"Obligatory and uninspired."
I've been earnestly racking my brain trying to figure out what went wrong with Super Mario 3D Land. I'm by no means one of those people that think the series has generally stagnated; Super Mario Galaxy 2 is, in my opinion, one of the greatest games ever made, and even New Super Mario Bros. Wii had a whole lot to love, even by Mario's already high standards. It's never ceased to amaze me how Nintendo can consistently churn out such amazing level design. Every single level in Super Mario Galaxy 2 was unique and memorable, and the add-on challenges actually changed the game play interestingly.
So, what happened with Super Mario 3D Land? To skip to the conclusion, it's the most incredibly unoriginal, uninspired Mario game I've ever played. There is nothing the least bit unique about it. Typically, my review structure is to enumerate the good and bad points about the game, and then come to some verdict regarding them, but in the case of Super Mario 3D Land, I earnestly cannot come up with anything good to say about it because it's the exact same game we've been playing for twenty years.
The only thing I can think of is that there was design meeting for the 3DS, and someone spoke up and said, "Oh, hey, we're releasing a new console, doesn't that mean we need a new Mario game?" The rest of the table groaned and said, "God, we're so sick of making those." So, someone else suggested, "Hey, why don't we just take all the rejected levels from all the Mario games since Super Mario 64 and put them into one game?" "Think that'll work? People might catch on." "Eh, throw in the Tanooki Suit. They'll be so blinded by the fan service that they won't even notice that the levels themselves are awful."
It sounds harsh or sarcastic, but I can't think of what else happened. The entire game reflects a profound lack of effort and lack of creativity. The only reason I can think of for why this game even exists in the first place is that Nintendo is contractually obligated to have a Mario platformer on every console they release.
Let's start from the beginning. Now, I'm not about to say that Mario games need better plots; yes, Bowser kidnaps Peach, Mario has to go save her, it's tradition. That's fine. But remember in Super Mario Galaxy how there was a significant opening scene that showed a giant Bowser charging the castle and kidnapping the Princess? At least something like that is always appreciated; but in Super Mario 3D Land, the extent of the plot exposition is a photo showing Bowser kidnapping Peach. It's as if Nintendo yawned and said, "Yeah, yeah, you know the drill. Go on, get playing." A tiny bit of effort would have been nice.
But as soon as you get into the game, you realize that effort is sorely lacking. The game opts for the newly-standard Mario "world map" that's just a list of linked levels, just as we've seen in the latest three Mario games. On a portable console, I consider this kind of world map excusable -- but in Super Mario 3D Land, it's completely, totally, 100% linear. In other games, there's some branching, some choices to make, some optional levels, etc. -- in Super Mario 3D Land, it's a straight line through the levels. There are a few optional levels, but you encounter those along the straight line and unlock them using -- shall we say it together now? -- Star Coins! Yes, the same things we've seen in the past two games are back, yet again.
But those aren't the only things that are back. Nearly every single thing in the entire damn game has been seen in some other Mario game. I'm all for nostalgia, I'm all for maintaining features that work, but I'm also all for realizing when something has gotten so ridiculously stagnate that it's time to put it out of its misery. Star Coins have gotten old.
The bigger problem, though, isn't that things are brought back -- there are a lot of things brought back for Super Mario 3D Land that are still entertaining. Fire flowers, the Tanooki suit, jump-switch panels, rhythmic panels, various things are still entertaining. The problem, though, is that there is basically nothing new in this game. When I play a game, I take notes throughout, and before I even began to play, I wrote a heading that said, "What's new?" to jot down new features and mechanics. I got to the end of the game, and the heading was still blank. I encountered a couple things, but determined they weren't worth writing down. The game introduces nothing new; it's more retro than New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, two games whose stated purpose was to be retro. Frankly, I think Super Mario 3D Land is better thought of as a part of that subseries than an all-new Mario portable platformer.
What all is recycled? All the power-ups are back. Every enemy in the game has been seen before. Some recent inventions, like jump-flip panels, are back. Ships are back at the end of several of the levels. There are some levels based on corkscrews, some based on crumbling/falling platforms, some underwater levels. And like I said, none of that is inherently bad; but the fact that they seem only to be recycling other recent game mechanics rather than creating new ones is the travesty here. It's an enormous let-down that so much of this game looks like it was lifted out of one of the previous games.
But really, all that would have been fine if they had only maintained Nintendo's history of incredibly strong level design. Super Mario Galaxy 2 was excellent with relatively few new features due solely to the amazing level design. But in Super Mario 3D Land, the level design is as prototypical as humanly possible. Every single level feels like it could have been a rejected level from whatever game first introduced that level's basic mechanic. The jump-switch panels, for example, have a couple levels, but they're not qualitatively any different from the ones features in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Nearly every level feels like a standard platformer level. There are a couple exceptions, but if one were to rank the levels from the latest five Mario games, the 90% of Super Mario 3D Land would fall in the bottom 20%.
Initially, the one new feature I had written down were teleport blocks: these are blocks that, when hit, teleport Mario to a different area of the level. But then I realized: these are just a different visualization for Launch Stars from Super Mario Galaxy 2, which did the exact same thing. It's like Nintendo doesn't even remember how to design levels without those devices -- or, like they didn't even really try. Maybe a lot of the levels really were rejected from Super Mario Galaxy 2, and those Launch Stars were the only things that needed to be stripped out to no longer look copied.
Nothing is so indicative of the uninspired and lazy level design as the disappearance of one of Mario's major traditions: themed worlds. As long as I can remember, the worlds in Mario have had some kind of theme; in recent years, it was water worlds or ice worlds or forest worlds, but even at the very beginning, it was different color schemes. Super Mario 3D Land has no themes to its worlds, which only corroborates my suspicion that all the levels are rejects from other games; since they weren't original, unifying themes across each world weren't possible.
The laziness and lack of effort apparent in the level design comes up in various other places as well. I'm all for nostalgia, but the game, as far as I can tell, had no original music. It wasn't just placing old songs in particular places for nostalgia, it was using them almost exclusively. There are only three bosses in the game, with two of them appearing at the end of three different worlds (sharing one). The bosses are entirely uninspired as well: one throws boomerangs at you, one spins at you. Jump on their heads three times, you win. You even beat Bowser in the same way that you did in the very original Super Mario Land; once would be an homage, but doing it that way three times is just lazy (especially after New Super Mario Bros. Wii lampooned that).
There's also a few gameplay mistakes, but they're relatively minor. The controls are somewhat wonky, with it sometimes being unclear how far your jump distance will be. The button arrangement is a bit weird, with two buttons mapped to each command. The flexibility is nice, but it's also somewhat confusing. And, as I mentioned before, there are hidden Star Coins to find in each level, but unlike in the past when they were totally optional, here they're actually required to unlock the final levels... but they don't tell you that until you're there. That's incredibly annoying and demotivating.
But the lack of effort is really what is apparent in the game. Not only are the individual levels uninspired, but you find yourself asking, "Wait, that's all?" at the end of each level. I'd love to hear how fast someone could speed run the game -- there's numerous levels that can be beaten in less than 30 seconds once you know your way around it. And on top of that, the game is padded to hell and back; I won't spoil anything, but after beating the main plot, you do unlock additional levels, but those additional levels are just the same as the core levels with minor tweaks or modifications, or the kinds of "special" challenges we saw introduced in Super Mario Galaxy (cosmic clones, time limits, etc.). That's not extra content, that's just padding; and on top of that, many of these still require you to collect Star Coins to even access them. In an effort to seem bigger than it is, the game pads itself like a preteen girl's training bra.
However, the padding may have been necessary. Another symptom of the game's lack of effort is how incredibly short it is from start to the "final" level (not including collecting all the Star Coins, doing all the "special" levels, etc.). I beat the game in one evening, and I wasn't even trying to. The individual levels are short, there's surprisingly few of them, and they're linearly laid out so there's nothing to do after one but go on to the next one.
Overall, the only way I can describe Super Mario 3D Land is that it really feels like Nintendo only made it because the 3DS needed a Mario game, and as such they put in as little effort as they possibly could to get a game out. So, the mechanics are old, the levels are stale, there's just nothing the least bit unique about it. Even in the barren wasteland that is the 3DS's game library, I still can't recommend that anyone purchase the game. It's still somewhat fun to play through, but it doesn't come anywhere near the standard Mario has set for itself.
Reviewer's Score: 5/10
Game Release: Super Mario 3D Land (US, 11/13/11)