I also spent that first half of the game thinking this was the easiest Mario platformer I'd ever played. That turned out not to be the case at all.
The simple early levels turn out to be a total ruse, designed to lull you into a sense of security before hours of constant punishment. Or, more charitably, they get you acquainted with Mario's abilities and some of the kinds of obstacles you'll encounter. As for those abilities: Mario's famous Tanooki Suit is back, as you know from every piece of marketing ever for this game. While you can't fly, the tail slows your descent, which is extremely helpful for landing on platforms in 3D space, and basically essential for the latter part of the game. The other new ability is the Boomerang Suit, whose utility is obvious (it plays clips from the 1992 Eddie Murphy movie). Other than that (and a few really weird stage-specific items), Mario just has his normal mushroom and fire flower.
It's clear that this was designed to be the 3D Mario for people who don't like 3D Mario.
The levels provide a sort of middle ground between the styles of "traditional" Mario and 3D Mario. They're very linear, with a clear path from start to finish, like a side-scroller, but they wind around in three dimensions. Sometimes you're running into the screen, sometimes you're moving upward, and sometimes the screen scrolls diagonally. It's a lot more platforming-oriented, and a lot more "directed" than the usual wide open spaces you expect from a 3D platformer. It's clear that this was designed to be the 3D Mario for people who don't like 3D Mario. The streamlined approach somehow results in levels that aren't as full of secrets as older games -- basically each level just hides three Star Medals that you'll really want to hunt for. That means there's less exploration in this game than in almost any other Mario game.
The levels are, like you'd expect, full of gimmicks and tricks that require quick and accurate jumps. You'll bounce on springy music-note blocks, roll on big rotating platforms, and get really upset about green blocks that temporarily flip out, in a line, from a pressed button. Like I said, these levels seem easy at first, but eventually become gauntlets of disappearing blocks, swinging spike bars, and evilly placed Boomerang Bros.
All these elements, along with the basic premise of combining 2D and 3D Mario styles, make this game feel like a mashup of Mario history -- something that also shows up in the fact that enemies commonly wear raccoon tails just like Mario. There are Bullet Bills with tails. It's pretty strange.
And while it takes a while to build up, and lacks the rich variety of secrets you know from games like Mario 3 and Super Mario World, Super Mario 3D Land eventually becomes a demandingly hardcore, addictive platformer. It's also easily the most beautiful game on the 3DS, and one of the best-looking Mario games. The powerups are impressively squishy-looking. I also admired the metallic texture of big spiked pistons as they killed me, and the surprisingly scary animations of Bowser as he killed me.
This review is based on a retail copy of Super Mario 3D Land, provided by Nintendo.
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