Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review - Super Mario 3D Land

At long last, the 3DS has a stand-out original title that not only looks great in 3D, but actually uses the third dimension and integrates it into its gameplay. Super Mario 3D Land is the first 3DS game to feel that it was designed specifically to be played in 3D. Even as colossal spiked pillars fly towards the screen, the application of the 3D feature somehow manages to avoid feeling gimmicky, instead feeling perfectly natural, as if it were an extension of the game.

To ensure the 3D effects are always at their most potent, the game employs what I can describe with confidence as the best, most intuitive camera I've ever seen in a video game. There are two arrow buttons on the touch screen that allow you to see what is slightly off-screen to the left or right, but this feature is not particularly useful and is more akin to looking up or down in Super Mario World. Beyond that, 3D Land defies the rules set by every previous 3D Mario platformer by not actually allowing you to reposition the camera.

But put down your torches and pitchforks, ladies and gentlemen; at no point in any of the game's 16 Worlds will you ever feel the need to do so. The camera is always, always where it needs to be. It follows you around corners and into the air, giving an overhead perspective when Mario needs to land on something far below, or make otherwise complicated jumps. It zooms out whenever it needs to show more and zooms in when it can stand to show less. Developers of the world, take note; there will be no more excuses for future Epic Mickeys or Ninja Gaiden II's. The perfect camera is possible. It's here, in Super Mario 3D Land.

The camera being beyond your control is just one of the many design choices that make Super Mario 3D Land feel very much like a 2D Mario game in 3D. There are no power stars or shine sprites to collect, and instead levels are played from start to flagpole as they have been in Mario's past sidescrolling escapades. There's even a run button. At first, this announcement greatly concerned me; the lack of an analog stick that forced the use of a run button in Super Mario 64 DS was one of its greatest faults. But after playing 3D Land for just five minutes, I'd already forgotten such concerns. Everything about this game, the way it flows, the way it feels, is much closer to another Super Mario Bros. 3 or New Super Mario Bros. Wii than a Sunshine or a Galaxy. So having to hold Y to run seems perfectly natural. After all, it's the same button you use to throw fireballs or swing your Tanooki tail, so how else should you expect to run?

Everything is Tanooki!
Speaking of items, Mario's latest arsenal is a very solid one. Though it can't fly and can only turn into a statue after completing the game, the Tanooki suit is welcomed back with open arms. Its ability to slow your descent is as useful as it was in Super Mario Bros. 3, easing some of the game's trickier jumps, but I was very pleased to discover more practical applications for swinging its striped tail. All over the game are blocks that can only be destroyed with the tail, and you'll also find small gears that can only be turned with it, raising sections of platforms up into the sky; naturally, the camera repositions itself above you so you can marvel at the platforms directly approaching the screen in 3D. The Fire Flower makes what I consider its true 3D debut. In both Galaxy titles, it only granted you its powers for 30 seconds, being primarily used to light torches or destroy a group of enemies within the limits of a specific puzzle. But here, it works as it should, as it does in typical Mario sidescrollers, and only disappears on impact. The new Boomerang Flower is a delight, though I thought it an odd choice at first; it seemed only natural to bring back Mario 3's Hammer Suit alongside the Tanooki Suit. But lobbing hammers in three dimensions might have been tricky to implement and confusing to utilize, where the boomerangs seem much more sensible and easy to understand.

The confrontations with Bowser are all of the same ilk as those in the original Super Mario Bros., and though the final showdown with him has a stunning cinematic quality to it, it is still ultimately resolved by somehow getting past him and dropping the bridge he stands on; you'd think eventually the Koopa King would learn to stop fitting the bridges to his castles with self-destruct switches. Though a nice throwback to the game that started it all, these "fights" with Mario's arch-nemesis are a significant step down from swinging him around by his tail or launching small planets at him. At least they're a step up from tipping over his hot tub.

I wish I was making that up.
Instead it's up to Boom-Boom and his female counterpart to fill the boss battle void, and while these skirmishes are fun, these two aren't quite capable of carrying a whole game on their own. It would have been nice to fight the Koopalings or even Bowser Jr., but all of these are strangely absent, leaving the game feeling bereft of any true bosses.

Still, traversing these worlds is an undeniable joy, especially in 3D. The controls are tight, the levels are wonderfully designed, and the graphics and sound are of the same superior quality we've come to expect from a Mario title. Really, there's little, if anything negative I can say about this game. The biggest complaint I have is that it didn't floor me the way either Mario Galaxy did. Nothing in this game shattered my expectations or challenged my notions of what a game could be, and while it might be ludicrous to have expected that, it does come as something of a disappointment after experiencing some of Mario's recent genre-definers.

I will say that anybody who owns a 3DS should play this game. Anybody who is thinking about buying a 3DS should play this game. 3D Land's application of the third dimension is as of yet unmatched, and I believe this game is the perfect roadmap for 3DS developers, representing the direction I hope the system continues to move in. It isn't a game that can be played in 3D, it's one meant to be played in 3D. While Super Mario 3D Land is a stupendous experience with next to no tangible flaws, it mostly left me excited for what's still to come.

Ricky thought this game was...

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