Although it is thematically weird, its oddity is not enough to make it remarkable; and despite featuring a couple of noteworthy detours, they have neither the prominence nor the frequency to turn Super Mario Land into a must-play
Given how it portrays a world where sentient turtles, humans, and anthropomorphic mushrooms – not to mention a whole lot of other curious creatures – interact with one another in what seems to be utter normalcy, the Mario universe is inherently odd. With that assessment in mind, one can begin to understand the nature of Super Mario Land. Because even if weirdness has invariably run through all the installments of Nintendo’s most popular property, its handheld debut feels like the strangest figure in a crowd that does not stop growing.
Surely, in its essence, the game never really deviates from the formula established by the four chapters that preceded it; that is, the Super Mario Bros. trilogy, plus the – at the time – Japan-exclusive The Lost Levels. Yet, although boasting gameplay that centers around jumping, gathering coins, and grabbing power-ups, the title decorates that framework with such unique elements that it emerges as a point in the character’s arch that turned up the quirkiness volume to a level that has not been reached ever since.
Possibly, three are the reasons why Super Mario Land is so peculiar. The first one has to do with the hardware that houses it. Unable to produce colors, the Game Boy was – at the time of the title’s development – in the earliest period of its infancy: it had yet to reach the market, and Super Mario Land was designed as one of its launch efforts. With the developers still not knowledgeable enough regarding the new product to tap deep into its power, visual and gameplay adaptations had to be undertaken in order to make sure the Super Mario Bros. experience could be achieved on a smaller scale.
Similarly, the second reason for the adventure’s oddity is likely connected to that translation, for never before had the company attempted to so closely reproduce on a portable machine a format that had become known worldwide via a home console. Finally, but not less important, was the fact that instead of dealing with issues related to the Mushroom Kingdom, Super Mario Land has the plumber traveling to another place: Sarasaland, where Princess Daisy – its ruler – has been kidnapped by a mysterious spaceman.
In a way, there is a lot of smartness in how Super Mario Land handles the limitations it has to deal with. It is certainly possible to feel that those technical obstacles do exist and that they stop the game from being as good as its predecessors; however, the title also happens to utilize those hardships to build its own identity. From a gameplay standpoint, Super Mario Land is closer to the original Super Mario Bros. than to any other outing that preceded it or even followed it.
After all, it has none of the significant evolutions of Super Mario Bros. 3; it does not offer the ridiculous difficulty of The Lost Levels; and it shuns the utterly bizarre elements of the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2, a game that – originally – did not even belong to the series. The combination of its punctual odd parts, though, ends up giving birth to a game that feels slightly different from the character’s first NES quest, even if such distinctions are, arguably, generally small.
For starters, the sprites of signature enemies and items are greatly altered. It seems that, in an attempt to adapt Mario’s universe to a screen that is much smaller than the one on which he used to appear in people’s homes, developers took it upon themselves to reduce the size of everything. As a consequence, Goombas, Koopa Troopas, mushrooms, stars, coins, and other visual assets look very little like their Super Mario Bros. counterparts. Furthermore, and still on the graphical front, the game goes quite wild in theme and presentation.
Its sparsely populated and not very appealing backgrounds are filled with set pieces that generally only posses outlines, and those include shapes that are familiar to the series, such as pyramids and tress, as well as absurdly uncanny sights, like the Moai Statues that adorn much of the third world, a course that replicates a bamboo forest and features a Japanese-inspired soundtrack, and flying saucers that drop the hero into many of the levels. Likewise, the game takes serious liberties in relation to what constitutes a regular bad guy in the franchise, as it sports ninjas, snakes, seahorses, critters that have apparently come out of outer space alongside the adventure’s antagonist, and numerous other surprising sights.
Still, much of Super Mario Land is recognizable and straightforward. The game is made up of four worlds, each one with three stages and a closing boss battle, and it is by jumping over gaps, hopping on the heads of enemies, and avoiding all sorts of traps that the plumber will make his way through the levels and reach the location where Princess Daisy is being kept.
Like it happened in Super Mario Bros., stars lend Mario temporary invincibility; mushrooms make the hero larger and allow the character to take one hit without dying; flowers, which also have that last effect, give him the power to launch projectiles that bounce around the screen and defeat the foes they touch; coins award gamers with an extra life whenever one hundred are collected; and the coveted 1-up mushrooms are also present. Needless to say, the setup clicks; and the smooth controls, solid physics, generally competent level design, catchy soundtrack, and various secrets – namely, pipes that take Mario to rooms bursting with coins – make the experience be pleasant.
Super Mario Land, however, also adds a few twists of its own to that universally known formula. And although none of them individually qualify as significant; together, they produce gameplay that is, to a degree, distinctive. The shells of Koopa Troopas, for example, cannot be thrown once the turtles are taken down; instead, they devilishly turn into bombs that explode after a few seconds, forcing Mario to get away from them as quickly as he can.
Meanwhile, the fireballs the plumber launches when powered up by a flower – and which are actually bouncing balls this time around – behave differently given their unique nature, as instead of hopping on a regular arch they can ascend towards the ceiling – regardless of how high it is – and bump onto it. Moreover, Super Mario Land also takes advantage of the difference in height that Mario has before and after he consumes a mushroom or flower, because many are the secret ledges or pipes that can only be reached when he is tiny and – consequently – more vulnerable. Effectively, that design choice puts players in a position where they have to consider the balance between risk and reward, and think if it is worthy to take a hit on purpose if it means acquiring a bunch of loot.
The biggest of all quirks that Super Mario Land contains, though, is easily how Mario will, in two stages, abandon his traditional means of transportation (that is, his legs) and climb aboard a submarine and a helicopter. In practical terms, there is no difference between the two vehicles, as their controls and attack method – torpedoes – are the same. As such, the levels they yield are, except when seen from a thematic point of view, not very different from one another.
What is important, however, is that they bring forth an entirely original take on the Super Mario Bros. universe, because the gameplay they present is obviously much closer to that of a flying shooter than to that of a platformer. Those stages are light, fun, and decently challenging; but they also work towards pointing out that, during most of Super Mario Land’s running time, the game is far more concerned about simply nailing the series’ transition between a home console and a handheld than it is focused on handing players a quest that is unique enough to justify its existence as a standalone release.
Certainly, such a characteristic is nothing but a natural consequence of the context that surrounded the game’s production: the first attempt at translating the gameplay of a big franchise between a home console and a portable system. Nevertheless, it is hard not to think Super Mario Land could have heavily benefited from a bigger quantity of detours as unexpected and big as the ones represented by that pair of courses.
Due to that, even amidst its prominent weirdness and punctual alterations in some mechanics, to a modern eye Super Mario Land is bound to feel a bit tame. Its level design is solid, but never special or original enough to awe; its visuals have personality, but they falter when compared to those seen in many other Game Boy efforts; and its status as an odd handheld take on the Super Mario Bros. gameplay is sufficient to call the attention of those who are crazy about the saga, but its lack of significant exclusive traits makes it not very appealing to everyone else.
Additionally, Super Mario Land’s reduced difficulty, which does make it more widely accessible, is also somewhat harmful to its value. After all, with only twelve courses and a hard mode unlocked upon completion, there is not much content to the game, as it pales in comparison to the thirty-two levels found in the adventure that is its biggest inspiration. Surely, like Super Mario Bros., the game tries – and succeeds to a point – to extend its length by kicking players back to the beginning whenever they run out of lives. As such, it is likely one will have to take a handful of shots at the adventure before having a run that goes up to the end.
Yet, that characteristic does not come into play so heavily. Firstly, because the overall challenge is not as harsh. And secondly, because of how, at the end of every level, an alternative higher exit – which is not too hard to reach – can be found, and it leads to a bonus mini-game that has a good probability of giving Mario between one and three extra lives. Therefore, in spite of how these traits work as pleasant reliefs, they are also likely to make the experience too short.
Based around a format that, throughout history, has time and time again proven itself to be quite efficient, it is hard to call Super Mario Land a bad game. And its mesmerizing commercial success at the time of its release certainly shows Nintendo did quite well in bringing the world’s most popular platforming series to a handheld system for the first time ever. Nonetheless, although its status as the game that opened up the floodgates for that sort of transition is preserved, the value of its gameplay has been heavily eroded as time has passed.
In spite of how it is certainly thematically weird, its oddity is not enough to make it remarkable; and despite featuring a couple of noteworthy detours, they have neither the prominence nor the frequency to turn Super Mario Land into a must-play. For those reasons, the plumber’s first portable entry stands solely as a curiosity for the character’s most avid fans; because anyone else is bound to be rather unimpressed by it.