Yesterday, I had a chance to play through several levels of Super Mario 3D Land. I came away impressed by the way that the game successfully combines elements of 2D and 3D Mario games into a fun, playable package. Is it enough to pull pull the 3DS out of its current tailspin? No. Is that a fair burden to place on a single game? Well, no, not really.
As much as I have enjoyed playing the various 3D Marios of the past few years, New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS might be my favourite Mario game of all time. It's up there, anyway. And happily, Super Mario 3D Land feels very close to that game, both in terms of design and vibe.
I started off in an underground level, with a slightly remixed version of Koji Kondo's familiar "You are now underground" music playing:
budah-budah-budah budah-budah-budah budah-budah-budah budah-budah-budah bdabadum-dum-dum-dum dum-dum digada-digada dut-dut-dut-dut-dut-dut
I continued over and through some Goombas, and was struck by how the 3DS's much-maligned 3D effect really did help me navigate the level. It was occasionally disorienting, leaving me jumping into enemies instead of onto them, but as I got used to it, the 3D effect really did help me place myself in the level.
(That's not to say the game isn't perfectly playable with the 3D dialed all the way down. It is.)
I noticed a few other things along the way (many of which those closely following the game already know). If Mario is already entirely powered up, grabbing a second power-up isn't wasted; it is stored in the middle of the touch-screen and can be conjured at any time. Mario's move-set is somewhat expanded: in addition to his jump, run and power-drop moves, Mario is also able to do a rolling attack while dashing.
The game features several variations on the typical Mario coin-block - some are three blocks long and give three times as many coins. Others, shaped like musical notes, allow Mario to bounce extremely high into the air. We didn't actually get to use the Propeller block from the recently released trailer, but it certainly looks like good fun.
Mario can actually enter some of the blocks to take part in a cordoned off challenge room. The Nintendo rep on hand said that many of those rooms will play with the 3D effect in the game, creating optical illusions. The ones I played were straightforward "get all the coins" rooms, and completing them put extra time on the clock.
As I worked through the underground level, I uncovered a few large coins, which went into a persistent collection. They were hidden in various parts of the level, but not to hard to find. The underground level played out a bit like a LittleBigPlanet level, side-scrolling with about three levels of navigable depth.
The start of the next level, however, was entirely different. The map sprawled out in front of Mario, and to progress, he moved away from me and the camera, more akin to more recent 3D Mario games. I headed over to a pair of mounted binoculars and activated them, which gave me control via the 3DS's gyroscope. Those who played Ocarina of Time will be familiar with the act of goofily moving your torso around with the 3DS to get a better sense of the level. It's no more elegant than it was in Ocarina, but it's fun to engage your body a bit in the game, and the binoculars give a sense of the level to come.
There's also a binocular-based minigame — in the level I played, Toad could barely be seen waving his hands around at the top of the screen. When I zoomed my binoculars in on him, he threw another of this big gold coins into the level for me to collect later on. It wasn't clear whether every level will have a hidden Toad, but I'd imagine that'll be the case.
This second level felt much more distinctive than the first one — I progressed forward and down, dropping and jumping from platform to platform. A few of the drops were truly vertigo-inducing, with long rows of coins made easier to collect by flapping the tail on Mario's Tanooki raccoon suit.
After hitting the ending flagpole (hooray flagpole!), I found out what the coins are for — they can be used to unlock bonus worlds. I spent a few coins to unlock a cloud world filled with open tracks and rolling green platforms. This was a cool bit of gameplay and again, for some reason made me think of LittleBigPlanet (in a good way though, not in a "floaty unsatisfying physics" way). The front and back halves of each platform were arrows that controlled the direction that the platform would move. Stand on the front end; go forwards. Stand on the back… OK, you get it.
Moving through the level was fairly straightforward, but there were several bits where in order to get all the coins and boxes, I had to turn my platform around, or use jets of water to ramp it up to higher tracks. It was fun stuff, particularly while taking advantage of Mario's Tanooki gliding powers.
The final level was a castle level containing a boss fight against Bowser, which was actually a bit of a letdown. I raced towards Bowser as he fired off easily avoidable fireballs. Once I reached the bridge upon which he was standing, I ran around him and triumphantly… jumped on a button. Which caused the bridge to disappear, and Bowser to tumble into the Lava. Silly bowser! That's what you get for standing on a destructable bridge. The nintendo reps there said that the levels would be short and sweet, to facilitate on-the-go gaming; that's well and good, but as boss battles go, this one felt a tough too truncated.
All things considered, Super Mario 3D Land is looking like a fun buncha jumping and squashing, with the colourful graphics and variety we've come to expect from a Mario game. It's not a mind-blower, and it won't be enough to wash out the bad taste left by the recent announcement of the circle-pad "jowl" attachment. But it'll be a solid bit of fun, and at this point, the 3DS needs all the fun games it can get.
Mushroom-stack attacks Lovelorn Italian plumber throw a fireball