Previews

Mario 3DS: Out with the new and in with the old...

Classic Mario or just recycling ideas?

Look at that title. Could it be that after Land, World and Galaxy there's simply nowhere left for Mario to go? Not quite. He could always go... backwards. And this is exactly where EAD Tokyo have set their sights, the Galaxy brain factory aiming to marry their modern looks to a traditional style of play. Super Mario Galaxy Bros 3, if you will. And we certainly will...

At first, Super Mario is disorientating. Put your thumb to the circle pad and Mario doesn't move like he looks he should. He's slow. Treacle slow. But he looks like Galaxy Mario. Limber Mario. Nippy Mario. Joyously athletic Mario.

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Who is this arthritic imposter, and what's wrong with his jump? It's a rigid animation, short on mid-air after-steer. Puny, too - he hardly gets inches off the ground. And unless our timing is horribly off, he doesn't care for triple jumps either. Or backflips. A 3D Mario who doesn't backflip? It's torches and pitchfork time, people.

Judged on a minute of control acclimatising, Super Mario is a massive misfire. Until it hits us: this isn't a 3D Mario. Well, physically he is. But his soul? His soul is a 2D sprite. This is the Mario of Super Mario Bros: stumpy of jump, plodding of pace. He has a dash button.

Hit it and his feet pitter-patter in a manner unmistakable to NES acolytes. EAD Tokyo, for all intents and purposes, have made 2D 3D. This is the arcade Mario who taught us how to platform, not the N64 doppelganger who translated that moveset into a functional 3D world. In this sense, it's a miraculous feat of character animation. But it is a wise one? EAD Tokyo have four stages to convince us...

ALTERNATIVE GALAXY
World 2-1 (the game opts for old level labelling) plays like a deeply unambitious Galaxy stage. Three moving platforms raise Mario up a central pillar to a finishing flag (another old nod) that can be reached in a minute's play. It's easy. Too easy.

Though it does make 2-1 a safe area to dust off Super Mario Bros 3's Tanooki suit. Bizarrely, it spawns from a super leaf (the Raccoon Mario powerup) and doesn't turn Mario into a statue any more. Tail swipe is present and correct, but we see no sign of flight - there's no P meter, and running along longer platforms elicits not a millimetre of upward movement.

Director Yoshiaki Koizumi admits the suit is intended as a beginner's tool, slowing Mario's descent for uneasy newbies. Indeed, the second demo stage - set in the familiar blue-toned underworld - continues the beginner's vibe. Here we meet black piranha plants who gob nasty ink over the screen (very Mario Kart) and swinging demolition balls that swoop into the foreground in satisfying 3D.

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A bit of sneaky wall jumping also gets Mario up onto the ceiling, where he can run along to a warp room. A fun nostalgic nod, but we'd prefer EAD Tokyo to cook up an amazing secret of their own, rather than recycle bits of Miyamoto's cleverness.

While a 3D space, this gauntlet is filmed side-on, undermining an otherwise lovely use of 3D depth. Most stages use a slightly adjustable isometric view (the D-pad can rotate it at fixed increments) that gives a better sense of depth. Even so, we're not entirely sold on 3D as a revolutionary platforming tool. Shadows still tell us what's above and below.

The 3D is better used emphasising EAD's chunky toy box aesthetic and making fireballs and green shells ricochet prettily. Of course, maybe we know Mario too well to need a 3D guide. Perhaps it only seems ineffective because we don't need the effect.

Thankfully, the two remaining stages are top stuff. Bounding across auto-scrolling battleships is a nostalgic rush, dodging flames and Bullet Bills that fly out of the screen in schlocky 3D fashion. Oddly, the stage ends in a fight with a spinning Boom-Boom Koopa, upgraded from SMB3 fortress miniboss to airship big shot. Good to see the Koopa clan have healthy career progression.

After this 8-bit hit, we're back in 2011 with a stage that builds itself from green panels as you progress through - an abstract platforming challenge that wouldn't be out of place in Galaxy.

STRANGE FRUIT
It's an odd game, for sure. One that didn't win us over instantly, but that's still winning us over after many, many playthroughs. Marios - particularly EAD's Marios - are meant to leave jaws dropped and the other Nintendo mascots giving it the evils. At E3, the queues are for Luigi's Mansion 2 and Mario Kart. Super Mario's problem? It looks like Galaxy, but it isn't Galaxy.

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And it feels like Super Mario Bros 3, but it isn't Super Mario Bros 3. It's very strange and very new. And if Tokyo EAD have taught us anything in Galaxy, it's that strange new worlds are their speciality.

So: hooray! With an undertone of: hmmm. With that, we return to the Nintendo stand (this is a last minute hands-on) for a few more goes. If there's a masterpiece hidden in these four levels, we'll find it in time for the next preview.

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