a bit more detail, but given how much of your focus will be on the areas in close proximity, it's a minor gripe.
There might actually be a few new tunes in the game, but it's nearly impossible to pick them out among the insane number of classic Super Mario tracks playing in each and every level. Reaching back as far as the original Super Mario Bros., there are tracks from virtually every release in the series, each with their own unique modern remixes. Even the sound effects sound off with that same level of familiarity we've come to expect from the series. As heavily as Nintendo has borrowed from Mario's past in other aspects of the game, it was pretty much grand theft when it came to compiling the soundtrack for this game and it's never sounded better.
It's obvious that Nintendo played it fairly safe for Mario's first 3DS outing — something that will likely make the game seem like a bit of a step backwards from the brilliance of the Super Mario Galaxy series — but it's impossible not to be impressed by the vast number of classic Super Mario elements that have been squeezed into the package, especially given how fresh they all look and feel in their new 3D presentation. If you've been looking for a reason to pick up a 3DS, you've just found it.