Nintendo turned Times Square into the Mushroom Kingdom for a day to promote Super Mario Land 3D.

Whether it’s a full mariachi band on the subway, a cop chasing down a cyclist, or thousands of angry protesters, there’s always something unusual going on in New York City. I’ve been here most of my life, and thought I’d seen it all. Leave it to Nintendo to prove me wrong. On November 12, 2011, thousands of fans gathered in Times Square to see Mario as they’ve never seen him before: in a life-size, fully interactive game level. Nintendo gave Mario-philes of all ages the chance to jump off of springy platforms, travel through perilous warp pipes, and even grapple with gargantuan goombas as they traversed the most unusual – and creative – promotion for Super Mario Land 3D yet.

Between 10 AM and 4 PM, hundreds of fans at a time lined up for their chance to explore Mario’s world firsthand. The event space, which was something between a playground and an obstacle course, drew an almost equal number of children and adults, many in costume. After entering the area through a giant 3DS screen, the level began. In classical Mario style, players encountered a golden block with a question mark almost immediately. It didn’t provide any real currency, but a yellow trampoline with a coin-grabbing sound effect ensured that players would get their chance to hit a question block just like a certain red-clad plumber.

As the level continued, it presented just about everything a good Mario game needs: goombas to fight, coins to grab, a narrow beam suspended over a perilous water trap (actually just a small dip in the scenery painted blue), and platforms to ascend. No part of the level captured the feel of the games quite as well as the very last section. A player jumped on three trampolines in rapid succession, picking up momentum as he went, leading to a climb up a narrow staircase, a trip through a warp pipe (a large green slide), and a triumphant pose with an end-of-level flagpole. Each obstacle had a unique sound effect, and Mario music blared in the background, giving a flavor of authenticity – or, at least, as much authenticity as a series about an Italian expatriate rescuing a fairytale princess from a fire-breathing turtle is likely to have. Nintendo even provided a helpful fungal boost in the form of free mushroom pizza for anyone who tweeted about the event with a special hashtag.

After successfully completing the level (and checking off “be in a Mario game” from my list of childhood goals), I met briefly with Marc Franklin, Director of PR for Nintendo. We discussed the huge crowd and positive reaction to the event. “It’s a very different way to experience Mario,” he explained, and gave me a few pointers on why Super Mario Land 3D represents a step forward for the series. Being able to see obstacles in 3D “gives [players] a true sense of depth and distance.” He expects the game to boost 3DS sales, but suggests that folks who pick up the handheld for Mario now will be satisfied with the aggressive release schedule for the holidays and early 2012.

Super Mario Land 3D seems like a solid investment for anyone who’s enjoyed the unfolding drama between Mario, Peach, and Bowser up to this point. It’s not quite as immersive as playing out a level in real life, but on the other hand, the falls tend to be less lethal.

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