Super Mario 3D Land
It's not difficult to see why Super Mario 3D Land (and also Mario Kart 7) boosted Nintendo 3DS sales in the final quarter of 2011. It's one of the most accessible and forgiving Mario platformers in years. Not only that, but it features a great hook -- a 3D Mario game that plays like a 2D one -- and it finally, at long last, proves the usefulness of glasses-free 3D technology, around which the 3DS is designed. In short, Super Mario 3D Land is the first "killer app" for the 3DS. It's an absolute joy to play, it's rich in content, and it's one of the prettiest games on the 3DS. That being said, the game isn't perfect: it's too easy (although that fact surely helps younger players), it has no real cohesion, and it borrows too liberally from older Mario games.
The plot in 3D Land is paper thin: Bowser steals Princess Peach, Mario sets out to stop him. There's an introductory bit where a massive storm strikes a tree filled with Super Leaves, scattering them across the kingdom, but this serves only to explain why so many enemies throughout the game feature that particular power-up. Nintendo missed a golden opportunity to incorporate this storm into a larger narrative that ties together the eight worlds of 3D Land: maybe a plot that involves Mario collecting the missing leaves to make the tree whole again -- something that makes the player care more about the game on an emotional level, not only a technical level.
Technically, though, 3D Land is a home run. First of all, it just looks gorgeous. Textures, models, and environmental effects -- namely water and fire -- are all flawlessly realized. 3D Land is one of the most addictive games you'll ever play, in part because it's impossible to take your eyes off it. Controls are similarly excellent. 3D Land boasts some of the tightest and most responsive controls in any Mario game. Then there's the camera, which functions impossibly well. It follows Mario at all times, shifting height, depth, and angle precisely when needed. And all of this is wrapped up in some truly great 3D effects. 3D Land is a game that's noticeably enhanced by turning the 3D slider up, especially when underwater. The developers at Nintendo did a good job of creating scenarios in the game where 3D makes the game more interesting -- by causing vertigo -- or helps the player by adding depth. If you've been waiting for a game that proves the practicality of 3D technology, look no further.
Although 3D Land plays and looks great, it suffers from some small problems. For one, it's far too easy. Extra lives are earned in many different ways: picking up 100 coins, reaching the top of the flagpole at the end of each stage, running into a certain number of enemies while invincible, etc. Players could easily reach the end of the game with extra lives in the triple figures. Moreover, the stages don't provide too many difficult jumps or obstacles, and some of the power-ups are unfairly powerful. Once the game is beaten, players can access eight more worlds of secret levels that are far more challenging, but the core of 3D Land remains on the easy side. Another problem: the stages never form a cohesive whole. Individually, each stage is enjoyable and engaging, but taken together they demonstrate no real theme. Also, 3D Land pays tribute throughout to its predecessors, most notably Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario 64, and Super Mario Galaxy, at the expense of its own identity. Sometimes 3D Land plays like a Mario greatest hits album instead of embracing something new and unusual. This is especially true in terms of its soundtrack, which is lifted almost entirely from previous installments of the franchise. There are a few new tunes in the game, but most of the music sounds recycled, remixed. Nintendo clearly has the talent to make memorable and beautiful new music -- just listen to Skyward Sword -- so why can't it redirect those resources at Mario?
Despite some flaws, Super Mario 3D Land remains one of the best games on the 3DS; it's a must-have for 3DS owners. A few design missteps don't erase a fun, addictive, and technically superior package that's fun for all ages and skill levels. Once the main game is complete, players can move on to another eight worlds of redesigned and, in some cases, totally new levels. It's here, in these new levels, that 3D Land becomes much more challenging and much more rewarding. The maps and enemies are far less forgiving, and player missteps become far more costly. It's a nice bonus for players who breezed through the first half of the game.
Game Design - 9/10
Graphics & Sound - 9/10
Play Control - 9/10
Satisfaction - 9/10
Overall - 9/10