Posted on June 08 2011 by Alex Plant
Going into E3, Super Mario 3D was one of my top anticipated already-announced titles – largely because the team behind it, EAD Tokyo, was the same group responsible for the two Super Mario Galaxy games. I got some extensive playtime with it on the show floor so I could muster a solid impressions piece – I probably visited it more than any other 3DS game because I really wanted to make sure I knew what I was talking about, what with it being the most mysterious title in the current 3DS lineup.
Did it live up to my lofty expectations? You’ll have to read on to find out.
I want to bust one myth right off the bat: nothing about this game resembles Super Mario 64, at least not from the demo levels I experienced. If anything, it’s a blend of New Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Galaxy 2. What do I mean by this?
Levels are played with a mostly fixed camera perspective, which often simulates a sort of 2.5D effect – you’ll mostly run along a linear “side-scrolling” path, but you have the option to run towards or away from the screen as well. The level design is also a neat fusion between the already-largely linear levels of Galaxy 2 and the design philosophies behind New Super Mario Bros.. This new approach to 3D Mario level design lets you do a lot of things that previously were limited to 2D Mario titles, such as kick Koopa shells so that they bounce back and forth off walls and blocks or walk along tightropes bridging the gaps between platforms.
I’m a total convert to this style. While I always liked 3D Mario, I’ve also been extremely cognizant of the fact that in terms of design and gameplay style it’s a totally different ballpark from the series’ side-scrolling roots. Super Mario 3D does an excellent job of adhering to the design philosophies of the Super Mario Bros. titles while still giving all levels a healthy bit of the third-dimension along with full analog control. The camera was generally pretty fixed, but you can shift the angle slightly using the D-pad or a pair of camera control icons on the touch screen so you can get a better look at an upcoming platform to more effectively judge the distance.
I think my favorite change, though, is the way the powerups work in this game. Super Mario 3D reverts back to its old-school roots in this department. You’ll start off the demo areas as Super Mario, but if you get hit you’ll lose your cap and get downgraded to Small Mario. As Small Mario, it’s one hit and you’re dead, so you’ll have to look in all the question-mark blocks to find a Super Mushroom so you can restore your health and your full size.
Additional powerups also borrow from classic Mario: they’re not incorporated as required puzzle-solving or exploratory elements as they were in Galaxy, they’re straight up powerups that aren’t necessary to complete a level but make the effort a whole lot easier. In the demo, the only additional upgrades were the Fire Flower, which controls in exactly the way you’d think it would – tap a button, toss a fireball – the invincibility Starman, and the Super Leaf, which transforms you instantly into Tanooki Mario. No, you can’t fly with the Tanooki Suit in this game, but you can perform a Flutter Kick in midair to extend the length of your jump as well as flick your tail to strike grounded blocks and defeat enemies.
When you’re already in powered-up form, if you manage to collect another of the same pickup, it’ll get added to your inventory. You can tap the item’s icon on the lower screen at any time to deploy your stocked-up item should you lose your abilities and have need of them again later in the level. It’s a mechanic borrowed straight from New Super Mario Bros. on the DS.
New to Mario is the somersault move, which seems to be a replacement for the punching and kicking of Super Mario 64 and the Spin Attack of Super Mario Galaxy. And I found it a little strange given that the Circle Pad should theoretically already allow for this, but you need to hold down a dedicated Dash button to run quickly, similar to the 2D Mario games and Super Mario 64 DS.
There were four levels available for demo: a classic grassy stage, a castle in the sky, a level high above the hilltops, and an airship gauntlet followed by a boss battle. They all carry the awesome marks of EAD Tokyo’s influence, plus an obvious inspiration from 2D Mario tradition. The airship level in particular was designed to highly resemble the airships from Super Mario Bros. 3, from the auto-scrolling camera to the jets of flame shooting across the decks.
Most levels have a midway flag at some point in the level, similar to New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2, as well as pipes, which you access by pressing the R button (the same one you use to crouch). Some take you to the next part of the stage, while others lead to secret bonus rooms where you can earn coins or other items. I also saw some pink checkered blocks that, when struck, warp you to a corresponding block somewhere else in the level. At the end of each level is a goal flag that functions exactly like the ones in New Super Mario Bros.. Grab the flagpole to end the level, and if you hit the tippity-top you’ll earn a 1up in the process.
Levels have a set time limit, another feature lifted from the 2D games, but in some levels you’ll find clocks to increase the timer. The number of time left on the clock will give you bonus coins at the end of the stage, which can add up to give you more lives. There are also three Star Coins in each level, and collecting them is just like getting the coins in New Super Mario Bros. and the Comet Medals in Super Mario Galaxy 2. It’s unknown right now what they’re for, but I’m sure we’ll find out when the final game hits this year.
There were a couple new enemies: most noteworthy is a blackish Piranha Plant that spits ink at your screen, which can obscure your view. Another new enemy was bee-like in appearance and hunts you aggressively with its stinger-like nose. I also saw Tanoombas, which are Goombas with a Tanooki tail, as well as the Rocky Wrench, the tool-tossing enemy that first appeared in Super Mario Bros. 3‘s airship levels. The boss enemy was Boom Boom, the recurring fortress guardian, also originating from Mario 3. He fights using the very same strategy as his original appearance, only this time the arena is rendered in 3D.
The 3D effect looks surprisingly good considering the levels are often largely side-scrolling in nature, although, honestly, I was already pretty used to gauging depth without the 3D effect so at first trying to play with the 3D mode engaged was a bit jarring and actually threw me off a little. And I’d say it’s far from a defining feature of the experience – but then this is true for a lot of 3DS games (except a couple in particular – find out which in some of my other impressions previews later on!). The game’s graphics are definitely a step down from Galaxy, but since this game is on a smaller screen I doubt most untrained eyes would even notice.
All in all, I walked away feeling mighty pleased with Super Mario 3D. As I’ve been harping this whole time, the fusion of classic gameplay rules with the newer 3D mechanics is extremely effective, leading to side-scrolling sections that still allow for some 3D control (I’m hoping I can go back to the 2.5D sections of Galaxy now that I’ve seen the light) as well as some top-notch platforming. It’s definitely one of my must-buys come its release sometime this holiday season. I’ve got to say, Nintendo, you’ve really earned my wallet with this one.
Like I did for Skyward Sword, I’ll also take any questions you have about my experience with Super Mario 3D outside of what I’ve outlined here. You can ship your questions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave them as comment responses to this article. Depending on how the responses are, I may do a dedicated Super Mario 3D Q&A, but otherwise I’ll likely bundle my Mario answers along with those for other 3DS games (impressions forthcoming – it takes a long time to go this in-depth!) in a mega FAQ post in a couple days.