I’ve owned Super Mario 3D Land since it came out, but I only managed to polish off my full-clear last night. This is a big game. There are eight worlds, with six levels in each world. Each of these levels has three hidden widgets to find, some number of which are required to open up later worlds. And once you’re done with all those, eight more worlds open up, as well as the option to play as a second character. Finishing every level in all sixteen worlds with both brothers will earn you close to 300 widgets, at which point a super hard finale level opens up that will take even the most battle-hardened Mario veterans a hundred tries to clear. Then, and only then, do you get a cheerful message thanking you for playing.
I feel I must add a disclaimer: I’m going to spend this post mostly talking about what I didn’t like about the game. Please don’t take this as an indication that 3D Land is a bad game, or that you shouldn’t play it. Surely gamers of any sort of quality know time spent with Mario is never time wasted. 3D Land is no exception. It looks and plays something like a bastard love child of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario Galaxy. The stages are short and punchy, commonly built around a cool gimmick that hangs around just long enough that you don’t get tired of it. A world or two later that gimmick will pop up again, in a more difficult form, in another short and punchy level. As far as the general design of the game is concerned, I doubt you could concoct a better Mario formula than this.
Okay, some of those level gimmicks are lousy, and result in levels that aren’t much fun. And yeah, sometimes those levels get rehashed for no reason other than to force you to sit through them again. But that’s maybe ten, twelve levels out of a hundred. The win ratio is really good.
As I was enjoying the game, though — and I assure you I was enjoying it a great deal — I couldn’t avoid this jarring feeling that I’d rather be playing Super Mario 64. Kind of odd, considering that 3D Land and SM64 are similar in neither level design nor goal structure. SM64 focused mainly around navigating obstacles, with a bit of treasure hunting thrown in for good measure. 3D Land takes a more classic hop-and-bop approach, and has a greater focus on battling monsters and managing powerups. They’re both built around core Mario elements, but the games branch far enough from that core that they shouldn’t scratch each other’s itch.
It took me a long time to figure out exactly what was going on: Super Mario 3D Land has two major problems that Super Mario 64 didn’t have, way back in 1996. And every time I ran into one of those problems, over the course of sixteen worlds times six levels times two brothers, my brain fired off a neuron that reminded me, “You wouldn’t have to put up with this shit in Tick Tock Clock.”
Actually, there are three major problems. But the third is more of a meta-problem, and not something localized to 3D Land itself. Simply put, the 3DS sucks. It’s too smooth, and gets too warm, and there doesn’t seem to be a good way to get a grip on it. As far as I can tell there are three uncomfortable ways to hold the system, and zero comfortable ones. So I just alternate between the three uncomfortable ones (I call them the “Chest Bracer”, the “Crooked Talon” and “Help! My Sandwich Is Falling Apart!”) and, eventually, turn the system off and plunge my hands into a bucket of ice. I had to quit playing Mario Kart 7 entirely because playing it was so excruciating.
We can’t blame 3D Land for that, I suppose.
The first problem SM64 didn’t have was a proper sense of perspective. Each level was a fully-realized 3D world, and Mario was meant to move through it at all angles and directions. At a given point in an SM64 level Mario’s next move could be anywhere in relation to his current position, off to any side or around any corner. You could spin the camera wherever you wanted it to look, or even zoom all the way into Mario’s head to get a detailed sense of his immediate surroundings. Indeed, these were the bullet points on the back of the game box. 3D Land, despite its title, sticks mainly to 2D planes. At any given point in a level Mario’s next move is either “go sideways” or “go forward”. The camera sits in a fixed position, and your action is limited to just the slice of the level you’re looking at.
Mario’s movement, however, is not limited. He has his 360 degree range at all times, even though most of the time you want to move him in a straight horizontal or vertical line. The 3DS’s circle pad doesn’t have notches around the edge like the N64’s control stick did, so moving it in a strict horizontal or vertical manner is very difficult. As a result, it’s very easy to move Mario 93° instead of 90°, and you won’t notice until you’ve inadvertantly missed a jump or veered him into a monster. In SM64 I often got around these issues by circling the camera behind Mario, locking it in place, and then pushing the control stick into its upper notch. In 3D Land I just died a lot.
There’s a deeper issue here though, and it’s something that crops up in a lot of 3D games that try to adhere to a 2D spirit. When you reduce your 3D game to a 2D plane, you lose perception of one of your axes. In a sidescrolling segments it’s easy to judge height and distance, but not depth. Anything coming at you from the foreground or background is difficult to judge, let alone finnicky jumps to platforms in those areas of the screen. Meanwhile, there are these all-too-common top-down sections, where the action resembles something like a jump-y version of Zelda. Mario has no problem moving any direction he wants in these sections, but it’s next to impossible to detect height. Have fun crashing into ?-blocks and hammer bros. you were trying to land on top of!
I’ve heard tell this can be alleviated by playing with the 3D turned on, which solves some distance and perspective issues. I can’t stand to play any 3DS games that way, though, because the 3D looks like a smeary mess that has to be re-adjusted every time you reposition your hands. The game tries to clue you in when you enter an area that plays perspective tricks, and I did try to engage the 3D slider in those areas, but it never seemed to help, and anyway that’s a totally separate issue from not being able to tell how far into the background you’re jumping. If this is the best the 3DS can do with its stereoscopic gimmickry, it’s a failed experiment. (But that’s okay; Nintendo is used to those.)
It took me a long time to figure out exactly why my brain kept telling me this wasn’t a problem in SM64, but I eventually twigged to it. In that game, if you make 90% of a jump, Mario would grab the ledge and you could push a button to hoist him up to safety. In 3D Land, if you make 90% of a jump, Mario skids down the ledge into oblivion, and all your button does is make him wall kick away from safety. This is something that will happen over and over again, every time you sit down to play. In fact, this seemingly tiny alteration to Mario’s moveset made the difference between hardly noticing those tricksy weird-angle jumps (in SM64) to being continuously devastated by them (in 3D Land).
The second problem SM64 didn’t have was SSPP, which was a delightful step up back in the day because Super Mario World was plagued by it. SSPP stands for “Stupid Shitty Powerup Placement”. What it means is, a given Mario level is easy to play with a particular powerup, but very difficult without it. You can’t get that powerup inside the level, though, so if you get stuck there your options are to just throw yourself at it over and over, or leave and hunt powerups in an old level. Super Mario World had tons of levels like that. I distinctly remember making the two-minute journey across the world map to the Top Secret Area so I could start each new level with two capes and a Yoshi. In 3D Land I was constantly running back to level 1-1 to pick up two racoon tails.
I don’t know how to fix SSPP. SM64 avoided it by simply not having powerups in the traditional sense. I know when we were designing levels for Super Talking Time Bros. we resolved to just put some kind of powerup next to every checkpoint. 3D Land‘s fix is to start you out after each death as big Mario, rather than small Mario, which is more traditional. However, the concession doesn’t really work; allowing the player to take an extra hit isn’t really the same as ensuring the player always has the superpower he needs. When you’ve got the right power — a leaf, a fire flower, or whatever — the levels are breezy and fun. When you don’t, they become arduous very quickly. Getting whatever power you want is trivial, provided you know where to look, but it’s boring. “Well, time to replay 1-1 again!” is just as fun as “Well, time to hit up the Top Secret Area!”, which is to say, not at all.
Actually, scratch that. I do know what the solution is. Since 3D Land is trying so hard to ape Super Mario Bros. 3, it should just take another cue from that game and let you carry around a stock of items wherever you go. Instead of one reserve item, let Mario carry ten. If you have a leaf already, and you pick up another one, send it to the bottom screen to be retrieved later, rather than replace the fire flower that was already there. Allow access to one of these slots any time; allow access to all ten from the map screen or while Mario is standing at a checkpoint. Problem solved. Bill’s in the mail, Nintendo.
I want to be clear that I’m not exactly pining for the days of SM64 here. It’s not like that game didn’t have its own score of issues. For example, I never died in 3D Land because the camera suddenly and inexplicably swung around into a bad position. I never had to wrestle with air currents or invisible wind gusts. I never drowned. And I never got bored collecting coins to make a star appear, not even once. Next time I revisit the ol’ N64 classic, there will be spots where I say, “Man, I wish I were playing Super Mario 3D Land.”
If only I could play the game with a controller that didn’t traumatize my hands so much.