Here’s another piece of nostalgia! Like Link’s Awakening and Pokemon Red, Super Mario Land is one of the earliest games I can remember playing and owning. The Mario franchise is an institution; I’m certain that anyone who plays videogames has a Mario game they remember as “their” game. It’s probably either their first one or one which made an impact on their childhood, and given my professed love of the original Game Boy, it should come as no surprise to find out this particular game (along with its sequel) are those games for me.
Super Mario Land (GB)
Released Apr 1989 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
When this game is brought up in online discussions it has a weird reputation. You’d be forgiven for thinking, “how?” – after all, Mario has been around for decades and, frankly, they got it right with Super Mario Bros. back in 1985 so surely any sequels just need to basically do that again and you’re golden, right? Well, Super Mario Land isn’t quite one of the oddball sequels in that it messes about with the formula, and nor does it shake the Mario foundations up in any kind of game-changing way, but instead it’s remembered as one of the strange Mario games because it almost gets things right, but then veers away in bizarre ways.
Take the first screen of the game, for example. At first glance things look alright: you’ve got Mario, looking a little squished and small, but this is the Game Boy after all and he was never going to look as good as he does on the NES. The important point is that our hero is recognisable as our favourite dumpy Italian plumber. Off to his left is a pipe, well-known as the preferred mode of travel for the denizens of the Mushroom Kingdom of course, and hovering above is a ‘?’ block, just waiting for you to smack it and grab whatever it hides within. So far, so good; it all feels pretty ‘Mario’, right? I mean, the palm trees and pyramids looming in the background are a little offbeat, but that’s alright. Moving to the right a little prompts what is unmistakably a Goomba to start trundling towards you. Once again, the sprite is reduced down to the barest of bones due to the limited power and display on the Game Boy to the point where basically an angry triangle is marching at you, but who cares, it’s still obviously one of the franchise’s most iconic enemies, and stomping on them feels just the same as ever. However, once the first Koopa bobbled onto the screen is when the game first surprised me.I’m sure most of us know how Koopas work: you bounce on their backs and they retreat into their shell, which can then be kicked along, knocking out enemies as it slides its merry way into the nearest pit or rebounds off a wall and cracks Mario a good one in his pudgy nose. With that in mind, I am willing to bet plenty of people had the same first experience with Super Mario Land’s koopas as me; after the tried-and-trusted method of stomping on them left a shell, naturally I ran up to it ready to give it a swift kick. Imagine my surprise when not only did it not get flung away, but it instead exploded, taking Mario out with it! Okay, no, it’s fine, I get it, the Game Boy can’t handle shell physics, sure.
So, once you’ve adjusted your deeply-ingrained Mario gameplay understanding to accommodate for explosive turtles, you carry on through your adventure doing all the usual platforming stuff. Soon enough you reach a boss stage, ready to throw down with Bowser. As you edge closer to the end of the level the telltale fireballs start getting launched at you and of course it still feels cool to dodge underneath or leap over them at just the last second – and then, just when you’re expecting Bowser’s big ugly mug to appear, turns out it’s actually a sphinx! Of course! What else would it be? After a gruelling fight (or you take the easy route and swing underneath and past him) Mario rushes into the antechamber to rescue Princess Daisy only for her to… transform into a monster and rush away? If you’re confused about any of this, well, welcome to why Super Mario Land is considered a bit of an eccentric game in the Mario franchise.
Of course, that eccentricity, combined with the simplicity of Mario’s first Game Boy outing, can be off-putting to some. That’s fair enough; what Mario is and should be like is fairly established, and even in 1989 the franchise had a sense of identity that many would recognise today so for something to come along and be even a tiny bit different can be jarring. That said, I think if you can look past the surface level stuff being distinct from the norm, underneath the game is still pretty much your standard Mario platformer. You know the drill: you run to the right, jumping your way over platforms, and if an enemy gets in your way you can stomp on their heads to take them out. You still collect 100 coins for an extra life, you still pick up mushrooms to make Mario grow in size and get an extra hitpoint, collecting flowers enables Mario to shoot fireballs, and picking up a star gives you a brief window of invulnerability to let you charge headfirst through baddies. All the fundamental things which make up a Mario game are preserved in some form or another, and I think that’s what matters.
At least two stages are side-scrolling shmup levels, which help break up the flow a bit, but they’re also a chance for you to breathe and relax a tiny bit because the regular levels in Super Mario Land can definitely be challenging. Maybe it’s just a Mario thing, or maybe it’s that I’m rubbish at these games (hint: it’s almost definitely this), but my replay experience was certainly characterised by an amount of dying again and again at specific spots in stages, especially once world 3 rolled in and I struggled to find safe spots to land while being bombarded by flying moai heads, to the degree that I think I largely found myself having to learn enemy placements in levels rather than feeling like I was surpassing the game’s challenges organically. Older games were like that though; after all, this was still in the era of the arcade game mentality that meant games had to be a bit hard to drain unsuspecting kids of their money, and that game design ideology felt present here. In the end, my successful run of the game took me about an hour, so I suppose if I hadn’t had those previous hours learning the game I’d not have gotten my money’s worth.
As a portable Mario game – indeed, as the first portable Mario game – Super Mario Land had quite a lot to live up to and get right. I imagine there was quite a lot riding on whether it managed to preserve the feel of the franchise, and as I’ve tried to suggest here, I think that it succeeded – perhaps not perfectly, and perhaps not elegantly, but succeeded nevertheless. The sacrifices it made along the way came no doubt as a result of the need to be portable, which is presumably why it’s a more condensed experience, but that also suits the needs of handheld gaming. Super Mario Land gets what it means to be a game on a system like the Game Boy; its levels are relatively brief, and there’s never tons of things happening on-screen at once which helps visibility and understanding on a smaller screen. It’s an addictive game to try and master, a fact which is helped by the unlockable harder difficulty after you first beat the game. I feel like I’m loath to criticize Super Mario Land too much, to be honest. I can respect it for what it set out to achieve, but it does have to cut some corners along the way.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.