There are millions of people who enjoy playing Super Mario games that are three dimensional, games you play from behind Mario's back.
But there are millions more who enjoy playing 2D Super Mario games, games that show Mario from the side. Those games, like New Super Mario Bros. on the DS and New Super Mario Bros. Wii outsell the so-called 3D games like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 by multiple millions of copies.
It sure seems like 2D Mario is more popular than 3D Mario. What's a Nintendo developer making a new Mario game to do about it?
"I think there was a missing link between Super Mario World and Super Mario 64," Nintendo developer Koichi Hayashida told Kotaku in an e-mail interview, who believes that Nintendo's newest Mario could, a decade and a half later, be that link.
Hayashida is the director of the this season's Super Mario 3D Land. He was referring to 1990's penultimate 2D Mario game for the Super Nintendo (there was a Yoshi one after it) and the first 3D Mario game ever, which came out in 1996.
"The development of Super Mario 64 was revolutionary," Hayashida continues. "It answered the question, 'what does it mean to play in a 3D space?' One part of that answer was the 'star system,' in which players walked around in 3D space and collected stars. But I think that in the star system, some players became lost and were unable to find the stars."
Other Nintendo developers, including Mario inventor Shigeru Miyamoto, have also said that they think players of 3D Mario games can get overwhelmed by the challenges of moving through a three-dimensional space. In 3D Marios, the player needs to make more choices about where to go then "to the right" (and sometimes "up", or "down").
Super Mario 3D Land, which plays from pre-set camera angles, does look like it could be Nintendo's desired 2D/3D bridge. In screenshots, the new 3DS adventure looks like a 3D Super Mario 64-style or Super Mario Galaxy-style game, but it's not. "In Super Mario 3D Land, to ensure that players wouldn't get lost, we employed a simple system in which players can reach the flagpole by moving forward or to the right," Hayashida explained. "Later, as players progress through the game, they are able to enjoy the searching style of game play that comes with collecting star medals.
"I hope that many people will play Super Mario 3D Land and that it will serve as a gateway to 3D Mario gaming. If [they] enjoy this game, then I would also recommend the Super Mario Galaxy series."
Even, if they've solved one 3D-Mario conundrum, the makers of Super Mario 3D Land have also had to work through a second one. The game isn't just 3D in the sense of being played from behind Mario's back much of the time. It's also 3D in that 3D-glasses sense (though the 3DS has a screen that shows stereoscopic 3D without the need for glasses). That kind of 3D has been its own design challenge, partially because the 3DS makes 3D merely optional.
Hayashida hopes they actually made the game's stereoscopic 3D useful. "I think the stages that are like trick art really take advantage of the 3D element," he said. "We tried to make the stages so that if you look at the stage in 3D, you'll be able to figure out the answer right away and so that even if you don't use 3D, you can figure out the answer after playing for a bit."
3D was in for this game, but multiplayer, an increasingly common aspect of the series, was out. They did try to get it in. It sounds, oddly, like the developers had been considering making a multiplayer game that involved multiple people looking at a single 3DS. "The stereoscopic 3D element of Super Mario 3D Land is not suited to multiple people looking at the screen simultaneously, so we gave up on multiplayer game play for this game," the game's producer, Yoshiaki Koizumi said. They really wanted a Super Mario 3D Land that people could play together. He vowed: "We will pursue this challenge again in the future."
Here at Kotaku, we've had few complaints about Super Mario 3D Land. Our review is a love letter. We didn't need a missing link, but maybe several million people did. It sounds like they might finally have one.