Game on the Train : Super Mario 3D Land

With the imminent arrival of Super Mario 3D World on the Switch in February, it seemed like a good time to return to one of my favourite 3DS games. With save data deleted, I spent a week on my daily commute with this handheld masterpiece which lifted my mood each morning when I went to work, and help me unwind on the way home.

Until the release of 3D Land, Mario was having a bit of a torrid time on handheld. There had been a clunky release of Super Mario 64 on the DS, along with New Super Mario Bros, and while both were diverting, and it was great to see a proper 2D Mario game again, they didn’t quite capture the ‘Wow’ factor we expect from big Mario releases. But just before my birthday in 2011, 3D Land burst onto the scene after the critical and commercial successes of the Super Mario Galaxy games on the Wii.

Super Mario 3D Land was described by Shigeru Miyamoto as “A 3D Mario game that plays as a 2D Mario game” and this sums it up perfectly. The story is as irrelevant as ever, once again Peach has been kidnapped, and Mario must set off over multiple worlds to rescue here. So off we go to World 1 and Stage 1 and you quickly realise that this is something a bit special, and quite different from whats gone before. The camera pans round from a 3D view to a traditional side view and you set off through a heavily signposted level that acts as a tutorial without actually telling you anything.

In fact, Stage 1-1 is a masterpiece of design. You can follow the arrows and reach the end quite easily, but just moving around those first few screens shows you how much more than a 2D Mario game this is. There are multiple ways to tackle a path forward. Ignore an arrow and you see a little hole Mario can fit into which leads to a hidden passage and part of the level that you may not have realised was there. Follow the arrows and the camera swings into a behind Mario 3D view, before going back to side on to introduce the Tanooki Suit power up. It’s all done so smoothly but you can tell that this was meticulously planned.

The game throws so many mechanics at you in that first level, but it never feels overwhelming, just the opposite in fact. You realise when you reach a high platform that you can see the rest of the level in the distance, and it’s difficult to get across how groundbreaking all this felt in a handheld game. The familiar flagpole awaits you at the end of the level and off we go to the next stage. And then the game shows you how varied your journey is going to be. Worlds are not themed, only stages are, so you go from traditional Mushroom Kingdom levels to underwater levels to lava levels, ice levels, cloud levels and more. New mechanics and tricks are thrown at you at every turn with such regularity and variety, each level is a voyage of discovery.

The visuals are vibrant and bright, and everything seems really big. Goombas and Koopas are the same size as Mario, and the levels feel huge despite being on a small screen. The music features lots of familiar tunes from previous Mario games and you will find yourself humming them for hours after putting the game down. Mario also controls perfectly, feeling like the Mario from the Galaxy games. His weight and momentum are perfectly pitched and any deaths always feel like they are your own fault, with the exception of where you have to rely on the 3D effect, and that brings up my only problem with the game.

Certain points of the game employ the forced use of the 3D capability of the 3DS. As this was an early 3DS release, it pushed this feature with a few puzzles that really do stick out as being included only to show off the hardware feature. As someone who is stereo blind and so can’t see any 3D effects, these puzzles are really jarring and pulled me out of the happy vibe that I found myself in, but they are few and far between, and don’t ruin the overall experience.

In terms of accessibility and difficulty, Nintendo nails this without blatant hand holding. Levels are generally pretty easy to complete after a few goes. When you die repeatedly you will get the choice to use a power up to charge through the level, which is great for frustrated younger players, but can also be ignored. For those who want a challenge, there are 3 Star Coins to find on each level and some of these can be fiendishly placed, plus you can obtain a golden flag on the flagpole by hitting the very top at the end of the level.

In the six hours on the train, I made it up to World 4, finding all the coins on the first 3 worlds, and gaining all the golden flags. And given there are 8 worlds it might seem that this is slight game, but using a twist that appeared in the more recent Super Mario Odyssey, once you beat World 8, a whole new, more challenging set of worlds open up for you to attack. And then you can also retry all the levels using Luigi and his different physics model. Its a completionists dream, and as it can be picked up and played in 5 minute chunks, it will be in any 3DS owners game rotation for a long time.

Similar to playing Super Mario 64 or Galaxy, the game fires off all of my ‘happy’ brain cells, and became a family favourite. My children played it to completion aged 8 and 10, and still come back to it now in bursts. When I mentioned it to some work colleagues recently they said they had since dusted off their machines and played it again. I didn’t play Super Mario 3D World on the WiiU so I am very excited for the Switch release in February and a chance to be delighted all over again.

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