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.

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The Flash (is Sluggish)

The Flash is a pretty cool guy. He can run really fast and doesn’t even need to collect Chaos Emeralds! Although a major DC character, the Flash has not enjoyed as much fame as his buddy Superman… but as Superman 64 has shown us, perhaps that is a good thing. While the Flash has been featured in many DC universe properties, he rarely has been the star of his own game. In what may have been his first solo outing, the only Flash game I have had the pleasure(?) of playing is his Game Boy title.

Flash, The_title

I really like this title screen. It’s simple yet somehow feels exciting.

Presented in beautiful DOT MATRIX WITH STEREO SOUND, The Flash is a 2D platformer that has a heavy emphasis on being frustrating, clunky and occasionally fun. With YOU in direct control of the Flash, make your way from the left side of some area all the way to the right side of the area with the intention of punching some dynamite! It’s a fairly standard formula that manages to do a bit right, and a bit more wrong.

Controls

On your journey as the Flash, you get to punch AND kick things! The Game Boy, with it’s two primary buttons, does the best it can accommodate all the actions the Flash needs to perform. Kicking is assigned to one button, punching the other, and jumping, sadly, is UP on the directional pad.The Flash’s normal movement speed is pretty fast but by pressing and holding the A and B buttons, you can use his super speed to racing through the level in a flash (sorry). It’s a reasonable control scheme but there are a couple significant flaws.

Flash, The_gameplay

Level 1: Watch the Flash do some mid-air squats and kick things.

Punching is useless. The kick has a much longer range compared to the measly little punch. Other than the fact that certain things, such as the end of each level, cannot be triggered by kicks, there is no reason to ever punch something. Kicking is always better. I cannot stress this enough. Do not punch.

UP to jump is almost always horrible and The Flash is no exception. Jumping feels very awkward and makes leaping over instant-death pits incredibly nerve racking. It’s hard to explain the weird disconnect-y, laggy-ness to jumping. To compound this, the game is filled with ladders that you must climb. Guess what button climbs ladders? UP! This would be fine if not for the fact that half the time you try to climb a ladder you end up jumping in place.

All the controls feel slightly… off. Everything has some strange lag to it. There’s a bit of a wind-up when attacking which means you have to stutter and anticipate your attacks a bit in order to properly combo an enemy to death. Most noticably, however, is the landing lag. When hitting the ground from a jump, the Flash ducks down for a brief period. It feels very halting and heavily contributes to the overall clunky-ness of the game.

Game Mechanics

Every level is a timed race to the right to disarm a bomb, though not a particularly exciting or hurried race. Enemies each take several hits to kill as does the Flash. The Flash has a fairly generous life bar and it’s even more generous in that every single enemy you kill drops a health pick up. The combat is really dull and easy. Just run up to an enemy, stagger kicks until it dies. That strategy works for every single enemy. It’s trivial until you get the the enemies that shoot. It seems like the shooting enemies will take off 1/4 of your health with each shot. Given how clunky the controls are, it’s often extremely difficult to avoid getting hit.

Everybody knows the Flash is known for running fast. It’s sort of… his thing, you know? By holding both attacks and moving, you can perform the previously mentioned super speed but by standing still you can also perform a power-draining, useless spin-kick move. It drains your super power meter so fast and is so obnoxiously useless that it makes me wonder why it was even put in the game at all. The super speed, on the other hand, is very useful and hardly drains your super meter at all.

Flash, The_scroll

Oh, joy! I love not being able to see where I’m going!

One of the main reasons why I like the super speed is that it causes the screen to show more in the direction you are facing. One of the big platformer no-nos is when the screen doesn’t start to move until you hit the very edge of the screen (I’m looking at you, Turrican!). The Flash suffers greatly from this common retro ailment. As shown in the GIF to your right, notice how little time you get to react to a quickly approaching death-hole. At least super speed causes the screen to show you what’s happening before it kills you.

All the speeding around does come at a price! Using super speed builds up a mighty hunger! Scattered throughout the levels are vending machines at which you must score some delicious snacks. The vending machines will always cost as much money as you have, up to $5. This means, if you have 1-5 dollars, it will use all your money. Depending on how much money you put it, a different snack will come out. Each snack fills up your speed power meter by a considerable amount but the difference between a $1 snack and a $5 snack is so negligible that it always feels like the Flash is getting ripped off.

Dying is a pain in the butt. The good news is that you probably won’t get killed by any enemies. The aforementioned death-holes will most certainly take your life 9 times out of 10. They are everywhere and due to how the screen scrolls, they pop up out of no where. Even more frustrating, you only get a few lives until you are booted back to the title screen. There is a password system to continue progress but dying and continuing both result in you starting at the beginning of the level so it’s just an unnecessary annoyance.

It’s Not All Bad

The Flash does have a few things going for it. Punching and kicking things is always fun and the speedy running feels pretty cool in the context of a Game Boy game. Despite it being shallow and a bit sloppy, there are a surprising amount of levels, interesting music and several distinct environments, including a couple train chase levels. This little game feels like it had some care put into it but not enough to overcome it’s faults. Is it worth playing, though? We’ll just ask the Flash himself…

It was the best five seconds I ever had.

How can you turn this down?!

Metroid II: Return of Samus (is Unfinished)

Metroid II is a great game… but it’s a mess. The more you play it, the more it feels like it was released a good 6 months before it should have been. Every step through the corridors reveal obnoxious and obvious errors and design flaws. You should avoid playing Metroid II: Return of Samus unless you want to experience a wonderful game of solid mediocrity.

Inactive Off-screen Enemies

Maybe he had an invisible shield?

Enemies are invincible when “inactive”.

One of the first annoyances you will notice is that enemies can only be hurt when they are on the screen. This means that the instant an enemy leaves the visible boundary, it becomes “inactive” and stops functioning in every way. This means that it stops moving, cannot be hurt, and cannot supply any fun. You are unable to shoot and run  because if you scroll the enemy off the screen, your shots will not hurt it. This occurs rather frequently and, considering how much of the screen Samus takes up, is incredibly frustrating. As a result, you have to be very close to enemies to even hurt them. Shown to the right, is one of the most blatant offenders. The Gamma Metroid is a very large creature who takes up about 1/4 of the screen width. Once it becomes “inactive” it does not become active again until it is entirely on the screen. You can argue that this is a result of memory limitations but I chalk it up to lazy programming and poor design.

Getting Hit Resets Jump State

It's actually faster to do it this way than to use spider ball.

Thanks for the boost, wall-face!

This is one of the most mind-boggling programming oversights I have ever seen in such a high-profile title. For whatever reason, any time you are hurt, for a brief moment you are able to jump. Using this, you can jump into an enemy and jump again reaching heights you are not yet supposed to reach. In the example shown here, Samus is supposed to find the spider ball power to scale this wall. Instead of bothering to use spider ball, you can simply jump, get hit, and jump again to reach the ledge. This “technique” can be exploited in many, many places throughout the game. Being able to do this makes no logical sense, is incredibly easy to do, and potentially ruins the intended item progression of the game by allowing players to skip certain items such as the high-jump boots. Clearly, this is another example of inept programmers at work.

Morph-ball Resets Jump State

Whoooaaaa!

I cannot logically explain this pre-Super Metroid phenomenon.

In what I can only guess is a related programming oversight, any time you exit morph-ball state, you are able to jump. For the same reasons listed above, this is a silly, easily exploitable “technique” that can be used to reach areas you aren’t normally supposed to. In combination with the spring ball item, you can effectively jump twice, jumping while in ball form, exiting ball form in mid-air, and jumping again. Interestingly enough, the same exact bug was present in it’s predecessor, Metroid for the NES. Perhaps the programmers intentionally added this bug (or neglected to fix it) as a kind of throwback to the original game? Or maybe it just happens to be the exact same programming oversight as they did in the first game? I’d like to believe it’s just a an example bad programming at it’s best… twice.

Missle-Only Tiles

I like the spinning action!

This is the only time these cool blocks are every used.

This isn’t a programming error but rather an example of poor game / level design. On exactly one occasion about 3/4 of the way through the game, Samus will encounter a block that can only be destroyed by firing a missile into it. It’s actually a cool block that has a interesting spin-then-explode effect. I like this block. In fact, I like this block a lot. I think it’s really awesome and I am the president of the “You Must Shoot a Missile At the Block to Destroy it in Metroid II” fan club. No, but seriously, this block is disappointingly underused. This sort of block would have had tons of applications, especially earlier on in the game. By utilizing this block more creatively, it would have considerably spiced up level design. It could even have been used to create more of a missile management scenario. It would have been interesting to require the player to use more missiles on these blocks which would leave less for the metroids. Instead, it appears as if the developers almost forgot about this block entirely. At one point, one level designer remembered it, placed two of them down and then forgot about them once again. It’s a shame because the blocks are just so freakin’ cool.

And that’s Not All

In addition to these, Metroid II is filled with even more programming errors and strange, illogical design choices that I don’t have the time to cover. It feels as though they had the base game down but never took the time to refine it. The entire game is a mesh of good and bad experiences which leave me feeling a bit perplexed. It’s an addictive, genuinely fun experience but lacks a certain polish that should be expected from a first-party game.  Metroid II: Return of Samus is a interesting game and if you can bear with all of its issues, it might even be an enjoyable game.

Don’t Ever Stop! (Hit Reset)

I previously explored a few video games bugs that had no major impact on the game. They were fun, interesting and were generally something that had to be done on purpose. There is another category of video game bug; it’s a category that doesn’t rear it’s head that often. I am talking about the dreaded game ruining bugs. These are the bugs and glitches that, once they go into effect, give you no choice but to reset the game. There are many different ways this could happen but today I am exploring one particular phenomenon.

Endless Auto-running

While there are probably more, these three games all exhibit a game halting glitch which causes your character to travel endlessly to the right. There is no way to recover from this once the glitch has taken effect. Even more unfortunate, all three can theoretically be done accidentally!

Donkey Kong (Game Boy)

When you gotta go, you gotta go...

Climb up the ladder at the wrong time and it’s game over.

Ah, yes. Mario is one heck of guy! Year after year he goes out and saves all sorts of ladies from all sorts of animals.  One dreaded night, Mario was on the chase after Donkey Kong. That rascally ape have kidnapped Pauline once again! With Mario in pursuit, Donkey Kong leap and hollered with Pauline under arm. Suddenly and completely by accident, Donkey Kong’s ape-like howling precisely matched an ancient incantation designed to aid marathon runners. Donkey Kong jumped away with Pauline, not knowing what he had done. Mario, now under a powerful spell stopped his pursuit. Without any control of his body, he levitated mere feet above the ground and ran to the right. When he ran as far as he could, he found himself 20 feet behind where he was! He ran and he ran and he teleported and he teleported. Later that night, Donkey Kong, having escaped with Pauline, made a delicious soup out of her bones.

Mario ran on.

Metroid II: Return of Samus (Game Boy)

Naw, guys. It's cool. She knows what she's doing.

In morph ball form, turn around the same time you cause a screen transition and it’s roly poly time.

Samus has been directed to destroy all remaining metroids on planet SR-388. She landed, explored the surroundings, and gathered data. Little did she know, the foreign planet’s natural defenses, an invisible airborne poison, was slowly penetrating her suit. After a rather lengthy time in one of the tunnels, Samus started to feel a little woozy. The poison, bonding with her DNA, began to alter her… for the worse. Her body began to contort and force itself into morph ball form. Samus, unable to break the control of the poison, was thrust to the right. Fully conscious, Samus could do nothing but think to herself as the true, endless journey began. “This is what I have become. This is what I must be. This is what I deserve.” Her body, now one with the planet, freely moved though air, land, water as it traveled toward some unknown goal. She knew. Samus knew, for the rest of eternity, this would be her life. She was sure of it.

That morning the metroids ate her for breakfast.

Ghosts and Goblins (NES)

Round and round he goes, where does he stop? Nobody knows.

Collect a key in the wrong way and it’s bye-bye Arthur.

Arthur was tired. He was really tired. He had just battled though graveyards, cities, caverns and finally to the top of some ominous looking tower, all in his underwear! With the cross in hand and the captive Princess Prin Prin just ahead, Arthur entered Satan’s chamber. In an absurdly easy battle, Arthur destroys Satan in a matter of seconds. This was it! Arthur has saved the day! Suddenly, Arthur was transported back to the graveyard and a voice boomed overhead, “Har har, Arthur! It was all a trick… but this time it’s for real! Do it again and you can have you’re little princess.” Arthur was pretty upset but he knew it must be done! Once again, through the graveyard, city, cavern and up the tower. Arthur, now with dagger in hand, reaches the doorway to Satan’s chamber. Arthur reaches for the door, grips the handle and pulls.

The door does not open. The voice of Satan boomed again “Everybody knows the dagger is totally cheap and unfair. It’s cross or nothin’. Sorry chump.” Arthur, knowing he would have to go back down to the bottom of the tower to recollect the cross, lost his mind. “Whelp… I’m going home.”

And off he went.

And Then it Stopped