Review: Super Mario 3D Land

A well-known psychology journal recently featured an article called “Control Deprivation and Styles of Thinking.” In it, Xinyue Zhou and his team at Sun Yat-Sen University explore how Westerners often view their surroundings from an analytical perspective, “whereas East Asians tend to favor holistic styles of thinking.” One piece of anecdotal evidence supporting the claim is that, when looking at an image, Westerners focused more often on foreground objects than did participants from the East. One group saw the whole picture; the other looked at what was front and center, that which appeared most important.

This past spring, the Japanese company Nintendo launched its 3DS handheld, a portable system predicated on its top screen’s ability to show true three-dimensional graphics without the use of special glasses. Look at the screen and you see beyond its surface; the parallax barrier enables a player to peer into an image, the visual effect closer to a diorama than the gee-whiz pop-out effects of Captain Neo and its present-day ilk. Before, all game graphics were foreground. Clever use of perspective and Euclidian geometry gave the world a sense of depth. Now, objects in the background could actually be further away. A set of programming instructions didn’t just make the object grow smaller; it moved away from you.

Oh, a trick is still a trick. Your eyes are still being fooled, just in a different way than before. And so the doomsayers of Nintendo’s new portable hardware laid waste to the system’s early efforts, questioning the value of 3D and wondering if the Japanese titan had finally lost its magic touch. Vengeful cries for change rang out. Eyes darkened with the foreboding lust of spiteful ex-lovers. We, the consumers of American retail shops and digital storefronts, saw what was right in front of our faces and we did not like it. Others knew what was coming. The near-anonymous figures toiling away at Nintendo’s Entertainment Analysis & Development Tokyo Group No. 2, they saw the big picture. The game to make us understand the promise of that third D has arrived. Skeptics, meet your proselytizer. Thy name is Mario.

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Super Mario 3D Land is the latest incarnation of Nintendo’s mighty franchise. On paper, it looks like a loving combination of fan favorite Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES, 1996’s classic open-world platforming blueprint Super Mario 64, and the recent Galaxy games for Wii. But the developers saw 3D Land as more than a Greatest Hits compilation. They considered it a “reset” for the franchise. “I thought we should rethink the rules from the ground up,” said Koichi Hayashida in a recent segment of the interview series Iwata Asks.

For my money, “reset” is too drastic of a term. But I’ll vouch for two others. Super Mario 3D Land is not only a paragon of three-dimensional gameplay, but also a loving parody, of the series and of videogames in general.

More than any other recurring interactive character, Mario has always felt right. His original name was Jumpman for a reason; there are few actions more satisfying than the tuned balance, from weightless escape to inevitable gravity, of a Super Mario jump.  He was not the first to leap across a chasm—Pitfall’s Jungle Harry comes to mind—but he was the first to do so gracefully. In the original Super Mario Bros., the rhythm necessary to jump from Goomba to block to flagpole, accompanied by Koji Kondo’s now-iconic aboveground theme, gave the player a vicarious momentum. Childhoods were spent thrusting NES controllers up and down, left and right, long before motion controls took advantage of the effort.

3D Land is meant to bridge the side-scrolling games of old with the more recent, and more intimidating, games set in a three-dimensional world. The hope was that the 3DS system’s autostereoscopic visuals would aid someone used to the older style of play. Then, you moved in one direction: from left to right. Super Mario 64 introduced analog controls and with them, a full landscape of meadows and pyramids to explore. But the precision of jumping was tainted; testers found it difficult to bop on heads with predictable accuracy. So Shigeru Miyamoto’s team added a Punch button. Every 3D Mario game since has included a secondary attack to the traditional jump: Super Mario Sunshine’s divisive F.L.U.D.D. water cannon; the Galaxy game’s spin attack. 

Now, with the added depth on 3DS, Mario’s singular move returns to prominence. Yes, the Tanooki Suit is back. But it’s the purposeful ease of leaving the ground, of hearing that high-pitched sequence of “Hoo!” and “Ya!” that 3D Land does so well, that recalls the best of what’s come before. Maneuvering through the levels becomes the point. You play not to reach the goal, or for an accumulation of stars; you play for the satisfaction derived from manipulating a character through space. The end-stage flagpole also returns from the original game, offering a fitting conclusion: one last chance to jump.

It’s the purposeful ease of leaving the ground, of hearing that high-pitched sequence of “Hoo!” and “Ya!” that 3D Land does so well, that recalls the best of what’s come before.

But then something marvelous happens. You spy a dandelion up ahead and you run over it. The platform continues behind this now-flowerless weed, and so you move back into the screen. But now white fluff drifts between you and your view of Mario. Such a ploy nears gimmickry, but the effect is so elegant, so wonderfully simple and new, that when you take a run later that day (in the real world) and a leaf is swept up by the wind in front of your face, you’ll think of 3D Land, and perhaps run a bit faster, to return more quickly to your game.

Then a new level begins and you’re looking at Mario from above. Your point of view has tilted 90 degrees into a top-down perspective. You’ve never seen the Mushroom Kingdom this way before. You clamber over scattered floating bricks until you’re up in the clouds, the same familiar clouds you discovered over two decades ago. Only this time, you see them from above. And when you fall back down to the Koopa-infested landscape below, you feel it, that sense of rapidly approaching ground, a stomach-flip deep in your gut, redolent of State Fair pirate ships and too much cotton candy. 

The comparison fits. Mario’s world has always been more amusement park than traversable terrain. Each level is an abstract construct floating in space. There’s no semblance of continuity, of your quest as an act of progression through a connected environment. And there’s no need; there is no meaningful destination besides the desire to see what’s next. 3D Land, like most every Mario game, is a road trip with all pit stops,  no highway.  In his book Power-Up,  Chris Kohler remarks that 1983’s Donkey Kong, Mario’s nameless debut, was “the very first game to tell a whole story from beginning to end.” The narrative was simple, but effective: Ape kidnaps Girl, Boy overcomes obstacles while chasing after Ape, Boy and Girl are reunited. Super Mario Bros. maintained the formula while widening the scope. Twenty-six years later, every Super Mario game, with little variance, offers the same story, and so that story becomes meaningless. The happy ending is inevitable; our motivation lies elsewhere.

Between each world in 3D Land, Mario comes across a photograph depicting the Princess in a new state of duress. A tower of Goombas surround her. Bowser looks on as she hangs in a cage. As images, they make use of 3D for a neat pop-up book effect (the 3DS also includes a gyroscope; shake it and see what happens). As plot points, the pictures read like in-jokes, the designers almost flaunting their desire to offer the shallowest narrative possible. All games rely on such false pretenses. Your girlfriend will not suffer eternal damnation at the hands of a Satanic Cowboy Zombie. The world does not end at Game Over. As Mario, your raison d’etre is not the noble cause of a hero. You pursue other, more quotidian goals than romance: the satisfaction of play, the undeniable tang of collecting shiny things.

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Super Mario 3D Land is the anti-modern game. Neither compelling scenarios nor aggressive challenge merit your time. The game is difficult enough—as of this writing, I’ve died 139 times. But I’ve also earned 122 lives. I could step off a cliff 121 times in a row and still not see the Game Over screen. This mass accumulation of extra chances, coupled with a lenient challenge, allows a sloppy player to stumble through the whole experience. The game incentivizes superior play with only the slightest of nods. Grab every star coin in a level and the stage’s icon now shows a tiny yellow star. Leap onto the very top of that end flagpole and a small golden flag appears. These are surface rewards, offering nothing but transient relief—This section is now complete

An increasing number of game players have become the new philatelists, less enjoying the act of play and more scouring a digital landscape for tokens, stamps: trophies of their hard-earned toil. Mario games have always offered a wealth of sparkly baubles to collect; the two-toned “ba-ding!” of grabbing a coin is one of the most recognizable in all of gaming. But the tendency feels odd in a series that values the sheer joy of movement over the gathering of arbitrary treasure. Again, 3D Land nears parody: You want coins? Take all the coins you can get. Enemies burst into coins; new elongated coin-blocks offer triple the norm. Coins flow in cascading arcs from rivers—Bullet Bill’s wishes are being put to good use. 

Now, after exploring this three-dimensional miniature kingdom in the palm of my hands, the original feels like a cardboard cut-out of the actual artifact. 

Deep into the game you jump at a question block, the same block you’ve pounded for a quarter-century; but this time, instead of knocking it with a raised fist, you plunge headfirst into the block’s undercarriage. You’re stuck. Walk around and your legs waddle beneath the yellow cube, the block pinging with every few steps. It won’t come off, but that’s okay—every movement registers another coin. Other sections of the game reward a daring feat of acrobatics with a 1-up or special power; this perpetual coin block feels like another joke, subverting expectations with a playful jibe at all that effort. ‘Why are you trying so hard? Take this. Enjoy.’

While other parodies mock their source material, 3D Land’s backward gaze instead reveals fondness, one so ensconced in our collective memory. But it also, importantly, revels in the present—Look! This is what we can do now. Inspired after a rousing session of Mario’s newest, I replayed his first, Super Mario Bros. for NES. Something felt off. The game seemed like it was missing something. It looked … flat. I’d never before had this feeling, of noticing the irrevocable two-dimensionality of the original. The NES games were always just how they were supposed to be. Now, after exploring this three-dimensional miniature kingdom in the palm of my hands, the original feels like a cardboard cut-out of the actual artifact. 3D Land plays with this notion, too: Stomp on a rounded, fully 3D Goomba, only to see one up ahead that looks strangely lifeless. Roll into it and the facsimile bursts into scrap. This was only a fake, a cheap flattened mock-up of the real thing. Remember when they all looked like this?

In a way, the concept of love is mere nostalgia for a feeling you thought you once felt. Or maybe: Nostalgia is loving something for making you feel the way you felt a long time ago, and thought you never would again. How about: All love is a parody of our childhood conception of love, of how we thought we’d feel when we finally grew up. I’m not sure. All I know is: Playing Super Mario 3D Land rekindles the joy I felt once long ago. And reminds me I can love something new, again, in the future.