Very few video game characters are as iconic and widely recognised as the portly plumber, Mario, and the Super Mario series has been selling consoles since the NES some twenty six years ago. Mario's family-friendly platforming games, filled with enemies to jump on and power-ups to give you an edge over them have been Nintendo staples for years, and now they're hoping that the lure of a new Mario game can help encourage people to pick up their latest handheld console, the Nintendo 3DS - can Mario deliver again?
Mario games generally don't change too much. Usually, they begin with Mario's love interest, Princess Peach, getting kidnapped by the evil turtle-come-dinosaur, Bowser, and it's up to Mario to trek all over the world in pursuit of her. Your journey takes the form of a series of different levels, from deserts to underwater to high up in the clouds, where you just need to make it from one end of the level to the other, jumping from platform to platform, dispatching enemies with a bonk to their head and avoiding perilous obstacles. Once you make it to the end of a level, it's on to the next - and, with a few boss fights mixed in, you'll eventually find and rescue your beloved Princess with just a kiss on the cheek as thanks.
Now, I'm relatively new to the Mario games, learning the ropes on 'Super Mario Galaxy 2' on the Wii a couple of birthdays ago. As it happens, 'Super Mario Galaxy 2' turned out to be the best starting point, with it's signposts explaining how to do various moves, the helpful Rosalina who'd let you bypass tricky sections if you struggled and even a tutorial DVD included in the box - yet 'Super Mario 3D Land' offers none of this; not even a cursory tutorial. So I was lucky I already knew how to do a long jump when the time called for one (dash then crouch and quickly jump, if you're interested).
As a concession for the less-able player, enough deaths will reward you with a few special power-ups, like a Super Tanooki Leaf, which gives you the powers associated with the Tanooki suit - like the air-hovering and tail-whipping - along with making you invulnerable to enemy attacks. You can still fall off a cliff though, losing your mega power-up. If you die even more, there's a special set of wings you can pick up which will fly Mario straight to the end of the level.
Playing 'Super Mario 3D Land' as a relative newcomer kind of feels like one of those childhood 'clubs' you've been left out of, like when you're told there's 'no girls allowed' in the boys' football matches at school. While people who've grown up with Mario will get rather excited by the nods to past games - a certain bald turtle boss reappears, and Mario gets his Tanooki suit back among other things, you can't help feel you're missing out if you haven't played other games. Especially without a helping hand telling you what to do.
That's not to say it can't be enjoyed by anyone - it starts out tamely enough; in fact, Shigeru Miyamoto, the man behind Mario, Zelda and other much-loved Nintendo franchises, has even been quoted as saying it doesn't actually get very hard until the final, eighth world. The controls are simple, making use of only three buttons, although for some reason two different buttons can be used to accomplish the same thing - the A or B button jumps, X or Y make Mario dash when held and the L or R buttons make him crouch; although only the Circle Pad can be used to move the titular plumber.
Scattered around each level are three big collectable Star Medals, which are often hidden a bit off the beaten track and may require a bit of thinking - or maybe a special outfit - to reach. These aren't just optional pick-ups either, as you'll need certain amounts of them to unlock the next level, so you should try to pick up as many as you can. They also add an element of replay value and encourage a bit of exploring and experimentation as you return to an earlier level to track down the last elusive medal.
Normal, big Mario can take two hits before he dies, or three if he's wearing a power-up suit - the first hit removes his suit, if he has on, the second shrinks him into small Mario, removing his hat and then getting hit as small Mario will kill you, costing you one of your stock of lives. And you can accrue a ludicrous amount of these extra lives by collecting a hundred coins, picking up green mushrooms in the levels, or collecting all the red coins before they disappear. Despite having died an embarrassing twenty-four times by the end of the second world, we still had thirty-nine lives to spare...
Ever the fashion-conscious plumber, Mario has a rather vast and unusual wardrobe of different suits - each of which gives him a special move or two, some of which are needed to get to secret areas. First comes the Fire Flower, which puts Mario in a fetching red and white suit and gives him the power to hurl fireballs around at enemies and destroy crates and other objects - and, thanks to that Mushroom Kingdom magic, they even work underwater. A new one for this game is Mario's Boomerang suit, where he dons a blue shell and helmet and, as the name suggests, acquires a boomerang, which he can use to defeat enemies, destroy projectiles and collect far away items.
Last, but by no means least, there's the much-loved Tanooki suit, which seems to have become quite the latest must-have accessory in the Mushroom Kingdom - plenty of enemies sport the tell-tale raccoon-like tails, and it seems you can't shake a tree without one of the brown leaves falling out. Not that we're complaining, as that little fluttery hovering thing Mario does has saved us from certain doom more than a few times, and he does look kind of cute in a moustached-fat-man-in-a raccoon-suit kind of way...
As someone who suffers from 3D-related migraines (as well as ones caused by blue food colouring, but that's a different story), games are rarely ever played with the 3D effect turned up. So, the 3D-specific sections in 'Super Mario 3D Land' did prove to be kind of problematic - shown by 3D icon in the bottom right corner, these Escher-style puzzles rely on perspective to show you where to go. For example, in 2D, a block may look like it's in a different position to with 3D on, which can result in you falling off a cliff and dying. Nintendo have added yellow blocks with a drawing of an eye on in the floor which will rotate the camera around to try to make it more obvious, although they're not always as helpful as they initially seem.
But that's not the biggest gripe - each level in 'Super Mario 3D Land' has a time limit, for reasons we're not entirely sure of, save for the sake of nostalgia. Nintendo have said from the beginning how they intend the game to be played in smaller bite-sized chunks than marathon sessions, and how the levels are much more about going from A to B and less about exploring - but the levels aren't actually that long. No amount of dawdling is going to make any level take more than about five minutes, so why bother imposing a time limit at all? It's possible to run from the beginning of the level, to pretty much the end to get a Tanooki Suit, then back-track to the start, use the Tanooki Suit to get to and complete a special secret area and still make it back to the finish flag with a bit of time to spare - why can't I take my time if I want to?
'Super Mario 3D Land' also makes use of the Nintendo 3DS' StreetPass feature, letting you get extra items as presents from anyone you walk past in the street who also has their console switched on. The game doesn't even care if those people have a copy of 'Super Mario 3D Land' either, as anyone's Mii who's paid a visit to your StreetPass Mii Plaza seems to want to give you a gift - even our local Gamestation's demo pod Mii, derrick, that plays nothing but a demo of Nintendogs wanted to get in on the Fire Flower giving fun. When you do stroll past someone who's played the game, you'll exchange 'Mystery Box' levels with each other, which are short ten-second mini-games that take place in a single room, where the object of the game is to collect as many coins as you can or dispatch a group of enemies, rewarding you with extra Star Medals, mountains of coins or extra lives and power-ups for each one you complete.
If you like Mario games, or are just generally keen on platformers, then 'Super Mario 3D Land' should definitely go on your Christmas list. And while it doesn't spell stuff out as well as 'Super Mario Galaxy 2', it's generally less complex, so once you get the three buttons straight in your head, you'll be well away - plus, it's great for passing time on boring bus journeys.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo 3DS