Mario is to video games what The Beatles are to music, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is to movies, The Bible is to literature, or Michael Jordan is to sports - completely ubiquitous. I imagine you could show an image of our beloved Italian plumber to almost anyone in the 21st century and they would know exactly who he is and what he's all about. "He's that guy that scarfs down mushrooms and curb-stomps turtles!" And they'd be correct, if not a little reductive.
A Style All Its Own
Mario has been a part of so many different types of games at this point that everyone probably has their own introduction to the franchise, whether it be Mario Party, Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart, or even the few different styles of Mario's own titular platforming series. Our pipe-warping mustachioed hero has saved the day both in the classic linear two-dimensional approach, as well as in the glorious, slightly more open-ended three-dimensional perspective. Then there was Super Mario 3D Land, a fascinating entry on the Nintendo 3DS that sought to combine the two-dimensional and three-dimensional gameplay styles and inadvertently created my favorite type of Mario game and one of my very favorite entries in the entire franchise.
Super Mario 3D Land is the wonderful result you get when you carefully combine the already timeless gameplay styles of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional Mario games, and make an entirely new, arguably superior (at least in my opinion) and wholly original approach to a Mario game. All of the traditional hallmarks of the Mario series are present: platforming, power-ups, ingenious level design, and an art style that keeps you grinning from ear to ear for the entire length of its runtime.
Super Mario 3D Land asks the question, "What if we took the shortened, more bite-size approach to stages from the older sidescroller-style titles and married that to the mechanics of a three-dimensional Mario game, where Mario can triple jump, wall-jump, ground pound, etc.?" The answer is a resounding "please do!" and then followed by another question - "why are there only two of these games?" After Super Mario 3D World – the only other entry in the "3D" sub-series – hit the Wii U several years after 3D Land and then was subsequently ported to the Switch in 2021, there has been no talk of any other titles in this style.
As I mentioned, the presentation of stage design in 3D Land is more akin to the brisker pace of older two-dimensional Mario titles. The other three-dimensional Mario games take place in a comparatively open level, where Mario can explore every nook and cranny to potentially obtain several collectibles all in that same setting. 3D Land is quite linear, with each level having three total stars tucked around corners and hidden in clever locations, or at the end of a difficult platforming puzzle, but you ultimately have one core path to take in each stage, culminating with a classic Mario throwback: the flagpole. What makes the stage design standout to me so much is this feeling that Mario is running around in a what feels like a terrarium or shadow box, somewhat similar to Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. The levels, regardless of their vast difference in aesthetic, have a cozy, miniature feeling to them. The compact nature of the stages adds to this feeling as well, with most levels only taking a couple of minutes to clear, making the game absolutely perfect for short gaming sessions.
Another benefit of this approach to stage design is that it allows the developers to experiment and try hyper-specific ideas that will be the gimmick for a single stage. For instance, the picture I shared above showcases a desert level that introduced the concept of Mario having to run from ground-dwelling monsters, using their lurking shadows as indicators of their otherwise concealed positions. There are myriad innovative designs to the dozens of levels throughout the game, and another perk about the condensed length of each stage is that if a level's scheme doesn't click for you or is annoying, you will be through it and on to a surely more delightful stage within minutes.
One of my favorite decisions that the developers made for Super Mario 3D Land is the inclusion of power-up suits, such as the famed Tanooki suit and the Fire Flower suit. The star of the show is the brand-new Boomerang Suit, which features Mario dressed like a Boomerang Bro, clad in blue Koopa-like armor, and able to hurl massive, powerful boomerangs that can plow through groups of enemies and hit them a second time on the rebound – but only if your return arc on the boomerang is angled just right. I went out of my way to get the Boomerang Flower throughout my playthrough, mostly because it has high utility, but partially because I just think the armor looks awesome and boomerangs are frankly an underrated weapon. Shout out to the Aussies out there!
One power-up that is entirely unique to 3D Land and has yet to appear in another entry in the franchise, is the Statue Leaf. It grants Mario the Tanooki suit, or Luigi the Kitsune suit respectively, though they wear a cute neckerchief with this version of the power-up. It adds a secondary ability to the regular Tanooki Suit, the Statue power-up allows you to transform into an invincible statue, an ability that was originally featured in Super Mario Bros. 3.
The aesthetics of the stages are diverse and no two of them feel identical. There are grasslands, plains, mushroom forests, icy mountains, tropical seasides, haunted houses, and a whole bevy of other imaginative settings that are wondrous and joyous to explore. Super Mario 3D Land spans eight worlds, with each world made up of six or so individual stages, sometimes more, depending on the world. After clearing all eight worlds, you technically beat the game. You save Princess Peach, Bowser is defeated, and the credits roll. Hooray! Then after the credits, Peach gets stolen again, and eight more "Special Worlds" appear.
Rare But Worth It
I have since temporarily put the game down after finishing it up to the credits, but I have been told that the true challenge in 3D Land lies within the Special Worlds. As an added bonus, if you complete the first Special World, you free Luigi from Bowser's clutches and unlock him as a playable option for the remainder of the stages. His mechanics work similarly to other Mario titles, where he can jump higher, but his traction is lower than his brother's.
If you are in possession of a working 3DS console, congratulations are in order, as their prices have climbed precipitously upon Nintendo shuttering the 3DS eShop. It costs a pretty penny to purchase one in 2023, not to mention the game prices have started to rise as well. I hope that Nintendo begins to port their 3DS exclusives over to the Switch, as there are some classics stranded on that platform now with the closure of the eShop. If you do have a 3DS though, and have not played Super Mario 3D Land, I cannot recommend this title enough. In the United States, I frequently see the game going for around $20, and that is an absolute steal for the quality of the game that you're getting, and the hours of childlike fun that I guarantee you'll experience.
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