Mario is a name I suspect many of you are familiar with. He was one of the earliest touchstones in my gaming career, although for various reasons I’ve played relatively few of the Mario games that have come out in the last half-decade or so.
Nintendo’s “Super Mario 3D Land” represents a bit of a homecoming for me, and it’s a stunning video game that goes above and beyond my expectations.
Essentially, it’s about getting through obstacle courses filled with enemies. That, in a nutshell, is what every Mario game has been about since “Donkey Kong” introduced the character.
“3D Land,” like its strongest predecessors, takes a set of obstacles, adds in a small but distinct roster of enemies and constructs diabolical arrangements of both designed to push your abilities. What sets the greatest Mario games apart from their countless imitators is how they understand that these games are about moving through space. You can stock a level filled with all kinds of theoretically interesting elements, but the game is going to fall flat if it doesn’t have a sublime sense of space and motion.
As opposed to “Super Mario 64” or “Super Mario Galaxy,” which had a lot of exploration and puzzle solving, “3D Land” is mostly about getting from point A to point B. Get to the flagpole at the end of the level and you move on to the next level, for the most part.
This extremely old-school approach is surprisingly refreshing because it makes everything in the game about navigating through space. The game is loaded with clever, surprising ways to make navigating through space complicated.
For example, on some of the levels there are platforms with two modes: red or blue. When it’s in red mode, all the red parts of the platform are solid and walkable, while blue will send you tumbling down the iconic bottomless pit. If the platforms are in blue mode, the opposite is true.
What changes the mode? Every time Mario jumps, the platforms switch.
Think about what this implies: Your relationship with making a jump utterly changes in levels with these platforms. What once was the safest possible act in the game is suddenly rendered a nerve-wracking strategic affair.
I’ve never seen that particular obstacle in any game I’ve played. That should tell you how incredibly clever this game is.
And nearly every level has at least a small, cool idea that changes your relationship to Mario’s abilities in it. A level filled with platforms that only are visible when you get close enough? It’s in there. Levels that force you to keep moving? There are several.
To top it all off, this game is a lot longer than it looks. Even after you’ve theoretically finished, there’s an entire second set of much harder levels to take on.
“3D Land” is probably the most pure platforming game that’s come out from a big-name developer in a few years. It’s a game — one that's refreshingly unconcerned with being anything more than that.
If I were to recommend a first game for a kid just getting into gaming, I’d probably point them straight to this one.
Noah Hinz is an art and game design enthusiast living in Walla Walla. Contact him with questions, game and playing suggestions or anything else related to games at firstname.lastname@example.org.