a review of Super Mario 3D Land
a videogame developed by nintendo and brownie brown
and published by nintendo
for nintendo 3DS
text by tim rogers

4 stars

Bottom line: Super Mario 3D Land is “not a game about looking for parking spaces.”

The best place to start is with how Nintendo ruined my life: if Super Mario Galaxy had been half as good as Super Mario 3D Land, I’d be married — or at least happy, and raising a couple of puppies right now.

Here’s what happened. It was November. It was four years ago. Two years later, I’d realize this had been the best two weeks of my life. I flew all the way from Tokyo to Los Angeles to stay with someone I’d known for a few years on the internet and — just for one week — in person. The occasion for my deciding to visit her was that I had some vacation days stored up and a lot of money in the bank.

I bought a ticket to leave Tokyo on Friday, November 13th, 2007. It just so turned out that Super Mario Galaxy was being released on Thursday, November 12th, 2007. My acquaintance with this lady had begun because she’d read an article I’d written about Super Mario Bros. 3. I’d played through Halo 3 and Gears of War with her, on Xbox Live. That amounted to dozens of hours of conversation. Here was a person I could talk to probably forever. I figured this was a good-enough sign.

It was her birthday; I would buy Super Mario Galaxy, and then, the next day, I’d get on the airplane. I had my Wii preemptively packed in my small suitcase. I was prepared for a journey.

Her apartment was beautiful. It was all hard wood and red walls. Her television was enormous. She’d had some freeze-dried Chicago-style pizza delivered all the way from Chicago. We cooked it. I drank a root beer and she drank some red wine. We talked like a couple of adults. When the delicious food was done, we plugged in the Wii and started up Super Mario Galaxy.

Not two seconds in, my and her hyper-acute critical sensibilities were inflamed:

“Mario doesn’t feel right.”

He didn’t just not feel right — he felt wrong. He felt horribly wrong.

Mario was supposed to feel like a person wearing roller skates with tighter-than-usual wheels. This Mario felt like a mouse cursor.

We soldiered through the game, with its dinky planetoids and helpful animal friends and screaming text-boxes accommodating some imaginary amnesiac player who might have forgotten how to jump — or even that he was holding a video game console controller, or even that he was playing a video game (or even that he wasn’t wearing clothes (or even that he had a screaming girl scout in the closet)). We collected a dozen and a half stars across a half dozen stages (“galaxies”) before we stopped.

“It’s really not good at all.”

“Which is a shame,” I said, “because it looks like the best Saturday morning cartoon ever conceived.”

“Seriously look at this box art.”

“If that were on a cereal box, I would eat that cereal, with whole milk, without even looking at the nutrition information.”

We sure did not end up having sex that night. I’ll leave it up to the reader’s imagination if this hyper-critically-sensitive female human video game player — the only person in the world I’d met who was remotely on the same wavelength as me about game design and level design and play mechanic friction — ended up having sexual intercourse at any other point in the next two weeks.

I’ll just say this — just, let me say this: Nintendo, if Super Mario Galaxy had been as good as Super Mario 3D Land; if it had been as free of nonsense and as sparklingly absent of any Tutorial-Shouting penguins or Helpful Bumblebees or Congratulations Rabbits, if it had been as devoid of “puzzles” that require the player to do a thing he is able to do in a place where he can do it, if it had been as absolutely relieved of level designs that hinge on “If You Get Bored Right Now, You Die” and tenuous goals that reward the player with contrived necessities simply for remembering what a god darn button does — if Super Mario Galaxy had been a rope composed of bite-sized segments with luscious, inventive, spur-of-the-moment, seat-of-the-pants-exciting level design (where the goal is always, “Hey! Go that way!”), if Super Mario Galaxy had been as good as Super Mario 3D Land is, that girl and I would have thrown our dildonic Wii remotes and buttplugian nunchuks at the wall and begun making out furiously somewhere around stage 2-2, and by the end of those two weeks I would have loved her so much I would have forgotten about my stupid dream to live in Japan and have a noise rock band — I would have admitted to myself that Grasshopper Manufacture and No More Heroes weren’t my true calling, that someone in the United States could appreciate my level design taste even more than those guys in Japan (one of them had once asked, at a meeting, “What is level design? You mean, like, the 3D art in the background?”), and that this girl right here was worth being in as close proximity to as possible.

However, Super Mario Galaxy was precisely as good as it was, and so our affection accelerated at the predetermined pace. By the time I got on the taxi for the airport back to Tokyo, I didn’t yet like her more than I hated myself. I got so, so, so close, though. Well, there you have the story of my life.

Four years later, I have a tumor on my prostate gland and no health insurance; I’ve learned absolutely nothing that is going to earn me a billion dollars before I’m forty. I’ve been playing Super Mario games either in my head or with my fingers since that one day when I was six and the neighbor kid had just gotten a Nintendo. He wouldn’t let me play, so I’d stared at the television and simulated the friction in my head. I imagined this game was a billion times better than anything on the Atari had been. Eventually — a year later, when my parents bought us our own Nintendo, I found out I was right. So, I had Super Mario Bros., and eventually Super Mario Bros. 3, and that game took me over. My grandfather had died the year before that game came out, so my grandmother sent me $50 on my birthday instead of the usual $5. I’m sure it was an accident — her eyes were going bad. My mom insisted that I would write a kind note and give the money back. My dad got mad and told her I’d keep the money and buy whatever I wanted. Super Mario Bros. 3 was $52.49 with Kansas state sales tax. I only had $50. My mom told me I would have to choose something else. She wouldn’t even loan me that last two and a half dollars. Thanks, mom! Well, I saved up some more money, and — the game was sold out. My mom got mad at the clerks at all the stores. She called a whole bunch of them. Eventually, I had the game, and I never stopped playing it.

I played it on my birthday every year, memorizing its frictions with the top, bottom, back, and eventually sides of my brain. I endeavored to always complete the game without warping, and decided that one year I would finish it without dying. I accomplished this, and decided that I would finish it one year without taking a single hit. I did that, on my twenty-fifth birthday, in a hotel room in Tokyo with a woman who was hiding me from the rest of her life. I tend to still play it on my birthday, though never all the way through. After that night, what’s the point?

My birthday, in 2011, fell on the first day of the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. There, Super Mario 3D Land was on display. Because the lines filled up early in the morning and that would mean waiting six hours to play a game for two minutes, I opted to instead stand behind the crowds and make rude remarks about the game with my business associate. I called it a stupid waste of time — I called it dinky and piddly. It was all of those things, when I was just watching it on a 2D TV screen from twenty feet away. We called it “Super Mario Galaxy for people who still check out VHS tapes at the public library.”

Super Mario Galaxy rubed players the world over with its delicious visuals and eclectic world design, though it didn’t rube me.

Why did I hate Super Mario Galaxy? Because it was a game-length tutorial. It was stupid and screamy: three-quarters of the way through the game, you’re swimming through an expansive lake, and a penguin swims by, and an unskippable dialogue bubble pops right into the center of the screen: “Press the A button to swim!” The Nintendo Wii Remote Controller, for all intents and purposes, really only has the one button. I wanted the game to be about running and jumping — about loving the friction of shoes on grass or brick or sand. The early demos I’d played at public showings in Tokyo a year before the game’s release had been of a game where Mario really is just jumping along junk-ropes in space, while being chased; it possessed the explanation-free silent-cartoon furiousness of those special stages in Super Mario Sunshine. The eventually released game had “puzzles” which amounted to the player being shown objects that previous tutorials had taught him how to interact with: interact with the object, and you solve the puzzle. See a box? Spin to break it: the thing you need is probably in there. See three posts in the ground? Pound them in, and a trampoline will materialize, and the camera angle will shift, and now you can bounce on it to collect the thing the game says you need. While you’re doing this, bumblebees and rabbits continually wonder aloud, while standing next to the crates you’re to smash or the pegs you’re to pound, “Where in the world could that [ITEM ICON] be?” The music drones on as though accompanying ritualistically defecating Teletubbies. Get all of the things, and they — of course — form a portal which transports you — flying, arms out, “Yahooooo”-ing, “Whoaaaa”-ing — through space for a moment before landing on another spherical debris planet, where you find the thing you need to complete the mission. Only it’s not free: one of the very rabbits who was helping you search, one of the very rabbits you’re questing around the universe to save, asks you to beat him at hide and seek if you want the star. In short, the game rewards you for remembering what you can do in a specific type of place with the item it has contrived you to need in order to progress to the next locale and set of mission objectives. The level I describe is unlocked with 40 stars — you need 60 stars to access the final stage. So: Super Mario Galaxy was a game-length tutorial.

Super Mario 3D Land doesn’t even have a tutorial-length tutorial. It has an instruction manual that is one page long. Its levels are not strings of space-junk-pearls, nor are they recognizable-landmark-centric maps like in Super Mario 64. The easiest way to describe them is to say that they are Mario Levels. They are about running and jumping. They are obstacle courses that will treat your reflexes and your split-second fine-decision-making skills simultaneously.

They’re also in 3D. The 3D is not a gimmick — except for when it is. It’s a gimmick when the game screen instructs you to turn on the 3D, in case you’d turned it off, so you can solve a particular “puzzle” involving blocks that all look the same size though are really at different heights or depths from one another. These areas are always optional — usually inside coin pipes, and just for show — and when there’s an important Star Medallion in one of them, the game always offers you a panel which, when stepped on, rotates the point of view to side-view 2D, so you can jump up what is essentially a staircase.

When the 3D isn’t blatantly a gimmick, it’s wonderful. It’s absolutely delightful. It is joyous. Stuff pops in at you; bars of spikes swing on ropes, magma bubbles and blasts your way, bullet bills fly into the screen. It’s not ever stupid — and it’s especially intelligent when, say, you’re using a Tanooki tail to hover down from a skyscraper-tall height and land on one tiny platform Way Down There. The game has no shame about extreme elevations — Mario doesn’t even get hurt on falls, anymore (he can also breathe infinitely underwater again) — and it throws them your way with hilarious frequency. Here is Super Mario caught up to Jumping Flash.

Here, also, is Super Mario caught up to Crash Bandicoot: If you can understand what precise parts of Crash Bandicoot are better than their counterparts in Super Mario 64, Super Mario 3D Land is your prodigal son come home. Long have I wanted a three-dimensional Super Mario game where the view is primarily fixed, and Mario moves in one direction, with alternate options on the path explored by moving left or right, or up or down.

And then, in one virtuoso sequence, Super Mario 3D Land redefines the Character Running Toward The Screen platform template. I suppose that, all along, the secret was 3D — and a perfect elegance.

Its levels are small, and some reviews complain that they’re easy, or that Mario accelerates too slowly. I say, sure: Mario is a little slow to start, though once you get going, the joy of playing through these tight, compact levels as quickly as you can is inspiring to any wannabe or alreadyis game designer or level designer. There’s barely a hint of waste — outside World 7, which I’m sure they let a senior guy design, just to keep him involved.

Who designed these delicious, sticky levels? I have no idea. I want to shake his hand: I kind of want to suck his fingers. The credits indicate that Brownie Brown, they of the invincible minimalist Japanese-style role-playing game Mother 3, were involved with the game design. I wouldn’t put it past them to have been the ones to make all of the level design decisions. Japanese games, sadly, lack “level design” credits, as a rule.

All of these levels are marvelous; none of them are stupid; some of them, like the final Bowser obstacle course, are invincible in their shimmering aesthetic perfection. With boss fights that can make a room where the floor is made up of two conveyor belts going opposite directions eternally interesting, Super Mario 3D Land is, quietly, the true face of this innovation drum Nintendo has been throttling for the past console generation.

When I say “quietly”, I mean it: aside from probably-lawyer-mandated “You should take a break if you’re getting tired” notices every thirty minutes, the game never talks to you. You figure everything out yourself. The best part is — and this is the kicker — there’s really not much to figure out. Your mission is to get from the start to the goal. Your mission is to not die on the way from the start to the goal. Each level has three Star Medallions. They’re in hard-to-reach places, usually visible as you traverse the level. Getting them isn’t a matter how “Why” so much as of “How” or “Why not”. You need 100 Star Medallions to reach the end of the game, though don’t let that dissuade you: it’s not a collect-a-thon. It’s an enjoy-the-game-a-thon. That’s the key distinction to make between Super Mario 3D Land and the Super Mario Galaxy games: this game is absolutely, perfectly never a case of “What am I supposed to do?” — it’s “How am I supposed to do that?”

The story is soft-spoken this time around, too, with no dialogue other than Princess Peach shouting “Mario!” between worlds. The story is told in the Mushroom Kingdom equivalent of Facebook “relationship status” updates: between every two worlds, Mario, traveling across a prairie of the night, happens upon an envelope fluttering to the ground. It’s a lovingly-drawn 3D pop-up-bookish “photograph” of Princess Peach — in Bowser’s clutches, or in a cage, or surrounded by Boos, or attempting escape and beating Goombas with her umbrella — what have you. Mario sees the photo, makes an “Awawawawa” sound, and sprints off. That’s all the story we need. And at the end, when Mario rescues the Princess, you are treated to what I consider perhaps the most elegant video game ending I’ve ever seen. It’s simple, it’s charming, it’s charismatic: it’s everything that Super Mario 3D Land has been holistically designed to be from the ground up. It’s a single, charming, fat-free, nonstopping, exuberant little playable cartoon.

And when the game’s over, it asks you to play it again. There it is: all of its levels now have weird-weather counterparts with different power-up arrays and Star Medallions in different locations. And this is where you realize: once the level designers got going, they reached a “zone” where they could possibly sit there and make new levels literally forever. And so, Super Mario 3D Land is hopefully The Angry Birds We Deserve.



The music is the same weirdly produced criminally bouncy Brazilian children’s show melodies as always, these days, though when you attach this music to a thing that lacks a word of dialogue or story or explicit game-control-related instruction and instead leans entirely on its exuberant primary-colored instant-classic cartoon visuals, level design, slippery frictions, and zany characters, it simply works.

And that’s the biggest puzzle — it simply works. Everything about it simply works: here is a 3D platforming game with genuine 3D visuals, and the camera is always where you want it to be, and the swimming and fireball-throwing controls are hilariously perfect. How on earth did they stumble into making this work so pristinely?

I was prepared to violently hate this game, to call it dinky and piddly, to give it “My Highest Recommendation — for babies and old people”. I was ready to say, “Find it in the ‘Depends’ aisle of your local Walgreens”, or “Find it in the tabloid aisle of your local supermarket”. I was ready to make the bottom line insinuate that this game is “what happens when you give money to horrible people”. And yet, here I am, in awe of its perfect straightforward simplicity. I devoured this game, after two years in which I merely dabbled in gaming, my second-favorite hobby.

Probably what happened is this: despite the vomit-gush of critical acclaim, Super Mario Galaxy did not outsell The Holy Bible. New Super Mario Bros., which wasn’t all that great, outsold Super Mario Galaxy by magnitudes. So Nintendo’s topper brass scratched their chins and said, “Make Mario on the 3DS, and make it more like New Super Mario Bros. than Super Mario Galaxy.” Once they’d had a think about intersecting those two games, and a larger think about how 3D visuals would make platforming fun, the game must have designed itself. I say that as the highest compliment.

All signs, then, point to Super Mario Galaxy having tried too hard — at least, for the taste of this hyper-critical barely-never-pleased occasional-review-writing game-designer-person. Super Mario 3D Land is, as Owen Good of Kotaku said in his review, “one of the best holistically designed videogames” ever made. I agree with this ten-fold. Some will say it’s “easy” and some will say it’s “too easy”, though I dare say it’s a thoroughly lovely experience. The director likened it to a cheeseburger — where Super Mario Galaxy was a five-star meal — though I would compare it more to a delicious batch of chocolate-chip cookies (and not just because I don’t want to think of it as made of meat (meat is gross (it’s because I like cookies (and also because they’re edible and delicious one at a time, and don’t have a whole bunch of layers and toppings)))).

(I would compare Super Mario Galaxy, on the other hand, to a bag labeled “potato chips”, which in fact only contains four potato chips (stale) and six thousand talking rats trying to sell you life insurance.)

Unfortunately, the review scores will declare Super Mario Galaxy the undisputed champion. Critics just aren’t screaming about this here little game enough.

I called Super Mario Galaxy “just a videogame” as opposed to “a pop-culture event”. I stand by that. Also, I wonder why the marketing machine isn’t turning Super Mario 3D Land into a pop-culture event right now. It’s perfectly suited to it — a humble yet exuberant holistic experience with oceans of charm and flair.

I said in my review of Super Mario Galaxy that “we need more games that are about driving a convertible down the Pacifc Coast Highway, and less games that are about looking for parking spaces on Hollywood Boulevard”. Super Mario Galaxy was, in short, a game about looking for parking spaces. Super Mario 3D Land is a game about a hot blonde and a convertible and highway. I don’t just like it: I love it. I still wouldn’t recommend buying a 3DS until they revise the hardware (my headache right now is probably illegal in some states), though I will gladly say I was wrong for insinuating previously that Nintendo might have been doomed in this new era of mobile and social and what-have-you. Well, maybe they are still doomed, and maybe not just in the same sense that we all are, really, though you know what? They sure did just pop out a shockingly wonderful video game. It makes me feel like anything is possible, like no matter how late, anything can work out.

And as I said at the end of my Super Mario Galaxy review, “That’s it, people. We’re done. And more importantly, we’re also adults. Go home, tape some glow-in-the-dark plastic dolphins to the walls, and make heroic love to your wives or husbands, for God’s sake.”

This is one of the year’s three best games, and certainly one of the ten best games of the past five years. It will be overlooked. Borrow someone’s 3DS and give it a whirl. They’re probably not using their 3DS. Do what I did — say they’ll get a free copy of Super Mario 3D Land if they loan you their 3DS for a week. And then — hey! Have yourself a really nice week.

tim rogers

(note: this review does not talk about the super tanooki suit, which the game offers players who die too many times (seven?) on a particular segment. the super tanooki suit makes mario impervious to enemy attacks, though he can still die from missing a jump. i didn’t die enough to be offered the super tanooki suit outside of two of the later levels in world 8. if the super tanooki suit is keeping you from trying out this game: please get right the heck over yourself.)

(second note: we probably would be calling this game “the best game ever” if it were on playstation 3 or xbox, if perfect high-definition 3D televisions existed — or if it included the yoshi star galaxy music from super mario galaxy 2. here’s fifteen-and-a-half minutes of yoshi star galaxy to play us out (as you take the aforementioned suggestion re: glow-in-the-dark dolphins and your wives / husbands.))


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