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Look, it’s a second game review/reflection! Yes, I know this game came out in 2011. No, I don’t care. I only just played it and I loved the heck out of it. Here’s what I thought about this platformer.

2D Mario games, at their best, are tight platformers. These games are built on careful level design, striking a balance between fun and frustration. Control and mechanics are essential: the response and weight of Mario’s leaps must be precise to keep the immersion (unnatural though it may be). 3D Mario games translate these concepts by adding freedom and exploration to the mix. Though 64, Sunshine, and Galaxy may have central hubs, individual levels leave room to wander and reach goals by a player-selected path. Both styles are among my favorite in all of videogames. In Super Mario 3D Land, Nintendo decided to blend two directions into one delightful whole.

This seems an odd task, as we’ve just defined 3D Mario as an evolution of the 2D. By playing 3D Land we see just how far apart things have been, and how pleasantly everything meshes together.

If you’re already versed in 3D Mario, consider the “secret” levels in Sunshine, the pure platform challenges without the waterpack. That’s the central idea here: you’re in a 3D space, you have freedom of depth. You are restricted to move “forward” in the way the game wants, albeit with all three dimensions available for your problem-solving pleasure.

If you’re not quite as familiar with Sunshine, let’s start by comparing the basic Super Mario Bros world to Super Mario 64. Within a single level in Bros, you’re given one dimension of motion control (left-right on the directional pad), and one direction of obstacle-avoidance/platform-access (up-down by jumping or dropping). There’s only one goal per level (reach the end). In the Bros overworld, you progress along a single path and beat each level one at a time (warp zones excluded).

In 64, you get two directions of character control (left-right, into screen-out of screen) to go with your jumping power. Additionally, there’s more than one goal per level (meaning you’ll return to the same place a few times), and actions are more complex than just “get to the end.” The more important thing is how the second motion direction changes play. Maybe in Tall Tall Mountain, I’ll climb up the extra ledge near those gophers right away. You’d rather run ahead full-speed, and you end up walking across a log near the waterfall. Both paths are right, and leave you wondering what you missed at that turn in the road. It’s a design to encourage exploration.

Super Mario 3D Land blends both aspects. The overarching level structure is 2D in scope: there is one goal (often a flagpost), there are specific obstacles you’ll be forced to navigate. The control is the full 3D option: you have both directions (l/r, in/out) and jumping. Now you get to be more creative about how you approach each platform puzzle. Do you dodge left and right to avoid a goomba? Can you take a platform slightly deeper into the plane to get further?

This combination makes, Super Mario 3D Land a pleasure for platforming fans of any sort. If you’ve enjoyed Rayman, Banjo-Kazooie, or any previous Mario, this is for you. For general game fans, the precision and creative level design make the game worth a pickup.

As a final note, there are two things that make this one of the greatest Mario games to date (a high standard, to be sure). The first is the use of hardware. A 3D-control Mario with an analog stick is now in your hands wherever you’d like. The novelty of a mobile 64-esque game is enough to make me giddy. Furthermore, the use of stereoscopic 3D is fantastic. The execution doesn’t cause headaches (at least on my New 3DS XL), and the level layout takes advantage of the feature. Platforms pop with the 3D turned on, and it’s essential in the harder levels.

Those challenging levels are the second point. The first 8 worlds (sets of levels) in 3D Land aren’t too tough. After you beat the “main” game, you unlock the Special Worlds. These are brutally difficult, with minimized time limits, more enemies, devious platforms, and sometimes that damn Shadow Mario. You will be angry at level S7-4. You might lose 40 lives trying to finish. It’ll leave you all the more satisfied once the level is mastered.

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