Nintendo's 3DS hasn't had the best start in life, released with few games and even eight months down the line the only real quality titles were sadly re-skinned Nintendo 64 titles. The future does look brighter however, with its iconic plumbing mascot paving the way for a much steadier stream of quality first-party titles being released over the coming months.
With the 3D Mario titles Nintendo have been streamlining and simplifying the structure of the games in order to appease a wider, more casual audience. Super Mario 3D Land continues that trend, featuring little to no wasted gameplay time. The set-up is short as Mario learns of Peach's annual kidnap and sets off along his journey in less than a minute. Had this been a new console title I would no doubt have missed a hub world to explore, but on the 3DS the fast menu on the touch screen is definitely more useful for short bursts of game time. The presentation of the game for the most part is clean and effective, although for some reason if you should ever want to check on your game stats and medals they seem to be hidden away behind a small button, when the top screen during the file select surely would be able to quickly display these items.
The levels themselves are for the most part similar in structure to the early Mario titles in which the player will have to overcome various obstacles and reach the flagpole at the end. Most of the time the path is linear and clear, and you will only need to run in a certain direction to reach the finish. As a lot of the levels appear to take place in the middle of an empty sky, they echo a much brighter version of the FLUDD-less challenges from Super Mario Sunshine. There are of course, differently themed levels with many classic-style levels such as the airships from Super Mario Bros. 3 returning. As you progress the courses do open up a little offering more exploration, if not to the same degree as 64 or Sunshine. Being a portable title, Nintendo have wisely kept the levels short and sweet and players should be able to breeze past most of the levels within a few minutes each. Scattered throughout each level are three star coins that can be collected in order to unlock new levels, and gaining these are where the most challenge will appear in the game as some are placed in very daring locations. Occasionally between levels there are unique 'Challenge Cubes' that feature very brief tasks (mainly collecting coins or defeating enemies) to gain more Star Coins.
The first eight worlds are, for the most part, fairly simple and players shouldn't fail too much simply going through the levels. Upon finishing World 8 though, the game effectively doubles in size, featuring another 8 worlds of new challenges in both previously played levels and new ones. It is here, like with Super Mario Galaxy 2, that the challenge greatly increases with further progression, even if there's nothing anywhere near as challenging as the Grand Master Galaxy Daredevil Run.
Once again, Mario has a selection of power-ups at his disposal. The Tanooki suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 makes a welcome return and newer players will appreciate its flutter ability to ease themselves onto the trickier landings. Later in the game the suitgains an extra function that old-school fans will remember fondly. The Fire Flower and Super Star from classic titles also return as well as a new Boomerang throwing ability which can also be used to collect out-of-reach coins. In a first for a 3D Mario game, the plumber can be reduced to a smaller form when hit, and will die if he comes into contact with another enemy before grabbing a Magic Mushroom or other power-up. There are also other power-ups gained if a player fails a particular course five times, although it's most likely you won't see one until nearing the end of the game, if at all. Failing a further five times will grant you a P-Wing, allowing you to skip over the level. Whilst there aren't as many power-ups as in previous games, the more platforming focused nature of the game ensures that what power-ups are present are generally used for a helping hand rather than creating new challenges based around the abilities of a particular power-up.
Although presented in 3D, the controls have also been simplified and are essentially the same as New Super Mario Bros. Although the circle pad is used to move Mario around the screen he is not given full 360 degree movement, he can only really run in eight directions. Similarly, the analogue functions aren't used as Mario now walks at a ridiculously slow speed, although he can run with the Y button. Although these aren't really bad design choices, I personally would have preferred a control option where the Circle Pad could effectively be used as an analogue stick as in other 3D Mario titles.
The game is one of the best looking 3DS titles out there, looking just as good as the Galaxy titles on the Wii. The sharp, simple visuals and smooth animations are all very appealing. I also found this to feature the best use of the 3DS's titular functions. The effect throughout most of the game is actually very subtle, even at the highest setting, and didn't cause me any of the eye discomfort that I felt in Star Fox 64 3D. Probably the most unique use of the 3D comes in specifically designed secret rooms. Generally presented isometrically, the rooms feature several blocks that Mario can jump onto. With the 3D off, you may not see the illusion that one of the blocks may be closer to the camera than it actually is, and hitting a switch in the room will rotate the camera to reveal the little visual trick. Although it doesn't impact the overall game in any significant way, it is arguably the best use of 3D for a game on the system yet.
The soundtrack contains the same catchy scores we've come to expect from the series, featuring remixed and revised versions of classic themes, with some of the tracks ripped straight from the first Galaxy title. Voice acting is cartoony and over-the-top as has been the case since Charles Martinet first became the voice of Mario in Mario's FUNdamentals and the only spoken dialogue comes from the as-usual irritating Peach constantly screaming for help in-between the early Worlds.
The fusion between the side-scrolling nature of the older titles and the modern ones is for the most part successful. Super Mario 3D Land genuinely feels like the missing link of Mario's evolution between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64. Trying to ease players who are perhaps a little intimidated of the freedom of newer games seems to be what Nintendo is aiming for with Mario currently. Even in last year's Galaxy 2 the introductory gameplay section began with a brief 2D sidescrolling section before opening up into 3D, and this game feels like the next step in blurring the boundary between the two different styles of play. For a handheld title this combination of old and new concepts work, although I personally wouldn't want to see a replica of the same formula appear in a year or so on the Wii U like with New Super Mario Bros Wii. In keeping with easing new players into new experiences, Nintendo has also held back the challenge for a large amount of the game which is also a little disappointing considering the power-ups that are made available to players who may struggle more. These are of course minor complaints from me personally, and really don't impact at all on my overall enjoyment of the game as completing the game 100% does bring the greater challenge I was hoping for.
Overall, Super Mario 3D Land successfully finds that middle ground between classic and modern Mario titles. On the surface, the game may appear to offer comparatively less content than recent entries on the Wii, but as with Super Mario Galaxy 2 before, Nintendo have ensured a constant flow of surprises await players the further they progress through the game. The trademark Mario charm and polish come together to once again make a platformer that is consistently entertaining and is easily the best 3DS exclusive title on the market now.