The latest platformer to star Nintendo's moustachioed icon combines the clever, three-dimensional level design and graphical polish of the Super Mario Galaxy games with the bite-sized sweetness of entries in the Super Mario Bros. series.
The result is dozens of downright delectable little courses, each one a drip in an addictive dopamine feed that makes it nearly impossible to snap shut your 3DS. In fact, I didn't quit playing until the credits began to roll – though that's not to say that it put a dent in my regular routine. More on the game's brevity in a moment.
Mario's goal, as usual, is to journey through eight worlds filled with multiple thematic levels on his way to freeing his beloved Princess Peach from the clutches of the turtle monster Bowser. The courses are short, but jammed with variety. Players will need to deftly hop over giant swaying and rotating shapes, tinkle across oversized piano keys, take brief detours up into coin-filled clouds, and don power-enabling costumes like Mario's famous Tanooki suit (a racoon outfit the tail of which lets him float a little longer in the air) – potentially all in the same two-minute level.
Part of the game's genius is its ability to appeal to all ages and skill levels. Making it through to each level's finishing flag generally isn't too difficult, and if you do have trouble the game eventually offers up an invincible Tanooki suit, which will protect Mario from everything save falls into bottomless chasms.
That means it's appropriate for young grade schoolers who might otherwise grow frustrated by the game's trickier areas. However, grown up gamers will get just as much out of the experience by pushing themselves to finish courses faster, find all of the game's secrets (of which there are plenty), and collect all of the star coins in each level.
These layers of depth are a signature of the franchise, and part of the reason why many of its entries remain so much fun even decades after their release. How many other games did you play when you were eight that you can still legitimately enjoy as an adult aside from Mario titles?
Another reason they endure is that Nintendo's developers – and in particular Mario mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto, who had a hand in the making of Super Mario 3D Land – understand platformer game design in a way few others do. It's as if they have a secret map illustrating the connection between game activities and the pleasure centres of our brains that they skilfully exploit to load their adventures with a non-stop series of happy-making events.
And you can always trust them to take advantage of the company's novel hardware in tantalizing ways. Proof: This is the first game I've played on my 3DS without switching off the 3D feature at some point.
I didn't play in 3D mode because it made judging the distance of tricky jumps any easier. Contrary to what some may think (and what Nintendo has claimed), the illusion of depth doesn't confer an advantage in polygonal platforming; I relied more on Mario's shadow than the 3DS's optical effects to accurately gauge his position.
However, the designers have cleverly placed foreground blocks so that, when viewed in 2D mode, they appear to be on the same plane as background blocks, rather like an M.C. Escher optical illusion. Switch to 3D mode and those foreground blocks pop off the screen, revealing the route Mario must take. It's the best application of stereoscopic effects in game design I've seen.
The only thing that puts a damper on the experience is its length. I worked through the eight primary worlds in a single night. Not an all-nighter, mind you, but a stretch that lasted from shortly after supper until well before bedtime. I clocked my run-through at about three-and-a-half hours.
Of course, Super Mario 3D Land, like most Mario games, is highly replayable. And, without ruining anything, the game doesn't end with the credits. Plus, players who enable the 3DS's Street Pass feature will be able to trade unlockable mystery boxes containing random challenges.
That means it has a little more content than most previous handheld Mario platformers. But it still doesn't come close to a modern console title like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and is a far cry from Super Mario Galaxy. And yet its price isn't that much less than these much meatier adventures.
This begs a discussion about game value – the old price-per-hour-of-entertainment debate and what we should expect from games on different platforms – as well as a conversation about the potential doom awaiting Nintendo's handheld business as its $30 and $40 DS and 3DS titles compete against competent interactive entertainment selling for a buck or two in the App Store and Android Market.
But these are topics for another article. All you need to know right now is that while Super Mario 3D Land may be woefully brief, it's just about the most fun you or your kids can have on Nintendo's new handheld. Play it, pass it around the family, and then play it a couple more times and you should be able to get your money's worth.
Super Mario 3D Land