After a stormy night, Princess Peach takes a stroll outside the castle to check out the Tanooki leaf tree… without Mario or her toadstool attendants. Bowser was apparently waiting right outside because he grabs her and sends a flying letter to Mario with a 3D picture showing Princess Peach in his claws. Thus begins another day in the Mushroom Kingdom, but this time Tanooki leaves are everywhere and Mario isn’t the only one with a tail. Super Mario 3D Land has *Bullet Bills* with tanooki tails.
You’ll see tailed goombas in World 1-1 first, moving and swinging their tails to the music. While Mario had a three hit combo in Super Mario 64, he can only jump and ground pound in Super Mario 3D Land. The Tanooki tail is Mario’s main melee attack. While Super Mario 3D Land has 3D levels, stages aren’t designed as open ended worlds to explore. There may be hidden 1up mushrooms to find or caches of, but Super Mario 3D Land’s levels are linear like the NES games and designed for "train time." If you ignore star medals, you can race through most stages in a couple of minutes. It feels as if Super Mario 3D Land was built with speedruns in mind, in fact levels keep track of your clear time. Each world in Super Mario 3D Land is four or five stages long with either an airship to board or a castle to conquer at the end.
As a homage to Super Mario Bros., the first castle has a battle with Bowser where you have to dodge fireballs before facing him on a bridge. Nintendo switched the perspective so fireballs fly towards the screen. After darting underneath fireballs, the camera rotates as Mario runs on a stone floor parallel to the wooden bridge. Bowser stands in the background continuing his fireball assault. When you finally come toe to toe with Bowser, the battle begins, but doesn’t last long if you use the run through your enemy tactic from Super Mario Bros. to defeat him. Super Mario 3D Land also has nods to Super Mario Bros. 3 like springy music note blocks and falling donut lifts (that reappear after a few seconds in 3D Land). Rainbow notes and red coins come from more modern Mario games. Putting all of these elements together gave the development team flexibility when designing stages and it shows in Super Mario 3D Land. In one level you’re swimming underwater, the next stage may be an auto-scrolling level, and then you’re in a ghost house staring at Boo Diddleys so they don’t chase you.
However, stages don’t have as much character as other 3D Mario games like Super Mario Galaxy. Even though levels have different challenges, you tend to be jumping on colorful Lego-like blocks no matter where you are. Perhaps, having too many decorative objects would have been overwhelming with the system’s 3D effect on? I set the 3DS depth slider to around 50% and blocks still floated out of the screen. Super Mario 3D Land has a mix of a shoebox diorama effect where you’re looking into a world with objects popping out. Pressing down on the d-pad switches the game into extended depth view, which intensifies the effect by making everything look even further away. This was way too much 3D for me and I could only play Super Mario 3D Land with the slider set to 20% in this setting. Turning 3D off completely made Super Mario 3D Land look bland, so I kept it on in standard view.
One neat level you’ll see in World 2 has an uncommon item – the propeller block. Grab this and Mario can fly, but only straight up. After you lift off, you’ll see the platforms are actually giant 8-bit sprites. I remember Nintendo saying the system’s 3D effect will make jumping easier. It does a tiny bit when you’re falling and the camera is behind you. I think the game’s longer drop times, which give players more time to adjust where Mario lands and his shadow as a landing point indicator are more helpful. The Tanooki tail, which is commonly found, also gives players have extra time to guide Mario to solid ground. Jumping from platform to platform isn’t that tough in Super Mario 3D Land. You don’t have to bounce from enemy to enemy just to clear a large gap or master the somersault. Extra lives are easy to come by without infinite 1up tricks too. By the end of World 2, I naturally amassed dozens of extra lives. Maybe people trying a Mario game for the first time won’t have the same experience, so Nintendo added an optional super play system to help newcomers get through Super Mario 3D Land. Lose five lives in one stage and you’ll get a silver Tanooki suit that grants unlimited invincibly, but doesn’t protect you from pits. Keep loosing lives and a P-wing block will appear, which will warp you to the end of the level if you hit it.
Getting to the goal isn’t taxing in Super Mario 3D Land. The challenge is collecting all of the hidden star medals. Nintendo placed these in warp pipes, behind Thwomps, and often in places where you have to wall jump diagonally. (Protip: Mario can wall jump off the screen.) A certain amount of star medals are needed to unlock some stages and complete the game. There are three to find in each stage, but you can collect a bunch by completing mystery boxes. Represented by a purple question mark block on the world map, mystery boxes are ten second challenge rooms. These may have goombas to stomp or fire spitting piranha flowers to defeat. Other times there are coin blocks to hit or Toads that throw 1up mushrooms at Mario inside. All mystery boxes also have at least one star medal you can earn by completing them. Mystery boxes reset after a certain amount of real life time (or clock resetting) and have different layouts randomly selected by the game. Replaying these is an easy way to earn more star medals. The new Boomerang Mario suit is another handy item for collecting star medals. Just like Link’s weapon, the boomerang in 3D Land grabs star medals and can hit more than one enemy if you avoid catching it right away. The downside to Boomerang Mario is his projectile moves slower than Fire Mario’s fireballs and you can only toss one boomerang at a time.
Throughout the game’s eight worlds, you’ll face the same kinds of bosses. Boom Boom returns from Super Mario Bros. 3 with a buddy I’d like to call Boomerang Boom. This new enemy throws boomerangs before going into a shell spinning frenzy when Mario jumps on her. I looked through my play log and it took me roughly six hours to complete Super Mario 3D Land’s eight worlds. After the main game, a new set of post-Princess saving content opens up. Some of these are remixed levels from Super Mario 3D Land along with brand new stages. There are a few surprises here geared towards Mario fans, so I don’t want to spoil those. The time I spent with the extra content was longer than the main game since some stages will test even diehard Mario fans. One level with a musical twist kept me or maybe I should say Mario on his toes.