“Welcome, and enter the center
Of my Super Mario adventure
My girl is trapped on the other side of town
So I’m moving in leaps and bounds
Folks around my way think I’m strange
But there’s a villain to blame
Even my ma, she thinks I’m crazy
But I’ve got to rescue Daisy (let’s go)
There ain’t no place like Super Mario Land (let’s go!)”
-Ambassadors Of Funk, ‘Supermarioland‘
“The following is a guest post by the Hopeful Handheld Mage.”
As I accepted my role as the Hopeful Handheld Mage, my first question to myself was ‘Where do I start?’ I knew I had to start with a game that played a big part in the beginning of handheld games. The format had to be be the Game Boy, the most important handheld console of all time, but which game? My first thought was Tetris, the game that helped the Game Boy become the phenomenon it did and a game that still resonates with gamers and non-games alike. Then I thought about the game that was originally planned to be the pack in game with the Game Boy, Super Mario Land.
These days, console launch games aren’t taken seriously; they’re usually tech demos, ports from previous generations, underdeveloped versions of annual sports games….the like. Console companies know that consumers will purchase the latest console regardless of the games offered at launch; consumers are aware of the generally poor quality of launch titles and will buy the console to play the games due later in the console’s lifespan.
For the launch of the Game Boy however, a lot of effort was put into providing games for the first handheld console. Nintendo wanted the Game Boy to be as dominant as the NES and knew how to market the Game Boy. Simply, their original plan was to include a Mario game at launch, as the plumber had helped to sell the NES and Nintendo were confident that he would do the same for it’s little brother. However, upon securing the rights for Tetris (a convoluted story in itself), Tetris would become the pack in game for Europe/North America and Super Mario Land would be relegated to launch game status.
“I told him, if you want little boys to play Game Boy, pack in Mario—but if you want everyone to play Game Boy, pack in Tetris.”
-Alexey Pajitnov (Tetris creator) to Minoru Arakawa (Nintendo of America President)
The above quote seems harsh – but in hindsight, it’s true. Tetris was the game that sold the Game Boy to kids and parents alike, leading to the Game Boy becoming the handheld console…but was Super Mario Land really just a game for little boys? Officially, Super Mario Land sold over 18 million copies (more than Super Mario Bros. 3) so it must have had a much wider appeal.
Not for me though. I first saw it being played by a classmate at primary school. I had no chance of playing it (damn lack of social status!) but was struck by the idea of playing Mario on such a small, portable device. This was the late 80’s/early 90’s, when ‘portable gaming’ included the horror of Tiger Handhelds, so I was impressed. Impressed enough to make Super Mario Land the first game on my 3DS in 2013.
“In video games, there is always an easy way out if you don’t have any good ideas”
-Gunpei Yokoi, Game Boy designer, Nintendo
Super Mario Land itself is an impressive feat for the the then fledgling Game Boy, and it’s an interesting game too in terms of developer politics. You see, Super Mario Land was the first Mario game not to be developed by Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, it was actually developed by Gunpei Yokoi’s R&D1 team. Yokoi, the designer of the Game Boy, would have been a natural choice to develop Super Mario Land, as he knew the strengths and limitations of the new system. However Yokoi and his team had their own ideas on how to make a Mario game and changed some elements of Mario’s core gameplay, elements that have never been repeated in any Mario game since.
Firstly, Super Mario Land isn’t set in the Mushroom Kingdom, with Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach. It’s set in Sarasaland, with the alien Tatanega as the antagonist, having kidnapped Princess Daisy. Daisy would later return as a playable character in 2000’s Mario Tennis on the Nintendo 64 (after a non-playable appearance in NES Open Tournament Golf in 1991) and become a participant in many Mario sports and party games after that, but there has been no return of Sarasland. Tatanega would only appear again as an underboss for main villian Wario in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins.
It’s not just the setting though. Super Mario Land just plays…differently. There are a few side scrolling shooting levels, a la Gradius or R-Type. Koopa shells can’t be stomped on to hit other enemies, they explode like bombs shortly after the Koopa is squashed. The other enemies are odd, consisting of Easter Island heads and spiders… really un-Mario enemies. The end of stage flag pole jump is replaced by a platform challenge…the 1Up Mushroom is replaced by a heart… the more I talk about it, the more I feel like Super Mario Land is Mario’s version of Twin Peaks.
Maybe Yokei saw simply copying Super Mario Bros. as the ‘easy way out’. A senior developer at Nintendo and a mentor of sorts to Miyamoto, Yokei had worked on the first Mario games (Donkey Kong and Mario Bros.) with members of R&D1 and would certainly have had his own good ideas. For example, it was Yokei’s idea, during the development of Mario Bros., to allow Mario to jump…imagine how different Mario games would have been with Mario being unable to jump?
Super Mario Land is a new adventure for Mario, on a new system, with the developer of the new system using the game as a showcase. Yet I wonder if, given the lack of follow up to the setting and gameplay changes in Super Mario Land, Nintendo sees it as little more than a side story, a game to launch their new handheld and not part of the main Mario canon? Sure, Super Mario Land is fondly remembered and Nintendo have always made it available on Virtual Console, but should it be held in the same regard as the NES games?
The 8-Bit Review
There is no getting around it; the visuals for Super Mario Land are very simple – some of the backgrounds look like Etch-a Sketch and the sprites are very small. However. I always feel an overlooked part of looking at visuals is how effective they are. For example, there is no point of having a frame rate of 60fps if the colours will cause retina damage. Using that argument, Super Mario Land’s visuals are fine – you can tell it’s a Mario game, where he needs to go and who the bad guys are. The themes for each level are well done too – from the pyramids to the Easter Islands, each level is distinctive. While developers of the Game Boy would get more skilled at programming graphics for the system (see Well-Red Mage’s graphical comparison with the sequel) Super Mario Land’s graphics are a decent start.
Forget the sound effects, they are what you would expect from a Game Boy game in 1989. The soundtrack, composed by Hirokazu Tanaka (Mother and EarthBound, amongst others) is incredible. Not just for a fledgling handheld system, but by any console’s standards. Tanaka’s music score is chirpy, yet driven… there is a sense of urgency to the tunes that really adds to the gameplay. The tune that sticks out for me is Level 2.
Level 2’s track might be one of my favourite game tunes ever, an upbeat number that sticks in my head whenever I think about it. The word I want to use to describe it is ‘workmanlike’ – not with the usual negative connotations (‘average’, ‘functional’) but as a gritty yet cheerful resignation to Mario’s mission. It actually motivated me to keep playing the game to the end as the tune gave me a feeling of responsibility towards Mario and his mission. I believe that getting behind the main character in a game is crucial. My golden rule with any artistic medium is “If I don’t care about the character, then I don’t care about this.” That tune was a big factor in me saying “Hey, I care about this character’s mission and I will help him.”
If a composer can make you feel that strongly about a few pixels, then he’s doing his job.
Super Mario Land is fun to play – it is a Mario game after all! The same high level of platforming that the NES games had is present here. Mario is easy to control and the game is never unfair. The action never lets up and compares quite well to Mario’s NES adventures. I’d compare the gameplay to the first Super Mario Bros. – it feels similar in terms of weight. Of course, Super Mario Land is simpler, more accessible than SMB1, but it’s definitely the Mario game it reminds me of; not it’s oddball 2nd brother or epic 3rd brother.
The plot of Super Mario Land is nothing special (is the plot for any Mario game?) nor does it have to be. The main plot elements (such as the princess, setting and bad guy) do feel copy-and-pasted into the game though – I’m sure you could easily replace any of these elements of the game and it wouldn’t affect the game. The only really important character in the game in Mario and he’s his usual reliable self. As long as Mario is saving princesses, does it matter what they are called and who he’s saving them from?
As with most Mario games, Super Mario Land is pick up and play…but there a few things that stop me from going for a 9/10 or a 10/10. As alluded to earlier, Super Mario Land has some changes to the game that might throw off immediate Mario players. For example, there have been times that I’ve killed a Koopa, then jumped on the shell trying to hit more enemies, only to get blown up by the shell. It sounds silly, but I reckon most people used to playing the classic Mario games will automatically make the same mistake. It’s not a game breaker, but you always have to remember it. Also the side scrolling levels are fairly infrequent, which makes them feel a bit surreal… almost like you imagined it. I like them and they do add variety to the game, but they’ll definitely cause some confusion at first. However, Super Mario Land’s quirks don’t stop you enjoying the game, it’s simply a matter of getting used to them.
As good as Super Mario Land is, it’s neither a challenging game or a long game. It’s a fun game that you may wish to replay after completion (as I have) but compared to it’s big brothers, it’s a relatively easy game. The difficulty curve is quite fair as Super Mario Land gets progressively harder as it goes on with no difficulty spikes. However, if you’ve managed to complete Super Mario Brothers 1, 2 or 3, you have no problem getting through Sarasland – there are plenty of chances to get extra lives and it’s not until the last world that Super Mario Land becomes a challenge.
There are only four worlds – twelve rounds then the final showdown with Tatanega. These rounds aren’t terribly long and the side scrolling shooter levels actually make the worlds feel shorter. Super Mario Land was a great technical achievement for the Game Boy in 1989 in terms of playability and sound, but I do feel like R&D1 ran out of space when programming the levels. My first though upon completing Super Mario Land was “Is that it?” I feel harsh saying that of such a well-made early Game Boy game, but I do feel another few stages or an extra world would have added to the longevity and enjoyment of the game. However, if it would have compromised the existing product in terms of memory space, then I can live without extra rounds and worlds.
Sure, Mario games are hardly unique – there are lots of 2D Mario games for NES and Game Boy. You may not see a Mario game that is as different as Super Mario Land though. I can’t recall one with a side scrolling shooter level anyway…the little touches, such as the end of level platforming, make Super Mario Land feel like an oddity in the series. The changes in format are good changes and actually add to the game as opposed to dilute it. It helps Super Mario Land stand out from the NES games and gives it (and the Game Boy) it’s own personality.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Super Mario Land is a fun and charming game, one that belies it’s humble programming and changes to Mario’s tropes. Sure, it’s not a long game, but it is certainly worth the thirty minutes of your time it takes to play through. I would recommend any Nintendo/Mario fans give it a play through once, if just to experience a slightly different take on the world’s most famous plumber. There certainly ain’t another place like Super Mario Land.
Aggregated Score: 6.6
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