Super Mario Bros. isn’t about a pudgy Italian and his never-ending quest to foil a dragon’s attempt to abduct blonde royalty. The games aren’t about turtles, fanciful worlds, or unusually catchy tunes. Those things are the icing on a delicious foundational cake of physics. In side-scrolling incarnations, Mario games are about the crazy joy of momentum, the simple pleasure of controlling an object as it leaps and rushes through space. In their three-dimensional mold, Mario games are about exploration, the fun of climbing over and under things. Super Mario 3D Land, in an attempt to have that cake and eat it too, tries to meld the merits of Mario’s left-to-right adventures with his star-grabbing 3D outings. It’s a fine game in its own right, but it never matches its predecessors’ tactile pleasures.
Land’s premise is as spare as possible. One blustery day in the Mushroom Kingdom, Bowser kidnaps Princess “Toadstool” Peach from her castle and books it across the land. Since Mario is always up for a road trip across the kingdom’s most elevated spaces (mountaintops, treetops, bridges, unsupported wooden platforms hanging in space above an indistinct void, etc.), he follows, taking advantage of the leaves the strong winds have blown all over the place. When touched, those leaves costume Mario as a tanuki (the well-endowed Japanese trickster spirit seen at the end here). Pressing the B button in mid-air makes the costume’s tail wag, which lets Mario slowly descend from great heights, Mary Poppins style.
The leaves return from Super Mario Bros. 3, along with many of that game’s enemies and motifs. There are Chain-Chomps, Boos, and Airships galore. The Hammer Bros.’ cousins, the Boomerang Bros., return, bringing Mario another new skill: the ability to throw boomerangs. The environments Mario inhabits are more abstract than they’ve been in any outing since the debut Super Mario Bros. There are no thematic ties between worlds, with sandy desert stages sitting right next to dungeon keeps and bodies of water.
That airy placeless quality defines 3D Land. The levels are never open enough to let the player loose running and jumping. As in classic 2D Mario, this game requires precision leaps, and de-emphasizes improvisation. While many of the levels sport the same type of tiered structures as the stages in Mario 64 and the Galaxy games, they don’t offer much freedom to explore, or surprises when you do. In the early going, finding the stage’s three Star Coins (the secondary goal for each stage, and currency for unlocking later levels) can be tricky, since they’re hidden in creative places, but by the end, the majority are sitting in the open.
There are few opportunities to push in 3D Land, to stretch out and find the edge of the world, since it’s always in front of you. When you do find that edge, it’s all too common to just fall off, because there’s so little space to run. There’s fun here, and a great deal of content, with a whole second quest of new levels and remixed challenges waiting after you beat Bowser, but 3D Land is nonetheless weightless.