Thursday, May 16, 2013

Video Game Review: Super Mario 3D Land (Nintendo 3DS)

This game had been on my radar for quite a while, but it was something I didn't want there. I was always wondering about it, always looking it up on Wikipedia, always trying to find a playable demo at Walmart, but I was never particularly motivated to buy it. For starters, I didn't have a 3DS until February when Nintendo came out with some fantastic trailers for Pok√©mon X and Y. For seconds, I was growing kind of jaded on the whole Super Mario franchise ever since the release of Super Mario Bros. Wii and the disappointing Super Mario Galaxy, and I haven't been all that fond of Nintendo's decisions with how they're handling their business for quite a while. Their virtual console is archaic, they're trying to bleed gamers dry at every turn, the last few DS consoles have made some games unplayable due to the lack of a GBA port, and the Wii U controller feels very cheap.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting much at all from 3D Land. The trailers didn't seem to have much to offer, a lot of the ideas seemed like stupid attempts to homogenize the Mario universe while also differentiating Luigi from his brother for no apparent reason. Boomerang flowers? That's just stupid, man. And it ruins the elemental flower motif. I still hate it. Shoving the return of the tanooki suit down everybody's throats by giving them to enemies? The desperate bid to cash in on the nostalgia is beyond obvious, and even more beyond pathetic. And what's the deal with giving Luigi a kitsune costume instead of a tanooki suit? That's stupid, yo. The Koopas haven't become Kappas.

On the topic of the tanooki suit, why are there two of them? What could possibly have possessed the development team to eliminate the primary function of the tanooki suit, the ability to become an invulnerable statue, and stick it on a different tanooki suit with the distinction that Mario suddenly wears a handkerchief? Why not just use the raccoon suit as the primary flight suit and include the tanooki suit later on, mirroring the exact roles the two suits had already established? The only thing I could (and still, all that I can) think of is that they wanted the raccoon suit to be the nostalgia gimmick for New Super Mario Bros. 2, so they just decided it was okay to screw with the established continuity for the sake of marketing.

Frankly, I went into this game expecting to hate every minute of it.

I have never been more wrong.

Super Mario 3D Land is one of the finest Super Mario video games ever created, which, by merit of the series, makes it one of the finest video games ever created. Looking exclusively at the Super Mario platformers, I would say 3D Land ranks in the top five. Maybe not at the top of the top five, but definitely in there somewhere. This game doesn't introduce a whole lot of new to the franchise, but it utilizes the established tropes in beautiful, beautiful ways.

Those who've played Super Mario 64 should be pretty familiar with how this game plays, because the majority of its 3D-platforming influence is derived from that game. Mario is equipped with his long jump, back flip, crawling, and a modified multi-jump from that title, as well as the aerial cartwheel for changing directions and the famous butt stomp and wall jump. Unlike that title, however, he cannot ledge grab, something which seriously hurts this game in my opinion. Some people could argue that ledge grabbing would defeat the purpose of the game, being a 3D game that plays like a 2D one, but I think ledge grabbing is a requirement to properly navigate a 3D space. Not having it seriously hurt me a few times, and in a game like this where it can be difficult to determine precisely where you'll land, a ledge grab is a necessity.

Other than the lack of ledge-grabbing and the bulldozing of canon, the only issue would be the extreme emphasis on 3D. I know this is the 3DS, and I know this is the main gimmick, and I know that a number of other reviewers have criticized the title for its lack of completely immersing itself in the need for 3D, but for gamers like myself who do not like the 3D and even get headaches from it (my head begins to ache after just five minutes of play with the 3D mode on), building the game with such a heavy emphasis is a real killer. It's nice to have the option to play in 3D, and I don't disapprove of making sure things really pop when the mode is activated (and there really is a greater sense of depth and placement with the 3D switched on), but I think a greater emphasis needs to be put in on making it an option and not a requirement. Being in one mode or the other should not hinder the gaming experience, and unfortunately there were a few instances where I couldn't judge where I was going to jump simply because I was playing in 2D mode. This is a problem for a game which is otherwise incredible.

If I had anything left to complain about, it would be the difficulty. A lot of people seem to think this game is easy, and the first half of it is really easy if all you're doing is tanookieing over the enemies and puzzles and not bothering to find the golden coins. But if you're seeking out the star coins, you'll find at least a little challenge in that first half, and even if you don't find it challenging, it will still be an enjoyable experience. The latter half of the game is excessive in its difficulty, even when not seeking the star coins. Some praised this, but I didn't find a few of the more difficult levels to be particularly enjoyable. I found them to be particularly frustrating. That doesn't make a good game, in my opinion. Fortunately there are enough good things about the game, and good stages to explore, that help to soften the blow of the more gruelling stages. Most great games have some part that is excessively difficult, but the rest of it is simply good enough to make up for it. This is definitely one of those games.

I was pleasantly surprised when the characters and environments weren't fake-looking. Super Mario 3D Land actually feels alive. The models don't look like rubber dolls and the colors aren't dull and washed out. Everything is sharp and bright and beautiful. The characters all have little touches to their animations that just make them come to life, really. And it feels very satisfying to bop them on the head, something which has been missing in many recent games.

Even more surprisingly, the water levels in 3D Land don't suck. They're actually quite fun, which is a rarity for any video game. While we're talking about levels, I should point out that this game isn't divided into themed worlds like past entries in the series have been. Instead you get a snow level here or there with a fortress level or desert level right after. I think this helped to keep the environments looking fresh and I think it also gave the developers some freedom to make levels as they wanted and as they thought would be fun as opposed to making enough levels that work with the same mechanics as required by the world.

Worlds are, unfortunately, boring. There is an overworld map, but it's all just left to right in a straight line. I suppose I've just been spoiled by the sprawling maps of Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, but this left to right thing just feels lazy.

No new power-ups make their way into the game, which is a little disappointing. However, they did use all of the existing power ups to really good effect. The tanooki suit will slow your descent, helping you make better approximations for where you'll land, and the fireball suit blows enemies away as always, although it feels more satisfying than it has in recent years. Some people consider the inclusion of the boomerang suit to be a new power up, but it really isn't. Mario's use of the boomerang first appeared in the eReader cards for Super Mario Advance 4, and while the flower is new, the ability and usage are not.

Boom Boom makes his triumphant return as Bowser's right hand man, and despite accusations of nostalgia cashing (which might be valid), the character's portrayal is well done and the battles with him are fun. Also introduced is Boom Boom's lady friend, Pom Pom, who looks at first glance to be nothing more than a cheap female knockoff of the original, but isn't. She battles using boomerangs, has a unique shell-movement pattern, and really stood out as a strong character. Ultimately, Boom Boom's return was handled with much more skill and tact than that of the Koopalings. Who, I might add, are not present in this title. Not even the young Bowser Jr. is mucking up the castles, which makes me wonder if Bowser Jr.'s inclusion makes bad games, or if Nintendo only includes the character in games they know are going to be substandard.

Dry Bowser returns, despite being overplayed in recent years. He is put to good use here, though, and is truly frightening to battle with. This is perhaps a better use of the character than his original debut in New Super Mario Bros.. Bowser himself is done pretty well, and it's refreshing to know that the battles with him aren't actually battles. Mario cannot harm Bowser at all. Instead the player is tasked with making a mad dash for the bridge-destroy switch while Bowser blocks the way and destroys the path. These confrontations with the King Koopa are really well done and really fun.

The stages are designed in a way which reminds me of the Bowser stages in Super Mario 64 and the Shine Challenge stages in Super Mario Sunshine. Instead of taking place in a solid world--which is a huge disappointment, I'll admit--the game takes place on various floating locales made up largely of blocks and obstacles. There isn't a sense that these events are taking place in any organic location, just that they're happening on a random obstacle course in the sky. I don't know if this is the trade off for creating a truly good 3D platformer, but I do know that I hesitate to want to mess with it for the sake of the game play. If Nintendo follows their recent trend of simply building sequels on top of prior games, I'd like to see them take the time to make the stages feel more like solid and real locations in the Super Mario universe.

One thing I almost forgot to mention, and I'm ashamed that I didn't remember it sooner, was that this game has only one thing in common with the prior Super Mario Land titles, and it is not a good thing. Super Mario 3D Land suffers from the same momentum loss glitches that the prior Land games were subject to, and this has killed me more times than I ever should have been killed by a momentum glitch. I figured in this era they could manage to fix all that, and for a while I was convincing myself that it was my fault I stopped in midair and plummeted to my doom. With how solid and put together the whole game looks and feels, it's almost difficult to tell, but the glitch is definitely there. Mario and Luigi both suffer from it, and they will both randomly decide that they don't feel like landing on that platform right now. Huge issue. Huge.

Final verdict on the unexpectedly awesome Super Mario 3D Land? Despite the glitches and despite the errors, game's amazing. It's not perfect score amazing, but it's definitely second place amazing. I can't feel any reason to score this game lower than a nine. I can't. There's nothing that makes it deserve a lower score. If you have a 3DS, you need to buy this game. If you don't, well, you are legitimately missing out. Pick it up, play it, love it, thank me.

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