Super Mario 3D Land Impressions
Mushroom for improvement?
If you're in any doubt as to the importance of these titles to a fledgling Nintendo console, consider the following: by the end of last year, New Super Mario Bros. DS had shifted 26.2 million copies and Mario Kart DS an equally dizzying 20.7 million.
On Wii, it's a similar story, with Mario Kart notching up 26.5m sales and New Super Mario Bros. Wii a mere 21m. These games aren't just popular, they're also brilliant. And, frankly, there hasn't been a lot of that on 3DS so far.
If you came along to Eurogamer Expo 2011, you may have fiddled with a four-level taster of Super Mario 3D Land. Last week, Nintendo offered up what appeared to be a full build of the game at a London press gathering, with the cruel, stone-hearted caveat that we weren't allowed to play beyond World 2.
Immediately apparent is the structure: each world's map is a linear sequence of stages, with spinning 3D models of each displayed on the top screen, and a more retro 2D view on the bottom.
This blend of new and old, of 3D and 2D, is the central idea of the experience: a "greatest hits" package of features and a fresh perspective on fun.
One reason why Nintendo is able to get away with its endless recycling of Mario material is that the raw mechanics have always been wonderful. Frequent, beautifully-judged nods to the past are both a consoling reminder to both fans and newcomers.
And the recycling is always accompanied by charming novelty. Take the mounted binoculars found hither and thither in the game. Stick Mario's eyeballs against them and up pops a first-person view of the stage for you to scope out a route (using the Circle Pad or gyroscope). But catch sight of a Toad, zoom in, and he'll cast out a special coin that grants a bonus, becoming in effect an adorable micro-game.
I rattled through the first two worlds in around an hour. The stages are short but varied, and never less than fun. My main concern was how quickly and easily I was able to race through a quarter of the game's regulation eight main worlds.
It's not apparent where secret stages will feature (the maps don't seem to allow for additional paths to open up), but this is Mario so it's reasonable to assume there'll be secret worlds of wonder hidden away somewhere.
Secret areas within stages (at least the ones I was able to ferret out) make clever use of all three dimensions, toying with the conventions of the genre Nintendo created in ways it has done since Mario first smashed through the ceiling and ran along the top of the level to reach a Warp pipe.
There've been some concerns aired over how slowly Mario capers through his latest outing. This being my first time with the game, I was at first disappointed to discover the criticisms seemed to ring true, until I remembered something fairly important: the run button.
That's why I think the whole speed issue is a bit of a red herring. You see, it's really a question of how you play, just initially confusing due to the 2D/3D hybrid gameplay.
From Super Mario Bros. onwards, if there's a run button I've always played with the tip of my thumb jammed against it, using the joint to jump. In other words, I'm generally always running at full tilt, because I find it gives me greater control over jumping. But there is a choice.
In Mario's 3D adventures, there is no run button. Speed is controlled by the analog stick. In 3D Land, Nintendo has employed the run-button system from its 2D platformers, presumably because much of the game is played side-on.
A side-effect of this is that, yes, it may feel a little more sluggish in the 3D sections if your direct frame of reference is Super Mario Galaxy, but there's a button for that. And the gentler standard pace is sure to help the game's youngest and least experienced players.
To put it another way: if Super Mario 3D Land is slow, then so is Super Mario World. And last time I checked (about five minutes ago for comparison purposes, incidentally), that was still quite good.
Now about the 3D effect. Just as many 3DS early adopters have literally found themselves doing, so Nintendo has steadily dialed down the 3D from the launch campaign to the status of a side-feature that is, based on the evidence of the latest TV ad at least, something best seen and not heard about too loudly.
As Nintendo's flagship release for the platform, one would naturally expect it to serve as a showcase for the potential of stereoscopic 3D. And so it proves, just more along the lines of the captivating novelty of recent messaging than the game-changing technology of the original pitch.
3D Land switches seamlessly between 2D and 3D platforming, often frequently within the same stage. With the 3D effect on, the enhanced spatial awareness is certainly a boon, most notably during a level heavily reliant on descending great distances while dangling from a Propeller Block.
But it is (as all 3DS games need to be) perfectly playable without. The principle benefit is to draw the player in and make the game seem that bit more immersive and gorgeously alive.
Furthermore, and critically for a game with Mario's aesthetic, it never dulls the joy of this primary color world, which is the real advantage 3DS has over the often severely dulling impact of the technology where glasses are required.
Coins, pipes, mushrooms, question-mark blocks, pipes, flagpoles, power-up suits: the vocabulary is always the same. But, like a great writer, Nintendo somehow always manages to knock it together into surprising, delightful passages.
And nagging concerns over the depth of content and the challenge it presents aside (which can't be fully addressed until our review copy arrives), it's hard not to be charmed all over again.
Used under license from Eurogamer.