Super Mario Land (isn’t So Super)

The Game Boy was a dominating brand for over an entire decade. While technically superior, many competing handhelds stepped up to the plate and struck out year after year. With it’s humble 4-shades-of-grey, no-backlight,  no-color (except green-tinted) screen, the Game Boy defied all odds and was put into the hands of every child. Also thrust into the hands of children everywhere was the “classic” Mario game, Super Mario Land. Mario’s first portable adventure and for some people, their first Mario game ever, Super Mario Land was an attempt to capture the magic of his console adventures that has continued to captivate gamers for decades.

Super Mario Land-title

This Ain’t No Mushroom Kingdom

Having defeated Bowser during his adventure in Super Mario Bros., Mario’s services are temporarily no longer required in the Mushroom Kingdom. Instead, we follow Mario through the world of Sarasaland as he saves the other important woman of nobility, Princess Daisy. Being in a different world, in a different time, and on the Game Boy instead of the NES, it is expected that Super Mario Land is not going to be exactly like Super Mario Bros, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing, however, is that the product we received feels like a game that wants to be Super Mario Bros. but couldn’t quite make it.

Big Mario, Small, Messy World

The awful Superball power-up will give you a new appreciation for the firebals…

To accommodate the lower resolution of the Game Boy, Nintendo had to rework how a Mario game looks. The Game Boy has a bit less than 2/3 the available screen space as the NES which meant that there was a lot less room to show details. With this in mind, certain things had to be sacrificed for the sake of gameplay. Most noticeably, the size of individual blocks became much smaller, as did many other objects. However, as Mario is an iconic character, they left Mario rather large allowing the player to recognize him. The overall size of the character immediately begins to cause some problems with his surroundings and sadly, this is just the beginning of Mario’s difficulties.

While you can clearly see Mario, it feels like you can never really tell where he is. The collision detection, even compared to the admittedly loose collision of the original Super Mario Bros., is poor, confusing and frustrating. The blocks are too small compared to Mario which lends to situations where you aren’t quite sure what spot to stand in to jump through a one block hole. Not only this, it seems like Mario is always jumping partially inside of a block. This turns extremely simple things, such as jumping onto a small platform, into an exercise in frustration. While I am probably making it seem worse than it is, the situation is exacerbated by the equally bad controls / movement mechanics.

Shown here: Poor collision and the difference in falling speeds.

Shown here: Poor collision and the difference in falling speeds.

As the icing on the cake, the levels themselves are extremely uninspired and just not fun. While not all of the levels are bad, many of them look and feel like a hodgepodge of various ideas. None of the levels feel like they are building up to something. They overall design is illogical and often just plain boring.  There are a couple levels that feel like the level designer thought “I almost forgot about moving platforms!” and in haste to finish the level filled it such things. This sort of repetitive, shallow level design fills almost every level.

Out of Control

I’m not sure what happened but Mario has become much more difficult to control. While there is still a bit of acceleration, it feels very inconsistent. Sometimes it feels like Mario reaches top speed instantaneously and other times it feels like it takes a bit of running. Mario also appears to have two distinct falling modes with one being his “post-jump” falling and the other being his “ran-off-the-side-of-a-platform” falling.The former feels natural and has a nice falling acceleration. The arc of the jump is nice and you have a lot of control over the jump height which is a necessity in a Mario-type platformer.

Super Mario Land - input

Jumping while turning keeps you from moving horizontally. Observe Mario’s movement in conjunction with the button input shown.

The latter fall type has an annoying instant-top-speed effect. This means the moment you walk off of a platform, you’re falling at Mario’s in-game terminal velocity. While other games suffer from this, such as Castlevania or Ghost ‘n’ Goblins, those games are known for their intentionally clunky controls. In a related annoyance, any time Mario jumps and hits he head on something he instantaneously hits a maximum falling speed. If you attempt to jump over a gap and hit your head, you will zoom straight down into the void below.

One of the biggest annoyances is the presence of a particularly frustrating movement bug. Whenever you move in one direction and turn around, there is a brief period where Mario performs a brief “turning around” animation. If you jump during this time, you will be unable to move left or right until you hit the ground. This will happen constantly to the point where you’ll have to become conscious of it to avoid it.

A Smooth Landing

It is probably obvious by now that I don’t consider this to be a good game. Even so, Super Mario Land has a few aspects that aren’t bad. Luckily, the music is fairly well composed. The composer,  Hirokazu Tanaka, did a good job at turning the simple Game Boy “beeps” and “boops” into catchy, memorable tunes. This is to be expected, though, as “Hip” Tanaka was responsible for the amazing music in the NES titles Kid Icarus and Metroid. It’s nothing particularly special but you might find yourself humming the main tune a few hours later.

Super Mario Land_water_excerpt

The submarine and plane levels are (sadly) the best Super Mario Land has to offer.

Super Mario Land features a couple occurrences of non-platformer action. Instead, you control Mario in a scrolling shooter type of gameplay that involves Mario in a submarine and plane. Both the scrolling levels control exactly the same which is a good thing. These two levels are the most polished the game ever feels. The controls are, for once, very precise and easy. Just move and shoot as the screen scrolls to the right. It’s a bit sad that the best part of a 2D platformer is the parts where you don’t have to do any platforming. Nevertheless, these sections are brief, only occur twice, and give a much needed break from the rest of the game.

Stepping Stone to Greatness

I’m not going to say that Super Mario Land is terrible. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t play it. I will, however, suggest that you play any other traditional Mario platformer. Super Mario Land could be perceived as a necessary evil. The game itself is severely lacking, frustrating, and almost incompetent in some aspects of gameplay but it is, however, responsible for spawning some of the best games the Game Boy (and Game Boy Color) have to offer. Next time you have the urge to play Super Mario Land, find it deep within yourself to skip it and play Super Mario Land 2, any of the Wario Land games, or one of the many good games Nintendo has made for the Game Boy.