The Nintendo icon's always been a sure buy across any number of his titles through the years, yet our initial hands-on with this game many months ago, a brand new experience that takes the 'Land' subtitle from its handheld forbearers, gave us a dissatisfaction that in context of the series felt like heresy.
A feeling that returns and takes some time to grind out of our systems during our review run-through.
Subtracting the Mario iconography for the moment, what we have is to begin a competent, enjoyable but breezy platformer, with brief moments of brilliance. Seven worlds in we start to see welcome elements of complexity in platforming that only escalate from there on. We're treated to a wonderfully imagined last-level twist, and the game extends with a set of difficult extra stages that we wish were longer and larger. And then in another surprise Game Plus reveal, the game doubles in size with Special Worlds - remixed, harder takes on all eight standard worlds - to play through.
Somewhere in-between these last few twists, a return to previous levels are needed: each contains three hidden stars, collectable currency that is used to unlock certain mystery stages per world, as well as the final levels of the game. On your first run-through you're likely, without huge effort, to snag around 80. That's ten shy of unlocking the last level. Another ten again off unlocking the actual last level. So you pop back into the early worlds and stages, and start looking around.
And that's when you really start seeing the brilliance of the game. Before you've charged through, A to B with little regard to looking around; rightly so, given the locked camera suggesting a linearity to the path from start to finish. But when you start exploring to locate stars off the beaten track, you see each stage containing a compact collection of secrets and side-paths, things you could completely overlook if you didn't explore.
Like climbing to the very top of a tree in a castle garden in one level gives you a glimpse of a set of platforms in the sky above. How in another if you ignore the canon by your starting position, compelling you to launch yourself at a four-story egyptian-style building and begin your climb, and instead wander around its base you'll see the stage offers much more than than first thought.
Or in a surreal flight of fancy, a level who's three-tier platforms stacked like staircases below each other are made entirely out of NES character sprites : Mario, Toad, Princess. You might ask where's Luigi?
He's right there - as another secret platform directly above the Mario sprite, access to which requiring you to swipe your Tanooki tail to raise a hidden ledge. Consciously done or not, its a brilliant admission that the brother's presence was almost invisible in the franchise's beginnings. Twenty-six years later Nintendo's acknowledged the oversight by making a gameplay element out of it.
It's in this moments that the Mario iconography, and the gameplay magic that comes with it, really shows. The levels are small, self-contained stages that are less compact worlds, more floating strips lifted from classic Mario titles: Egyptian tombs, waterfall cliffs, lava-filled moats, airships and more, but there's enough small extras that if not make them larger, give them added personality.
That realisation needs to settle before you can shirk the initial dissatisfaction. The levels seem at first awkwardly structured, at times adopting the side-scrolling aspect of the 2D titles, but with a generous degree of platform space afforded the 3D games, therefore rendering any challenge in progression null and void. Without the difficulty of the 2D titles and lacking the expanse of the 3D ones, the earlier level designs fail to interest.
Equally the 3D effect can be hit or miss. There's clever little quirks to introduce the necessity of using the slider - underground chambers where perspective is used to conceal foreground box locations in the background, overlaying them atop distant boxes of the same shape and size so they merge to the eye.
There's a nice mini-game within some stages involving stationary binoculars; jump onto the panel operating them to flip the camera into first-person, and pan around the level using the gyro-sensor. You're looking for a Toad hidden somewhere in the level. Spot him and zoom in for him to drop a bonus extra somewhere else on the level. You track its drop, work out a route, and get to work. It should feel like a tacked on inclusion: it doesn't, and raised a smile every time we used it.
With the slider turned all the way up the Bowser boss fights - dodging along platforms while avoiding flames fired from King Koopa in the background - are spectacular. Also Nintendo uses the tech to stack some levels miles high, plummeting drops between platforms requiring careful watch of your shadow to make sure you make your landing.
That's one of the issues with the 3D; judging distance can be troublesome. Now, Mario's physics and length between platforms is perfect - if you leap correctly, you know Nintendo has measured everything carefully so your feet will also hit the next platform edge.
However, when you're dealing with anything from head-butting blocks to launching into the far distance between floating ledges, the correlation between spacial awareness and control input isn't quite there. Missed blocks leads to annoyed grunts, missed leaps to unneeded deaths, as gaps that looks jumpable aren't. As such you tend to watch your shadow rather than Mario for positional cues.
We understand that this may be a personal reservation - and European colleagues who also reviewed the game have said they've not had any problems - and may just be our untrained eyes causing the issue. But its worth mentioning.
Die enough and Nintendo drops in a sparkling version of the Tanooki suit beside your start point, which operates as full-time invincibility star until you finish the level. But it's always your choice to don it, and its a more eloquent way of aiding players than Galaxy's Cosmic Guide.
Street Pass is also used to some degree: the Question Boxes found in some worlds, which lead to a one-room rush to collect or kill everything before the time runs out, are updated with new inclusions when you swop data with another player. We've already received one during our time with the game, with that person's Mii appearing above the box on the level select screen.
The biggest problem with this Mario is it takes some hard graft before the gears shift from routine platformer to something special; but at the very least even before the change-up, it is still a fun title, a microcosm of the Mario experience that does do justice to the brand when it finally gets going.
When we started playing the game at the weekend, it was with a belief that we'd recommend you the title on the merit that it's the only real draw for 3DS owners right now, and will fill the void in release schedules.
With surprises revealed, game length and difficulty expanded, and a bit of rooting around each level to finally see their charms, we'd recommend you buy it for the rewarding experience that it is. It takes a bit longer to win you over, but this is still a very good, albeit slightly different, Mario game.
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