For: Nintendo 3DS
ESRB rating: Everyone (mild cartoon violence)
It's hard to believe there's a dimension that has eluded the plumber who took platforming mainstream in two dimensions, reinvented it in three, and spent entire chunks of two recent adventures running upside down like it was a morning jog.
But "Super Mario 3D Land" takes place in a dimension that is neither exclusively two nor three dimensions, and the game's willingness to present itself from semi-fixed angles that change from level to level makes it hard to pin this down with mere numbers or names.
Lest you worry, "SM3DL" plays at its core like any other Mario game. Mario can run, jump, punch blocks and kick turtle shells as naturally as ever, and the goal - reach the flagpole before time runs out - is a callback to the very first "Super Mario Bros." A hall of fame's worth of classic enemies (Goombas, Bullet Bills, Boos, Bowser and his kids) returns alongside some new enemies, and Mario complements some new power-ups (the boomerang suit being the most prominent addition) with a handful of perennial and returning favorites (fire flower, Tanooki suit, propeller box).
"SM3DL" moves at a very slightly slower speed than most contemporary Mario games do, particularly with regard to how quickly Mario can transition from a run to the kind of sprint needed to make longer jumps. But the difference is nearly negligible, and if you're familiar with Mario's repertoire, you need not even crack the manual to become almost instantly acclimated with "SM3DL's" controls.
Rather, where "SM3DL" deviates is by filtering that time-tested action through a new perspective that borrows equally (and simultaneously) from Mario's 2D and 3D adventures.
Though levels frequently look like 3D Mario levels, they're presented from a fixed angle that prioritizes running through them linearly instead of exploring them from all angles. Every level hides three special coins off the main road, and collecting them often comprises the most satisfying and challenging aspects of "SM3DL's" main quest, but that's the extent of exploration.
Initially, and thanks to a crop of early levels that are fun but too short and entirely too easy to complete, the perspective shift feels like a compromise.
But once it gets comfortable, Nintendo does what it does best and mines the new angles for as much unique gold as it can. Some levels pull the camera sideway to start as old-fashioned 2D levels before rotating and zooming way out to reveal a massively vertical environment that still moves with the urgency of an old-fashioned sidescroller. Occasionally, the game shifts slightly diagonally to add layers behind layers (think "LittleBigPlanet," only more intuitive). Sometimes it opts for a strict overhead view with scrolling rooms - essentially paying tribute to the original "Legend of Zelda's" level design while infusing it with the full might of Mario's athletic arsenal.
"SM3DL's" original eight-world quest never becomes terribly difficult, but when these and numerous other ideas start flowing and Nintendo goes a little crazy with the level designs, the continual promise of surprises lurking around corners makes the tepid difficulty relatively easy to forgive.
Should you disagree, the revelation of a second quest (which avails itself upon completion of the first) should soothe your concerns. Nintendo has been protective of the knowledge that a second quest even exists in "SM3DL," so without spoiling too much of what lies within, let's just say this: It's much tougher than the first quest, and its fearlessness with regard to difficulty lets it go that much crazier with the designs and special conditions it tosses around. If the "SM3DL" Nintendo advertises on the box isn't doing it for you, the one hiding behind it almost certainly will.