You would have thought, what with launching a new platform with a pretty impressive USP, that Mario would have been sitting prettily on the shelves at launch, taking full advantage of the new, glasses-free 3D and...blahblahblahNintendoscrewedupthe3DSlaunchblahblah. I could preface all of these previews with a stern castigation of Nintendo's release policy and failure to support their newest member of the family, but it'd eventually be akin to a stuck record.
Let us rejoice, instead, that Mario is making an appearance, and a new one at that. Super Mario 3DS (the working title) probably won't win any prizes for originality based on our twenty minute hands-on demo, but it is shaping up to strike a perfect balance between the retro and modern day without simply going back in time as New Super Mario Bros. did.
The first thing you notice about the game is that it's not really a 3D platformer as such. The camera is fixed, offering up an isometric perspective . As if a 2.5D game's camera has been shifted upwards to give a better sense of depth. It's a slightly jarring experience: at first glance it seems to be a perfect recreation of the modern 3D style we've come to expect from Nintendo EAD Tokyo, the team behind the superlative Super Mario Galaxy. But our moustached hero is still gently nudged from left to right, following a relatively linear path.
Mario himself is still up to his old tricks - the longer jump from Super Mario 64 returns, he can still backflip to his heart's content and buttstomp meanies - but he no longer grabs onto ledges, wall sliding and wall jumping being the order of the day. Earlier this year, when the game was announced, we got a sneaky teaser that the Tanooki Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 would be returning, and return it has. Whilst wearing the suit, Mario can bust blocks with his newly acquired tail and wag his bum appendage to make far floatier descents through the air than he could before. Alas, though, no flying this time around.
We got a chance to see four brief levels from the game, the length of them all perfectly suited to the pick up and play strengths of the portable medium. It's a game more designed around classic platforming elements rather than exploration. There are still pipes that lead to secretive rooms filled with coins, still plenty to collect and gather, but nothing that quite stands out as anything particularly unique.
The first level we saw, World 1-2, looked like it had been plucked straight from New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Confined to a 2D plane for most of it, Mario leapt around, stomping on Goombas pretty much as before. It didn't really show us anything new and the visual effects were largely wasted. There were a few spikes that, literally, stood out, but other than that it was basically 'just another Mario level'.
World 2-1, though was a far more open space that was highly reminiscent of Super Mario 64. Green, colourful, this was classic 3D Mario...or so it seemed to begin with. I jumped straight in expecting something expansive and ripe for exploration, and the visual effects really give off a sense of depth, that there's more to explore, but you quickly find that the levels are really just bitesized chunks of gameplay. Nintendo once again refusing to take a step forward and wallowing in past glory. That's not to say it isn't enjoyable, the platforming is excellent (although the isometric perspective can sometimes make judging jumps a little tricky - a problem eased with the 3D slider set to maximum) but it's all a bit safe.
World 3-3 had some nice elements to it, a simple yet effective platforming convention - disappearing floor tiles - used to great effect. Coming to a huge pit, Mario hits a switch and some green tiles begin to snake their way across the chasm, leading a path to safety. But, as is often the case, as soon as Mario takes a few steps, they start falling away behind him, and the trek across becomes a little race against the clock, picking your way across the forming path and navigating traps before the tiles beneath your feet disappear.
Finally, World 2-5 takes a big chunk of inspiration from SMB3 as well. Set on an airship, Mario has to navigate cannons bombarding him with Bullet Bills. Again, this one was pretty much entirely set on a 2D plane, but it posed a slightly (emphasis on the slight) larger challenge than the absurdly easy levels that came before. One of SMB3's bosses even stopped by for tussle, but dodging Boom Boom and smacking him on the head was just as straightforward as everything else that came before.
Super Mario is shaping up to be exactly what it says on the tin: another Mario game. That's no cause for disappointment, the return of the plumber is always welcome, but I couldn't help feeling slightly apathetic about it. Nintendo shouldn't have to break the mould with every game that their mascot is in, but you make sequels to take advantage of new technologies, new advances in design and to try out new ideas. What we saw just looked like an easygoing, nostalgic continuation of form from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, as if trying to top Galaxy and its sequel is out of the question. We're always happy to see Mario again, but quite frankly it's his brother's return that's holding far more excitement for me at the moment.