There are plenty of attention-grabbing things about Super Mario 3D Land – especially if you’re a Super Mario veteran who tends to look for salutations to old games in every new one – but the lavish visuals sit comfortably at the top of that list. This is the game that really demonstrates the raw power that exists beneath the bonnet of Nintendo’s newest handheld, and unsurprisingly, it also makes some of the best usage yet of the unit’s 3D capabilities. As was the case with their glorious recent redux of Ocarina of Time – only more so – this is one Nintendo 3DS game that you probably won’t even consider experiencing in 2D.

We managed to get some hands-on time with four different levels, and the game is looking like a very smart blend of the old-school 2D iterations of the NES era with the three-dimensional likes of Super Mario Galaxy. Although there are sections that possess the same go-anywhere openness of Galaxy, the perspective frequently shifts into the kind of 2D/3D hybrids that were last seen in the underrated Super Paper Mario. With a fixed side-on perspective, level 1-2 (for example) shares the simplicity of the early 2D games, whilst also allowing you to wander back and forth between the front and the rear of each environment.

It’s an appealing starting point for anyone who is not yet familiar with Mario’s 3D adventures, but the full-blown, Galaxy-esque sections won’t intimidate anyone, primarily because they’ve been streamlined somewhat. Whether this is true of the later levels remains to be seen, but based on these four, Super Mario 3D Land is looking to be a much more linear experience than Galaxy or its sequel were. That said, these levels are all set to appear very early on in the game – the latest and most difficult level of the three was stage 3-3 – so there is obviously scope for this to change later on; but the linearity definitely doesn’t damage the appeal of the gameplay anyway.

There is no clue yet whether it’ll be based around a hub-world or something more traditional, but judging by the success of the back-to-basics menu system featured in Super Mario Galaxy 2, something along those lines is expected. The controls are as tight and responsive as usual, and there’s no unneccessary usage of the stylus screen evident at this point. The sturdy 3DS thumbstick could have been built for this game alone, and mapping the ducking and ground pound commands to the L and R buttons respectively keeps the game in line with the terrific Nintendo DS title New Super Mario Bros.

As a welcome nod to the NES original, each level (bar the fourth, which was a boss battle) climaxed with a leap onto the top of a flagpole, and the Tanooki suit is back; although you won’t be able to use it to fly this time, and it’s not yet clear whether or not you’ll be able to use it to morph into a statue any more. We did notice that certain power ups were visible on the console’s lower screen during play; which indicates that they can be stored after collection. Although these four nibbles of the game were far from difficult (which is something that will probably be remedied before the game’s release) Galaxy’s devious Challenge Coins return, and they’re as cunningly out-of-reach as ever.

Considering the amazing (and consistent) level of quality that was delivered in Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, it was a very shrewd move for Nintendo to hand over the reins of Mario’s first 3DS adventure to that exceptionally talented development team. It’s still too early to tell whether or not Super Mario 3D Land will scale the same dizzy heights of quality that Galaxy 1 and 2 ascended to, but the prognosis is very good indeed. The Nintendo 3DS is still awaiting a bona fide killer app – one that isn’t a remake, anyway – and if this isn’t it, be shocked.

Super Mario 3D Land is currently due for release in December 2011.

Watch the Super Mario 3D Land trailer here:


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