It is fun, and it occasionally exhibits signs of great originality and excellence, as it does in its stunning scenario variety and in its absence of linearity; still, Super Mario Land 2 cannot escape harmful comparisons to its console counterparts
As the first step Nintendo’s greatest mascot took into the Game Boy, Super Mario Land had one blatant inspiration: Super Mario Bros. Surely, it adorned the gameplay borrowed from that title with a myriad of small quirks that made it somewhat distinctive, but – at heart – the experience it provided was extremely faithful to the one found in the NES classic.
As the sequel to that debut, meanwhile, Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins looked somewhere else for ideas, and given its release took place in 1992, it is only natural that it ended up locating plenty of those in the arms of the efforts that were, at the time, the most polished and successful instances of not just the Mario franchise itself, but of the entire platforming genre. Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, which hit the market not too long before the plumber’s second major Game Boy adventure, are – therefore – the source of much of what the game does, and due to the major advances they implemented in relation to Super Mario Bros., it is to be expected that Super Mario Land 2 is a big step up from its predecessor.
Unquestionably, the push the game gets from the bigger familiarity its developers had with the handheld’s hardware is considerable. Its sprites are far better looking and more detailed, featuring design traits taken straight out of Super Mario Bros. 3. Furthermore, the beauty of its rich scenarios and the quality of its sound are equally catapulted to brand new heights.
However, it is from the gameplay additions inherited from its console contemporaries that Super Mario Land 2 benefits the most. And much like it occurred in the case of its prequel, the product is punctuated with small tweaks that attempt to set it apart from the works that inspired it. Truth be told, the feeling that the portable reproduction of the traditional Super Mario gameplay is an inferior and limited take on what could be experienced on a larger screen persists, meaning these shifts are still not big enough to make the quest truly stand out. Nevertheless, they do produce effects that are more notable than those generated by the twists of the original Super Mario Land.
It is not just in approach that Super Mario Land 2 relates to its precursor; that link also exists on the storyline front. For while Mario was away saving Princess Daisy in Sarasaland, the hero’s personal island is overrun by a villain and his army of minions. The bad guy in question is Wario; making his first ever appearance, the character is depicted as a childhood friend of his mustachioed counterpart.
Jealous of Mario’s fame and success, Wario sneaks into the castle that stands at the center of the island and proceeds to give the titular six golden coins that work as the building’s seal to the strongest of his allies. The door to the castle, then, is locked shut while the inhabitants of the region are put under a spell. With chaos established, the plumber needs to set out to recover the stolen goods so that he can access his home and confront the greedy fat man.
Since six golden coins are suddenly put in the hands of six bad bosses, it does not take much knowledge of the Mario franchise for one to correctly infer how the quest plays out. The hero must tackle each of the island’s worlds, which the game dubs as zones, and go through their stages, which can be either four or five, until he knocks on the door of the mightiest minion of the area. Upon defeating all of them, the six coins are returned, and he can break into the castle to traverse one final difficult challenge that leads to Wario himself.
It is a firmly established formula that – quite unsurprisingly – works. And Super Mario Land 2 decorates it with concepts brought in by Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, such as an overhead overworld that lets players walk from one stage to another; a handful of secret exits that pave the way to hidden levels that work either as courses filled with rewards or as shortcuts to the boss; and the spin jump introduced in the Super Nintendo adventure, which allows the character to break blocks below him and dispose of stronger enemies with one hit.
Given the finding of secret exists, differently from what happened in Super Mario world, does not unlock any sort of meaningful additional content, which is a shameful omission; and since the spin jump does not come into play very heavily, the component that has the most significant role in Super Mario Land 2 is the overworld. And that is because of how it is employed in a very original way. After clearing an introductory course that leads him to what was once his island, Mario is blessed with total freedom to explore it.
Consequently, he can walk into any of the six zones; a fact that makes the game’s progression as non-linear as possible. Such an arrangement does have the bad consequence of making the quest lack a natural difficulty curve, as – save for the final level – no worlds or stages are obviously harder than the others. Due to that, the game can come off as weak when it comes to challenge. However, the overall result of ignoring linearity is more positive than negative, because being able to choose where to go is a pretty nice trait, one that goes a long way towards defining Super Mario Land 2.
The other element that is essential in the construction of the game’s identity is its thematic lunacy. Like its prequel, Super Mario Land 2 is blatantly odd; differently from it, though, and perhaps as a consequence of the title’s superior handle on the Game Boy’s hardware, it manages to explore that weirdness much more effectively.
Its zones are absolutely wacky, and they have the plumber exploring an underwater shipwreck; climbing a tree; adventuring in space; entering a giant haunted pumpkin that holds a cemetery and a sinister manor; having his size diminished as he navigates the different areas of a gigantic house; and, as the oddest of turns, going into an enormous toy version of himself, which gives birth to stages filled with crazy mechanical gadgets. It is impressive, varied, and entertaining. And it gets even more mesmerizing when one considers that almost no stages share the same visual assets, because each level is transformed to represent the position in the overworld where it happens: in the zone that takes place in a tree, for example, the courses exist by its roots; in the interior of its trunk; on its branches; and, finally, on its top, with the scenario changing accordingly.
It goes without saying that, as backgrounds shift, so do the mechanics around which they are based. And the game does have a bunch of notable ideas. In space, for instance, Mario wears a helmet and performs jumps that are high and floaty, replicating the effects of low gravity. Meanwhile, if when navigating the branches of the tree there is a lot of jumping and climbing; when in its interior, the hero has to deal with a whole lot of sap. These alterations are constant, and they do have the ramification of keeping gameplay interesting all the way through.
However, it is easy to perceive the brilliant level design of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World is not present, because in many stages it feels like developers are just going through the motions. It is not that they fail in coming up with clever assets, it is just that these elements are not utilized to their full potential.
As such, even if it has sparks of excellence in visuals, in non-linearity, and in a set of bosses that packs far more creativity and variety than those of its two biggest inspirations, Super Mario Land 2 still suffers from the curse that hit its predecessor; that is, of seeming like a limited reproduction of an experience that is better on consoles.
It is certainly not due to a lack of trying that the game stumbles on that specific stone. After all, on top of its most noteworthy characteristics, it also puts in place small and pleasant modifications to the Super Mario formula. For starters, in addition to the traditional mushroom, fire flower, and starman; it introduces a new power-up, the bunny ears, which increase the height of the hero’s jump and give him extra air time thanks to their fluttering.
Moreover, it features a kill counter that produces a starman whenever one hundred enemies are downed; it uses regular coins not as a means to gain an extra life, but as currency that can be used to play a roulette by the island’s entry point, where it is possible to gamble for lives; and, like in its prequel, all of its levels boast a higher exit that – if reached – triggers a mini-game that can yield valuable rewards.
These last two measures, in particular, are key in erasing any sort of frustration from the playing of Super Mario Land 2, because they give players a lot of opportunities to earn more continues. Furthermore, since a game over does not mean losing all progress, as all that happens is that the acquired golden coins are returned to the bosses, hence forcing Mario to battle them again, the quest becomes very accessible to people of all ages and gaming backgrounds.
Yet, in spite of both the big and small steps it takes in the direction of getting away from comparisons to the giants that Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World are, the game simply cannot escape them. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is fun, and it occasionally exhibits signs of great originality and excellence, as it does in its stunning scenario variety and in its absence of linearity.
Still, the fact that it does not really shine where it matters the most – that is, in its level design – and that its focus lies on gameplay that is way too similar to that of its console counterparts holds it back considerably. It is, by all means, a major improvement over the content presented in its prequel; and it appeared as a sign that the Super Mario line of handheld games was advancing quickly. Nonetheless, a major burst of creativity was still missing in order for the saga to truly find its footing in the portable world.