'Super Mario 3D Land' Aims to End Nintendo's Slump

Everyone certainly seems to hate Nintendo these days, don't they?

Okay, so maybe that's not the most profound statement, but unlike the Wii envy of 2006-2010, Nintendo naysaying circa 2011 is a vintage that's universally popular, and nearly equally justified. From the 3DS' disastrous first six months to the complete nonentity that was Wii's last year, Nintendo's 2011 was just regrettable all around.

Only a small sliver of Nintendo's recent poor performance wasn't entirely its own fault. To combat third-party assertions that Nintendo makes good games for Nintendo consoles in a malicious attempt to somehow keep non-tendo developers from doing the same, Nintendo purposely left the first few months of the 3DS' life more or less free of first-party blockbusters.

Third-party developers responded to Nintendo's show of cooperation in a predictable way—they ignored the system altogether, leaving the 3DS with unacceptably few games from any source. Lesson learned, Nintendo.

Which brings us to today, with Nintendo finally awakening the father of all franchises and loosing him from his unjust chains. Super Mario 3D Land is upon us, and with a killer app spurring things on, 3DS sales have nowhere to go but up.

At first glance, Super Mario 3D Land is everything you'd want from a portable Mario title. A happy-go-lucky Italian plumber puts on a raccoon suit and ventures through worlds that alternate between storybook tableaus and leftover Toy Story set designs in a quest to free an oft-kidnapped princess from a giant, fire-breathing turtle. If it ain't broke, and all that.

And at second glance, it does all of that just so right. This isn't a Super Mario Galaxy or a New Super Mario Bros, but a hybrid that lands somewhere in between. Despite the 3D pedigree, Super Mario 3D Land does all it can to keep from scaring away players who cut their teeth on a Mario with one-third fewer dimensions. Instead of sprawling levels that seem to go everywhere, SM3D has smaller pockets of three-dimensional action that go here, then there, then somewhere else again, all with a lot of jumping in between.

The 3D effects are, of course, pretty much spot-on. Super Mario 3D Land does what precious few 3D Pilotwings or Street Fighters (or Avatars, for that matter) have been able to do: Make you forget about that big, ubiquitous selling point. Mario handles comfortably in this, a landscape at once familiar and new. This 3DS version makes no silly, gimmicky demands, instead letting players use its stereoscopic window to see Mario's weird world again for the first time.

But despite all that, there remains something just ever so slightly wrong in the portable house of Mario. The wow factor so prevalent in previous "next-gen" Marios—the first time exploring Peach's castle in Super Mario 64 or toying with capricious gravity effects in Super Mario Galaxy—just isn't there in sufficient quantities. The Mario series is at its best when it's the very essence of a flagship franchise, carrying the banner forward and defining the plan of action for a thousand lesser franchises without even trying. Super Mario 3D Land, on the other hand, seems just a bit too content to rest on its laurels.

Some of that is done in a very literal sense. The last couple of Marios attempted to get back to the series' roots without really considering whether this is a good idea. This is a dangerous game, and Super Mario 3D Land doesn't bring enough of its own to the table to warrant the amount of content it borrows from its predecessors (while sometimes stripping out the best parts of said content). Yes, this is a decades-old franchise, but even New Super Mario Bros Wii managed to fit a penguin suit in there.

And then there's the boxed-in feeling that sets in after a few levels. After exploring various Mario-based worlds and galaxies over the years, going back to another mere Mario land feels like a step back in more than name only. SM3D just feels smaller than previous "3D" Marios. The half-and-half approach—a Mario that can move in three dimensions but doesn't necessarily live in a world that encourages it— leads to a game that doesn't quite grow enough in any one direction.

What it comes down to is, this is not necessarily a Mario game for Mario veterans. It's a good game, yes, and definitely the kind of shot in the arm that the 3DS needs, but it too often teases at bigger, better versions of itself without ultimately paying off in bigger, better ways.

And maybe that's what third-party developers are afraid of. As portable systems become more robust, their games approach an uncanny valley-like situation where they appear to be more "real" than they actually are in ways that can confuse and disturb. After Mario 3D, I'd be worried about that, too.