I’ve already reviewed this game here, and I mostly stand by what I wrote about this game more than a half decade ago (dear god). Now as then I find it to be a near perfect execution of the Mario formula. Now, though, I am a little more forgiving about how much of a formula the series uses, and how much of a departure this game is from that formula.
Playing it all again, the tight design of this game shines. It starts off probably too easy. That is a common complaint with this game, though an over blown one. It is easy, but Mario games are for everybody. It eases players into things to give new players a chance to learn the ropes. That is a good thing. The counterargument is that many people grew up loving Mario games started with games that are much harder than this one. That is true, but it also misses some crucial points. One is the greater degree of competition for young players attention. Super Mario Brothers might not have been the only game in town, but it was one of only a few when it came out. Super Mario 3D Land faces a lot more competition, with children more likely to turn the game off forever if it is too frustrating. Also, 3D games are more complex than 2D games, and it would naturally take a new player longer to learn to play those than of the original Super Mario Bros. So 3D Land walks a fine line, and maybe errs by being a little too easy, by making a game playable for new players but with enough bite for veterans. It definitely does have that bite at the end; the last few of the special worlds are pretty devilish. So yes, the game makes you wait a little too long before getting to the good stuff, but that stuff is good enough to be worth the wait.
Super Mario 3D Land continues the trajectory from Super Mario Galaxy of bringing the 3D games more in line with the 2D games, with smaller, more inventive levels. Super Mario 64 turned the levels into open playgrounds, and Super Mario Sunshine continued that. The series retrenched after that. In many ways, SM3DL is as much like Super Mario Bros 3 as possible. That is clear in how much emphasis it places on SMB3’s signature power up, the racoon tail. While it doesn’t work quite the same way here as it did there, it is an excellent power up as balanced. It gives an inexperienced player a cushion for ill-advised jumps. But it also gives expert players a lot of tools. The only problem with it is that its ability to break blocks is kind of necessary at some points.
Super Mario 3D Land is one of my favorite games in the Mario series. It is the game that sold me on the 3DS and remains maybe the best game on the system. It is only an incremental movement from the Galaxy games, but it is a meaningful evolution.