Not since Philippe Petit crossed a wire suspended between the Twin Towers in 1974 has a man been so content while precariously balanced one single hair away from a grisly demise. No stranger to danger himself, Mario leaps, hops, and frolics through a nebulous series of obstacle courses, often floating high in the skies or skimming the surface of molten lava. Suffice to say it’s not a great place to be, but Mario doesn’t care. His high-pitched whoops and hollers paint the picture of an excited child literally jumping for joy.
It’s a subtle detail, but an important one. Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom he inhabits is a world of fun. While filled with monsters, environmental hazards, and a high rate of princess kidnapping, it’s never more ominous than a skeleton rising from lava set on the moustachioed mascot’s downfall. In an age where the industry favors realism and immersion, it’s refreshing that Mario doesn’t bother keeping up appearances. He doesn’t pretend to be scared, angry, or frustrated. He’s merely an outlet for the player; a symbol of positive reinforcement and determination.
As with all Mario games, there’s a smart blend between the tried and true motifs that have built the portly plumber’s empire mixed with new elements to spice things up. For the first time since Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, Mario has brought back the tanooki suit, a raccoon costume with a striped tail that grants hovering (though not flight, as it did in the days of yore). While Super Mario 3D Land also borrows the Koopa kids from Super Mario Bros. 3, its inspirations run the gamut from the bridge battles with Bowser from the first Super Mario Bros. to the platforms that flip over when Mario jumps from the more recent Super Mario Galaxy games.
Even though much of Super Mario 3D Land is cobbled together out of elements of Nintendo’s mascot’s finest adventures, there are some new additions as well. The boomerang brother suit is useful for attaining hard to reach items — a nice reference to the Zelda series (and not the only one in the game) — while the propeller box grants a powerful midair boost and glide for more vertically focused levels. Both feel right at home in the series and are worthy additions to the canon.
Not all eras of Mario blend together gracefully. While his NES outings favored brief, challenging, straight-forward levels, his early 3D titles focused primarily on exploration. Several stages try to have it both ways with a camera that pans laterally to Mario, portraying these levels like a side-scrolling diorama. Since the Z-axis isn’t well presented and camera control is minimal, gauging depth in these levels can be a problem. Frequently I’d make what looked like an accurate jump only for poor Mario to fall to his doom behind the scenery. In these callbacks to his early days that the third-dimension is an obtrusive presence.
Luckily the 3D level design is cleverly employed most of the time. The camera frequently shifts to explore new play possibilities where Mario makes a daring escape running towards the camera, or plunges forward on a rickety skeletal raft. These new perspectives give the game a restless quality, never content to recycle the same designs for long.
Settings change at a dizzying rate, including candy-coated platforms in a bright blue sky, snowy peaks, desert temples and haunted houses. Nearly every level has a new focus, highlighted by how Mario utilizes each stage’s central mechanic to hit the trademark flagpole at the end. Sometimes this will be by rolling a cylindrical platform over to it, other times it will be attained by teleporting platforms or through a gliding descent. There’s little consistency to the Mushroom Kingdom, which makes each level feel like a discovery.
Super Mario 3D Land may not innovate with new powers or concepts, but it doesn’t need to. Instead it uses what came before as building blocks to assemble bite-sized mini-adventures that manage to be just as thrilling as any HD blockbuster. While the 3D environments don’t always blend with its punchier 2D sensibilities, the nifty level design and jovial nature keep things much fresher than they have any right to be. The princess may still be getting kidnapped, ghosts continue to haunt the land, and the Mushroom Kingdom remains one big death-trap, but Mario’s still smiling, and so am I.
Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR. His work has appeared at G4TV, Eurogamer, GamePro, Mac|Life, Joystiq, Kill Screen, and Gamasutra among other places. He can be found on twitter at @mrdurandpierre.