Ten years ago on 3rd November 2011, Super Mario 3D Land made its debut on 3DS in Japan. It's not typically held up or remembered as a glorious entry of the Mario series — indeed, at the time of writing it inexplicably doesn't rank on our dynamic reader-rated list of the 50 best 3DS games — but several of us in NL Towers have rather fond memories of this title and feel it deserves a spotlight to highlight what it did for the series and, indeed, its host system.
First of all, be sure to check out the video at the top from our very own Jon Cartwright, who makes a lot of good points that we'll be happily reiterating here. Give it a watch, also, as a reminder of what this joyous 3DS game was all about.
As Jon mentions, it's worth noting that Super Mario 3D Land was a major contributor to a rescue project for the 3DS. The system's launch in March 2011 had been particularly poor, especially when you consider its status as the successor to the wildly popular DS. Its initial sales underwhelmed to such a degree that Nintendo took multiple steps to steady the ship that, in hindsight, are quite stunning: Satoru Iwata and other senior executives took sizeable pay cuts; the company apologised publicly for its struggles; the 3DS was given a substantial price cut after just six months on the market, and early adopters were given 20 free games — 10 NES and 10 GBA — as compensation, with the GBA selection never made available outside what was dubbed the 'Ambassador Program'. In this current era of Nintendo basking in the success of the Switch, these sorts of actions feel very distant indeed.
The company successfully (arguably) rescued the 3DS and reversed that poor momentum, with the system eventually enjoying solid sales that generation, albeit still not close to replicating the success of DS. There was the price cut, of course, and then some major game releases in late-2011 and early-2012 that drove sales globally.
Monster Hunter 3 G was huge in Japan, though in the West we had to wait a while for Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate; they were very different times for that particular Capcom franchise. Globally, late-2011 brought both Mario Kart 7 and Super Mario 3D Land, and the system went from a pricey portable with no must-have games to a more affordable new console and hot festive gift.
Of that trio of games (and only the two 'Mario' titles in the West), it was arguably only Super Mario 3D Land that actually emphasized the system's headline feature — glasses-free stereoscopic 3D. As the 3DS era progressed, the 2DS models came along and games used the feature less and less, but Super Mario 3D Land was an early example of Nintendo actively developing games to showcase the concept. It is a game that is simply better with that slider turned up.
That mix of unpredictability, creativity and the beguiling 3D effect hooked this writer, and it was a sales success alongside MK7 that helped to elevate the system.
Stages actively produced 'woah' moments, with camera angles and platforming tasks designed to utilise the visible depth and control possibilities they gave the player. Puzzle rooms would suddenly make more sense in 3D, you'd be falling down into depths and aiming for distant platforms, and the feel of moving Mario through a real space had arguably never felt so literal.
As our video from earlier in the year also highlights, it blended different Mario elements together in what was — certainly at that point — unique ways. Adopting the branding of the Game Boy Mario titles, it was filled with hybrid 2D/3D Mario design ideas. Stages had 3D tricks and challenges that brought Super Mario Galaxy to mind, yet ended with flagpoles and had upgrades that would be permanent until you got hit. Stage selection matched up with the New Super Mario Bros. approach, but ditched the convention of themed worlds in order to allow the development team to effectively do whatever it darn well pleased.
That mix of unpredictability, creativity and the beguiling 3D effect hooked this writer, and it was a sales success alongside MK7 that helped to elevate the system. Yet when we talk about Mario games and the best entries, it's rarely mentioned. We don't have the instinct that it's on any Nintendo planning documents for a revival.
There are no doubt multiple reasons for this. One is that it was pretty easy going, so those seeking a challenge may have felt underwhelmed; even the unlockable extras didn't necessarily strain experienced players. A defence of this, though, is that Nintendo was trying to introduce 3D Mario to a 3DS audience that was perhaps younger or less experienced. In addition, making heavy use of the 3D effect likely led to decisions that would minimise motion sickness and any other reactions to the autostereoscopic effect. Then there's the hardware it was running on — the 3DS wasn't a technological powerhouse and in order to generate that 3D effect, the frame rate for this game ran at 30fps.
3D Land was very of its time. While some of us were all-in on the 3D effect, cranking it up to max at every opportunity, for others it was an unwelcome and unused gimmick. As a game essentially designed with the effect in mind, it naturally won't be held dear by those who had no time for the charms of stereoscopic visuals.
Nevertheless, we'll happily argue that it's a game that deserves to be remembered and regarded highly. In this scribe's view is a fun little entry in the series that really showed off what that 3DS screen could do. Its hybrid approach would evolve into the excellent Super Mario 3D World on Wii U — which has had its renaissance on the Switch alongside Bowser's Fury in recent times. Perhaps Super Mario 3D Land will never get a re-release along those lines, with the concept not fitting these distinctly HD/4K-obsessed times. Yet still, it's a memorable game in its own right and deserves to stand if not alongside 3D World, then perhaps poking out from behind its cape.
It's only a decade old — how time flies! — but in its way Super Mario 3D Land reminds us of a bygone era. A time when Nintendo's creativity was tied inextricably to its hardware features, and when Mario was the most 3D he's ever been.
Ten years on and we still love it, but what do you think of the game's use of the system's 3D feature? Let us know in the poll below: