So, for no better reason than “Mar.10” resembling Mario’s name, March 10th is widely regarded as being “Mario Day”, a day to celebrate Nintendo’s portly plumber, an overalls-wearing mascot who literally changed the videogame industry forever and shaped the home console market of the nineties. To commemorate Mario Day this year, March is once again “Mario Month” and I am spending every Thursday of this month celebrating everyone’s favourite Koopa-flattening plumber.
Originally Released: 21 April 1989
Original Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Also Available For: Game Boy
In 1989, Nintendo were preparing to release their handheld console, the Game Boy, a machine that would go on to pretty much define portable gaming. To coincide with this release, they needed fun, appealing titles to attract players and Super Mario was the obvious candidate given how well Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo EAD, 1985) had sold some years prior. The first game in the series not to feature the input of Mario’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, the game was also significantly shorter and smaller than its home console counterpart. While this has been reflected in reviews, Super Mario Land sold over 18 million copies, kickstarting an entire sub-series for Nintendo’s portly plumber that was exclusive to its handheld devices. Naturally, it was eventually ported to the Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console with some minor revisions, which is the version I’ll be looking at today.
After conquering the four kingdoms of Sarasaland, the diabolical space tyrant Tatanga kidnaps Princess Daisy in order to consolidate his dictatorship and only Mario has the skills and bravery necessary to travel throughout Sarasaland in a bid to rescue Daisy from Tatanga’s clutches.
Though functionally the same game as Super Mario Bros., there’s plenty of differences between that game and its handheld counterpart to help Super Mario Land stand out…and not all of them are good, to be honest. Like its bigger brother, Super Mario Land is a 2D sidescrolling platformer in which players control Mario as he runs, jumps, and blasts his way through four distinct Kingdoms. While the game sacrifices a lot in terms of length and graphical quality, Mario actually controls far better in his Game Boy debut than in his more famous title; for one thing, he’s far less slippery, which is a Godsend as it’s much harder to slip and randomly fall off platforms down a bottomless pits and to your death.
Mario can still jump, bouncing off enemies’ heads and gaining more height and momentum as he does so and from running by holding down the B button, and he feels like he has a bit more weight to him; not enough to make him plummet like a rock like some of his contemporaries but also not so little that he goes flying off the screen. The game is simplicity in itself; you start on the left side of the screen and run and jump to the right, taking out enemies, collecting Coins for points and extra lives, and taking your chances down the game’s various pipes to find hidden areas full of these aforementioned Coins. As in pretty much all Mario games, and most videogames at the time, you’re also racing against a time limit and can protect yourself from death by bashing blocks to randomly unearth a collectable Super Mushroom, which will transform you into Super Mario.
While Super Mario Land has only four stages, referred to as “Kingdoms”, it mixes up its gameplay significantly from other Mario games of the time with the inclusion of two autoscrolling shooter stages; one has you piloting the “Marine Pop”, the other the “Sky Pop”, a cute little submarine and bi-plane, respectively. While autoscrolling stages can be a pain in the ass, and it easy to get crushed to death if you don’t blast blocks quickly enough, these are actually quite fun and it’s just a shame that the developers didn’t program a couple more stages like these in there to help keep things interesting.
Additionally, rather than jump atop a flagpole at the end of each Kingdom, Mario exits each stage by entering a doorway; if you direct him to the top exit, you’ll be taken to a Bonus Game where you can earn anywhere between one and three extra lives or a power-up by stopping the fast-moving ladders. Extra lives are rather plentiful overall, to be honest, meaning you generally have an abundance of chances to tackle the games more troublesome and difficult sections, which usually involve making a few tricky jumps over an endless void, jumping to moving platforms, and using rolling boulders to safely cross spiked platforms.
Graphics and Sound:
Given that it was a launch title for the Game Boy, a handheld console not exactly known for being the most powerful or graphically interesting amongst its peers despite its immense popularity, it’s important to set your expectations quite low for Super Mario Land. Graphics are painfully simple and monochromatic, with Mario helpfully standing out thanks to his iconic cap and moustache as, without these, he may as well have just been Mr. Game & Watch. The game’s enemies, for all their variety, don’t exactly fare much better but, thankfully, the bosses are much bigger and more indicative of the superior sequel.
Similarly, while each of the game’s four Kingdoms feels distinct, they’re not exactly teeming with detail; most opt for a plain, empty background with some simple elements (pyramids, mountains, clouds, Easter Island-like heads and the like) and an abundance of blocks, platforms, and pipes. As you progress through each Kingdom, the stages take on more distinctive and detailed environments, such as exploring inside a pyramid, with hieroglyphics etched into the background layer, or traversing the block-and-platform-ample mountaintops of the Chai Kingdom. The game also separates itself from its bigger brother by having a mostly unique soundtrack; some familiar Mario tunes are present but, for the most part, Hirokazu Tanaka’s music is distinctive enough if a little off-brand for what the franchise was known for at the time.
Enemies and Bosses:
Super Mario Land features around thirty different enemies, most of which are distinct to each of the game’s four Kingdoms and many of which return from, or are directly inspired by, enemies encountered in the bigger, better Mario titles. As such, you’ll be stomping on Goomba heads, blasting Piranha Plants as they pop out of pipes, and knocking Bullet Bills out of the air but will run into a devious little trap after smacking a Koopa Trooper as their shells now explode a few seconds after they are defeated!
As mentioned, each Kingdom features their own distinct enemies: you’ll encounter spear-throwing Bunbuns and fireball-spitting Gaos in the Birabuto Kingdom; a variety of skeletal fish and fireball-spitting aquatic enemies in the Muda Kingdom; spiders and sentiment rocks and Easter Island heads in the Easton Kingdom; and zombie-like Pionpi, deadly chickens, and relentless bi-planes in the Chai Kingdom.
Each Kingdom concludes in a boss battle that is, in essence, the same as battling Bowser in Super Mario Bros. but much more varied: you’ll encounter a fireball-spitting, jumping sphinx-like lion, a large, fireball-spewing seahorse, and a rock-throwing sentient Easter Island head rock monster. Regardless of the arena or differing environment or the attacks the bosses use, your tactics pretty much stay the same until the final showdown with Tatanga: avoid their projectiles and either blast at them with Superballs or dodge behind them to take them out with a switch at the cost of some bonus points.
You’ll battle Tatanga in the Sky Pop but, before you can fight him, you’ll have to take out Biokinton, a chicken-throwing cloud that bounces around the screen. Afterwards, Tatanga rises into the sky, incessantly firing cannonballs from his Pagosu warship. While easily the toughest boss of the game, Tatanga’s shots are easy to avoid once you spot their pattern and, while he can absorb more shots than his counterparts, he still goes down fairly easily to allow Mario to literally rocket away with the true Princess Daisy.
Power-Ups and Bonuses:
As you explore and bop blocks through the game’s Kingdoms, you’ll collect a number of Coins; collect one hundred and you’ll be awarded with an extra life, which can also be found sporadically throughout the game (this time in the form of a heart).
Mario’s chief power-up in this game is the Superball, which allows him to toss a projectile similar to the Fire Flower but with the added bonus of the Superball bouncing around the screen to damage multiple enemies and even collect Coins, though you can only ever throw one at a time. If you take a hit while holding a Superball, you’ll revert right back to little Mario, but you can also grab Stars for a temporary period of invincibility.
Unlike other Mario games of the time, you cannot play as Luigi or any character other than Mario; as a result, the primary additional features you’ll find in this game are the aforementioned autoscrolling and bonus stages. However, after you beat the game for the first time, you’ll unlock a “Hard Mode” that adds additional enemies to the game’s Kingdoms and, after clearing that mode, you’ll unlock a stage select feature. Otherwise, the 3DS version also allows you to create one save state to dramatically reduce the game’s difficulty and challenge (I remember owning this game as a kid and never being able to clear the Easton Kingdom but, thanks to the 3DS’s save feature, I beat the game in about an hour without really trying that hard).
It’s easy to forget about Super Mario Land; not only is its sequel worlds better in every way but so is the far more memorable and popular Super Mario Bros. It’s a great little burst of fun and a decent enough distraction for short car journeys but it’s not really got much to it, even for a Game Boy launch title or a product of its time. Still, this was the first Mario title I ever played so I have a decent amount of nostalgia for it and finally beating it after all these years was cathartic, though I’d still rather play the sequel of one of Wario’s many spin-offs on the same console.
Could Be Better
What are your memories of Super Mario Land, if any? How do you feel it holds up compared to Super Mario Bros. or the other Mario Game Boy titles? What was your first ever Game Boy title and which is your favourite? Whatever your thoughts on Super Mario Land, Mario, and or the Game Boy in general, feel free to leave a comment below.