When resourceful fans discovered an exploit showing how to rack up hundreds of extra lives in Super Mario 3DS, some laughed, thinking the game they had seen was too simple for that to be necessary. Let me assure you: Those lives will come in handy -- when you least expect it.
The easiest trope in the save-the-princess model of video gaming is the implied final boss battle followed the real final boss battle, followed by some half-assed cliffhanger that pretends to give meaning to a second playthrough of the original game. Super Mario 3D Land, one of the best holistically designed video games I've ever played, baits you into thinking that's where it is headed. Yes, there is a princess-in-another-castle moment at the end. But then it opens up into the real game, one honouring the challenge, creativity and joy for which the series is so loved.
By now you've likely heard that the first eight worlds of Super Mario 3D Land are not, in fact, the entire game. Let's go ahead and confirm this. They still do a good job of maintaining that illusion, thanks to delightful layouts that make the best use of the 3DS's unique capabilities of any game so far released. Seamless camera rotations take you from sidescrolling elevation to isometric, top-down and traditional third-person platformer perspectives, all for purposeful reasons. Gatekeeping requirements, like finding a certain number of star coins before unlocking boss battles or bonus levels, give a reasonable heft to the first tour of duty, which is saving Peach, of course.
It is in that alleged final stage with Bowser, when the crutch of the Super Tanooki suit goes missing, that Super Mario 3D Land game reveals its nature. The first eight worlds are not so much pandering to weaker players as they are training up and encouraging them, because the next eight, where you will also play as Luigi, are borne of a demanding, tough love that cannot be completed with such assistance, and will be satisfying, in their own way, to those who do on their own.
First, about the Super Tanooki suit. This is what most drives the early misunderstanding of Super Mario 3D Land as an easy game. Die enough in a level and you get a power-up box that offers you a sparkling, permanently invulnerable Tanooki suit, with tail-attack and air-walking, to hand-hold Mario to the end of the round. You can still die with it by falling into lava or a bottomless pit. Do that enough and you'll be offered a set of wings that fly you to the flagpole ending the round.
For young kids, its utility is self-evident. For older gamers, its appearance is enough to make Super Mario 3D Land feel condescending to them. I saw it as a hand up to someone who had figured out the jumping puzzle but lacked the dexterity to execute it, and just wanted to get on with the show. I'll confess to using Super Tanooki on a couple of boss battles, which is a shame to admit considering how repetitive many are.
Yet looking back, I feel like the game's opening act was not necessarily a training round, but an apprenticeship showing me what the true Super Mario Bros. would require in a 3D environment. You'll need to know how to wall-jump, bounce high off tightropes and springboards, swim, float and hop off an airborne enemy to the safety of the next platform. None of the moves are unique to longtime players of the series, but employing them in Super Mario 3D Land requires a little bit of touch. The analogue pad overcorrects a little too much for some directional jumps (especially those from a standing position in an isometric view). A shadow underneath Mario (or silhouette of him if he's behind a wall) helps you line up your landing point.
Though all worlds are ostensibly designed to be navigable by a standard-size Mario (unless the checkpoint is deliberately pointing you to a powerup) some are inordinately simpler if you've picked up a Tankooki suit or fire flower from a previous stage. In some cases (especially where I am stuck now), only their capabilities can quickly bridge a technical jump or sequence of foes placed right at the edge of one.
You can acquire these items through a visit to one of Toad's houses scattered throughout the first eight worlds. However, you're allowed only one visit per day. You can equip one item and keep another in reserve, providing for a powerful tanooki/boomerang suit/fire flower platoon. If you die, you lose the power up you have equipped. And if you've already visited the Toad house with it, you're stuck going back to earlier stages finding what you need and grinding through that world to completion pick up the item. You can't pause and back out to the hub world and still keep it. In short, the tools you need always feel like they're found in some other part of the game, requiring you to go fetch them there before continuing.
Star coins represent the game's other grind mechanism. There are three per level, and you'll need a minimum of 100 to play the final stage of the first eight worlds. Fortunately, many are easily located, and others are acquired by visiting special challenge boxes located mid-world, where defeating a set of foes against a time pops out a star coin. These, too, unlock only once per day, although the game's StreetPass capability recharges them if you meet others who have the game.
In spite of gimmicks and requirements like these the game really shines by doing what the series has always done best: Pose a hearty challenge that makes use of the entire screen. Jumping puzzles, especially timed ones, always carry an oh-hell-what's-next sense of breakneck pacing. The surreal trips through haunted mansions were, appropriately enough, suspenseful to the end, especially when I was trying to protect the star three coins I'd found (if you die, you lose any star coins found since the last checkpoint).
Super Mario 3D Land is easily the best Nintendo 3DS game to be released in the device's young lifespan, and certainly the one that makes the best and most deliberate use of its visual capabilities. You'll feel it when you're dragging down on the circle pad to run Mario directly into your face to escape a series of disappearing platform tiles. The game's gyrometer has novel applications as well, from aiming a cannon for your perfectly placed landing atop the stage-ending flagpole, to using binoculars to scope out the rest of the level and see where Toad tossed a star coin.
More than this, with the second stage of special levels, Super Mario 3D Land basically doubles its first-play value by surprise. Canonically, you reach them through a warp pipe back at the beginning of the hub world, but they are not simply remixes or speed-run levels. All are more challenging, to the point of dying by the dozens, which is why going back and stocking up on that extra-life exploit became so key for me. Yet I do feel as though I was prepared for this by what I completed, even with assistance, in the upper world. In any case, this is a game that finally lives up to Nintendo's promise that a handheld game can be worth $US40, especially on this platform.
Super Mario 3D Land is the first 3DS game that makes me want to pick it up and play it over all of the other console gaming options I have right now. It may be the only handheld game to do that for me.