The lights are on
When the Nintendo DS was released, Nintendo completely revamped Super Mario 64 and released it as a launch title for the system. While the original is a classic that redefined the concept of a platformer, the DS version managed to be deeper and more beautiful - but the lack of an analog stick somewhat hindered the experience of playing the game.
Now cut to 2011, when gamers saw what the then new Nintendo 3DS was capable of - more power, 3D effects with no need for glasses, and an analog stick - and soon had the exclusive Super Mario 3D Land on their hands. This was very likely to be a perfect experience: the game is supposed to have much more content, better graphics, and improved controls. SM3DL delivers in many aspects, but alas, amazement slowly turns into disappointment as you reach the 100% mark.
3D Land's plot is the same as always: Bowser kidnaps Peach, so Mario is out for the rescue. The game impresses you from the very beginning with gorgeous visuals and a 3D effect that does wonders; when a stage seems too hard to beat, the solution is probably on the 3D effect - I often found that setting the slider at the halfway mark made what were originally particularly frustrating parts a cakewalk. The controls are very intuitive, basically adapting to 3D what you were doing in the New Super Mario Bros. series and old Mario classics - as a matter of fact, 3D Land is what anyone would picture if they were told to imagine what a 2D Mario game would look like in 3D.
A new Boomerang Suit is introduced, but it just feels gimmicky and doesn't seem to improve the gameplay in any way. In the improbable event of losing too many lives in one stage, you'll be given the option of using the P-Wing or the new Invincibility Leaf. The Tanooki Leaf and the ever present Fire Flower make a return, and making use of the powers they grant you feels as familiar as breathing. Other elements of the NES games come back, such as the flagpole in the end of a stage and the bouncy platforms, and the brilliant level design really shows how well all those staples of Mario games are put together to make for an enjoyable platforming experience in the first eight worlds. The music is formidable and catchy, and an immediate addition to the list of numerous unforgettable tunes the Mario series has granted us. Exploring every stage and their unique characteristics is a pleasure, and you'll frequently find yourself rolling into small gaps just to find the eventual 1-Up or a special room with an extra Star Medal. Ghost Mansions accurately capture the feel of the 2D games and are probably the best levels you'll find. In World 8-castle, the battle against Bowser is beautiful and epic, and releasing Peach from captivity is very rewarding.
After that top notch first quest, the game gives you even more worlds, and you would think this would only add to the fun; but from this point on, while you may still find pleasure in the game, most parts feel like a chore. I assume Nintendo wanted to give old school gamers a little challenge, but the way they chose to do it couldn't be worse: you now have eight Special worlds where the vast majority of the levels are just modified versions of the ones you beat in the main quest. In some levels you'll find the Cosmic Clone - a little c**ty Mario that mimics every single move you make, forcing you to keep moving, otherwise he'll catch up with you and harm you. There are also levels with a time limit of 30 seconds which force you to rush and get clocks that are either spread around the area or hidden in certain types of enemies. To deal with that, there are two post-World 8 additions to the gameplay: Luigi, who jumps higher than Mario, and the Statue Leaf, which is similar to the Tanooki Leaf, but allows you to temporarily change into an invincible statue à la SMB3. Of course, facing the Special worlds is optional, and if you think you've seen enough after defeating Bowser, that's OK.
However, if you're a completionist like myself and you just have to finish this game 100%, you'll soon realize that, as I implied before, this is not an easy task. As you approach the final Special worlds, surprise, surprise: levels combine both the Cosmic Clone and the 30-second time limit, and if it sounds like it makes getting to the flagpole a living hell, don't forget you also have three Star Medals to collect in each and every stage. This makes the platforming experience less and less enjoyable as the second half of the game progresses - not because the platforming sucks, but because the game keeps you from truly exploring the stages, seeing what modifications they suffered, and looking for secrets. The fact that you have the Statue Leaf and Luigi now don't help that much, and these new worlds don't feature the Invincibility Leaf or the P-Wing. Completing them will send you back again to the World 8-castle, where this time Bowser's fireballs are faster. You beat it one last time and there you are, that's the real ending of the game.
The real final stage, though, is Special 8-crown, and you unlock it by getting all five stars in your profile. You get the fifth star by getting a golden flag in every stage and finishing every stage with both Mario and Luigi. This mission is faster than you would think, but still a stupid way of making one final level available for the player. The level is interesting: long, strategic, and very focused on platforming - which should have been the blueprint to the Special worlds if it really was challenge that Nintendo wanted to give players, instead of making you run like hell and look for clocks in inconvenient places.
Super Mario 3D Land has everything you could ask from a Mario game - brilliant level design, beautiful graphics, catchy tunes, outstanding gameplay, and so on and so forth - but developers failed when they tried to make the experience longer and more challenging. Surely you can always skip the uninteresting part and only play what really matters, but it hurts deep down in your soul when you look at the amount of post-Bowser content that there is and think that it could have been much better. I mean, everyone should play this game - after all, Mario is Mario and he's never anything short of great - but after the greatness you'll be faced with loads of frustration and disappointment.
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