I was going to join this party a little later on down the road, but something interesting happened while filming our upcoming podcast for The Wired Fish. While discussing our biggest disappointments of 2011 (spoiler), Hachi called out Super Mario 3D land as his disappointment. Not that it was a bad game, but rather that it felt like it was missing something. From what I experienced playing the demo at Comic Con, I loved it, and in the back of my mind was hoping that his claims were full of shit, and that maybe he doesn’t know how to handle the 3DS nub properly, so I could laughingly say “You’re playing the game wrong”. That same night, I decided to debunk his claim one level at a time…
Blazing through the first four or five levels had me thinking “Ha, maybe he just couldn’t handle the nub after all. Even getting the star coins had been a pretty straightforward affair (not counting when I had to look at an asshole toad in the distance through binoculars so he could throw a coin somewhere nearby). I guess they had to apply some purpose to adding those binoculars instead of a decent manual camera to the game, but I digress. The star coins serve as a nice incentive to explore each level a little more thoroughly than regularly. Sadly, I couldn’t help but think that some of these levels could have been expanded on just a little bit and treated like a huge course like those you might find in SM64 or Galaxy. Instead they’re treated more like classic Super Mario levels, with a time limit and a more direct path from start to finish than objectives.
That’s not to complain about the old Super Mario system, but rather to point out that a compromise between the two systems only works in something huge like Super Mario Galaxy 2 where there’s an abundance of huge levels to explore in the modern style and in between short galaxies with one star that is specially designed to have a more classic feel.
I had a talk with Hachi soon after finishing the main 8 worlds to address his claim to lack of creativity that we had so much trouble putting into words, and this is the transcript of the conclusion I came to :
“See, a fundamental change happened to the Super Mario formula when 64 came out. Consider every 2D masterpiece from SMB to Yoshi’s Island. Even though they were short games they each had a sort of cohesion in that their respective worlds had a feeling of continuity, that all of these paths and buildings in a game existed in their respective “Mushroom Kingdom”.
In 64, each of the 15 main areas and the small one star bonus stages have no such continuity as they are all isolated worlds within paintings or through some other solid object. The purpose of the game was no longer to traverse a single world divided into areas that are further divided into stages, but to explore a small number of isolated worlds, solving objectives in each until you earn a predetermined number of stars.
The Galaxy games took that discontinuity to an extreme, each galaxy isolated, and either large offering multiple stars or those little bonus galaxy levels that give one star.
Super Mario 3D Land fits in neither category because its divided into areas that are subdivided into levels, but the levels don’t feel continuous, instead each feeling like its own separate, isolated structure in the middle of an abyss, and in a game that’s supposed to be expressed in that world 1 – world 8 journey within one cohesive world is the equivalent of a compilation of all the one-star galaxies in SMG2.
They needed a doubling or tripling in levels, all of which are better divided thematically like Vanilla Dome, like Chocolate Island, like World 4 in SMB3, like the ancient Egyptian world in Super Mario Land. Either that or they should have just stuck to the 3D tradition of isolated worlds with many objectives.”
The biggest crime Super Mario 3D Land commits is that nothing feels connected. It has a world map, but the levels often have little or nothing to do with the theme of any given area. Back to Vanilla Dome, the designers knew it was supposed to be a cave-like environment and ran with it the whole way through, imagine if the Forest of Illusion all of a sudden took you to a series of completely unrelated levels where you’re running around on rotating blocks ala Super Mario Sunshine then thrust in some other obstacle course with elements of former Mario games. The throwbacks are nice, but they far outweigh the amount of original material in 3D land. They even squeeze in a level that makes a nod to classic Zelda dungeons. It would be more endearing if the constant nods to previous games were accompaniment to new material instead of the bulk of the game.
Back to the obstacle course format levels, Super Mario 3D land loves putting at least two in each world. They eventually require more precise platforming, especially when you’re trying to get all the star coins in the game which unveils two new problems : The nub is a piece of shit when it comes to precise platforming, and the only way to circumvent that is by constantly using either the raccoon or the tanooki suits (tanooki appears in the post-game levels) so that you can at least slowly hover while platforming, unless it’s required to solve a puzzle, the boomerang and fire flower are pretty useless.
After clearing the game, there is another set of 8 special worlds, which is a mixture of entirely different levels, variants of the original levels in both level design and color and then there are the original levels almost straight up with a challenge like a short time limit or Shadow Mario on the loose. Luigi, the tanooki suit (the real tanooki suit; even Nintendo seems to have forgotten the difference between raccoon and tanooki mario) and poison mushrooms make an appearance, but there isn’t much to it except another series of disconnected levels.
Have you ever had a favorite band or musician, bought all their albums, and somewhere down the line in anticipation of an all-new album have them instead do a “Greatest Hits” album where they either copy their old music, or record new performances of their most popular songs? That’s what this game is, “Mario’s Greatest Hits”. It’s the same stuff you’ve seen before, but with polarization between modernizing classic Mario moments or watering down more recent Mario moments into one handheld product.
Even though it doesn’t play terribly, most of the original music seems to try too hard to sound like older Mario tracks instead of doing their own thing. Just like with the approach to levels, the developers seem to have stayed in the comfort zone of pouring out the fan service instead of taking a risk at an original game. It’s like they’ve forgotten how different in tone all of the classic and modern Mario games are and instead produced this pastiche of a game.
Sorry I doubted you Hach’.
Grading : (Gameplay is worth 70% and Aesthetics is worth 30%)
Aesthetics (Music, Visuals and Level Design all worth 10%, additive calculation)
- I hardly remember any of the original tracks. I’ve been constantly returning to the game while writing this review. Even the final level has music that I’ve forgotten. Some old favorites return, but that does not excuse the sound designers from neglecting to put in some new stuff that catches. (3/10)
- The 3D models actually look pretty good, and it’s cool running along familiar territory with a little added depth. No adjustable camera (I’m not counting that tilting shit) is the only visual downside. Admittedly, there is some pretty creative use of the 3D here and there. (8/10)
- Although unimaginative, the levels work and play through quite smoothly. Again, it would have been better to see the developers go for either an all-classic or an all-modern game because it’s heartbreaking seeing some of the larger levels go to waste. (5/10)
- Total : 16/30
Gameplay (Worth 70 points, subtractive calculation)
- Nub control becomes intolerable after a certain point. As a personal aside, please refrain from eating fried chicken while playing this game, it’s a disaster. (-10)
- Projectile based power-ups really suck to use. There’s a 2 fireball limit on screen like usual, but now the fireballs are allowed to ricochet a few seconds before dissipating, meaning that if a sudden enemy appears and you have two fireballs bouncing around, you’re defenseless. Boomerangs are limited to one at a time, and stay out until Mario catches it or they break by hitting certain objects or Mario doesn’t catch it in time. If the boomerang breaks there is a 1 – 2 second delay during which Mario can’t fire another boomerang. (-4)
- Aside from levels where you face off against Bowser, there are only two other bosses that get reused multiple times : spinning koopa guy and female koopa who can show you up by throwing two boomerangs out at a time. The game needs something more than that. (-2).
- Total : 54/70
Grand Total : 70/100. Feel free to subtract 5 more if you’re like me and prefer well organized thematic material. I’m not asking for another huge game like a Galaxy 2, only something more original and better put together. I know it sounds cute slapping raccoon tails on bullet bills, thwomps and goombas and calling it a new enemy, but the clear lack of imagination put into this game is depressing.