It feels very appropriate to be writing about Mario in the run up to Christmas. Even though his games make no explicit reference to The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, and in fact are often blatantly summery with their primary colours and warm blue skies, there’s just something inherently festive about the squat plumber and his surreal world.
Maybe that’s why it’s been Super Mario 3D Land that has kept me coming back, alternating with Skyrim for my gaming attention these past few months.
Obviously, the game features a jolly fellow with a bulging tummy and a fondness for red clothing. That he clearly takes great pleasure in descending down enclosed spaces – green pipes, chimneys, whatever – is the icing on a Santa-shaped cake.
But Mario’s festive credentials go deeper than that. Buried right in the DNA of Super Mario Land 3D is something that goes beyond the surface trappings of what is “Christmassy” and cuts straight to the heart of the holiday. Mario is about joy.
It’s true of most Mario games, of course, but there’s something about the handheld intimacy of Super Mario Land 3D, something in the way the 3D effect makes it feel more than ever like a delightful parallel universe you can almost reach out and touch, that makes this a particularly potent example of what makes the plumber so special.
Like all the best Christmases, Super Mario 3D Land is both comfortingly familiar and thrillingly new. It’s steeped in Nintendo lore, and makes no secret of its desire to win you over with fondly remembered audio and visual cues. Over a quarter century of gaming, Mario has stayed true to his original aesthetic so even now you can draw a direct line from the latest title all the way back to the 1980s. The yellow blocks, the bulbous trees, the yelps and wahoos: all, in their own way, as traditional as mince pies, holly wreaths and overcooked sprouts.
But Super Mario Land 3D is also full of surprises. It strikes a near perfect balance of tried and trusted gameplay, spiced up with a procession of tweaks, twists and flourishes that constantly make you reconsider the basic hops and jumps. It’s 2011, and we really shouldn’t be surprised when a game puts us underwater or asks us to navigate platforms that unfold and unpack as we walk along, yet somehow Mario still has me grinning like a loon, perpetually delighted with each new level, whether I’m firing cannons in a desert or running around in a haunted house. The game bounds over my cynical adult defences and leaves me brimming with excitement at what the next level will hold, and the one after that, and the one after that.
It doesn’t take long to romp through the game’s eight worlds, of course. The levels are all bite-sized morsels, designed to fit into your bus journey, toilet time or whatever moments accompany your gaming-on-the-go, but where too many games see handheld as an excuse to go small (yes, Sonic, we’re looking at you), Mario’s stocking is deceptively roomy.
Beat the game and you unlock the second half, with even more new abilities and levels waiting to be mastered. And then there’s a bit more. And, if you want the actual actual ending, you should finish all the levels with Mario and Luigi. It’s another Mario tradition, but to see so much content squeezed into a format blighted by make-do efforts is still a true pleasure.
It’s also wonderfully inclusive. The game is generous with extra lives and, in the early portion, offers invincibility to players who fail repeatedly. And while the structure may seem daunting, you can pretty much set your own victory criteria. If beating the first eight worlds is achievement enough, so be it. If you want to keep pushing yourself, the game offers enough evolutions to make that a viable goal as well.
Familiar and fresh. Predictable and surprising. Super Mario 3D Land is a delicious contradiction, and one that renders a lot of my critical faculties surplus to requirements. Every time grumbles about formula bubble to the surface, they’re immediately popped by some charming twist.
Writing about games for a living, it can be difficult to truly lose yourself in a game. There’s always a secondary narrative running in your head as you pick the experience apart through habit. That doesn’t really happen with Super Mario 3D Land. On the rare moments that I mentally step back far enough to be self-conscious, I always find I’ve got the biggest, stupidest grin plastered across my face. It’s a nice feeling.
And that’s why, as much as I’ve immersed myself in the tale of the Dovahkiin, as much as GLaDOS made my neurons fire that little bit harder, it’s Mario that not only defines my gaming year, but explains why I even play games in the first place.