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Retro Corner: Super Mario Land

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Retro games are a hot commodity. With the Xbox Live Arcade and Wii’s Virtual Console, it’s quickly becoming a prolific segment of the industry. Blogcritics is going to start looking at gaming’s generally under-appreciated past in a different way.

Teaming up with classic gaming database Digital Press, Blogcritics will be presenting some lost or under-appreciated classics in short reviews. Extras may include odd facts, the title’s impact on the industry, some personal retrospective, different ports the game may have received, and how well they hold up on today’s market. Our hope would be to introduce a new generation of gamers, or even those who recently purchased a game console for the first time to those games they missed and the legacy they left behind.

The Game

While seemingly lost in a buzz over Tetris, the bizarre and unfitting Super Mario Land found a home on Nintendo’s first dedicated portable hardware. While a fast paced platformer went against the horrifically blurring screen of the Game Boy, Mario Land is and was a resounding gameplay success, and more incredibly, it did so without a familiar figure.

Trimming the standard Mario formula at the time down to only four levels, in all the Worlds, Islands, and Galaxies Mario’s visited, there’s never been another one like this. Sure, the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 would have the famous plumber picking up vegetables to whack an oversized frog, but when have you even seen Mario hop into a submarine to take down Egyptian idols?

This is definitely a departure for the series, helmed not by Shigeru Miyamoto, but Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi crafted the Game Boy hardware, and this apparently landed him the task of crafting a Mario game to play with it. While by no means an insult, this would have become a far different character if Yokoi continued developing the franchise.

While most of the typical features are intact, from collecting coins to warping down pipes, everything else is different. The enemies include insects, explosive turtles, and as mentioned above, Egyptian-styled bosses. Mario is even out to save Princess Daisy, and the new enemies have apparently taken a note from Bowser to stick him with the “Princess is in another castle” bit. Even the classic fireball power-up has been altered into a reflecting ball that can be strategically used to gain coins.

Hirokazu Tanaka handled the audio, and created a theme that sticks with you constantly. It’s peppy pacing and addictive hooks are a highlight for the series. While maybe not as influential to pop culture as the level 1 theme from the original Super Mario Bros., it certainly can hold its own.

The Present

If there’s a lost game in the series made by Nintendo, this is it. No one seems to bring this title up in discussions about Mario, and it has to be the radical changes. There’s simply no other reason for it.

Granted, the sprites are unbearably small and it can lead to irritating deaths, Mario Land holds up just as well as the others. The platforming mechanics still maintain their trademark feel, and the level design creates some unique challenges. You’ll need to play through this one twice at minimum to grasp everything even with the shorter than average length.

While fun for their time, the shooting levels do stick out. They’re mostly filled with cheap shots and end level bosses that sound like a sheep when hit. Not only that, they’re some of the most out of place challenges in a traditional 2-D Mario game. There’s a reason this feature was left out of all following efforts. The same goes for the fireball power, which is wonderful in enclosed areas, and completely useless in any level without a ceiling.

Those minor quirks are small problems in this ignored entry to the venerable Mario family. It’s no less playable today than it was nearly 20 years ago.

Facts and notables

None of the enemies would be reappear in future platforming Mario games, and the same goes for the soundtrack.

This is the only Mario game with shooting stages.

Gunpei Yokoi and composer Hirokazu Tanaka would team up for numerous classics, notably Metroid and multiple releases for the Virtual Boy.

Even with the resounding sales success, Mario Land 2 would become a traditional Nintendo platformer, with giant sprites and a far more involving game world.

The third game in the series would replace Mario all together, beginning the Wario Land set of games.

Yokoi is rarely remembered for his game creations, and more for his hardware. He would produce Metroid II, multiple games used with the Super Nintendo Super Scope, and also a few games for his failed Virtual Boy.

Yokoi’s life sadly ended in 1997 in a tragic car accident. A game titled after his name, Gunpey, would be released in 1999.

Personal Reflection

Like most kids in 1989, the Game Boy was a huge deal. Never mind the blurring screen that made it damn near impossible to see what you were doing. This thing played Tetris. While many a kid waited for Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, we slugged through Super Mario Land.

I must confess, I’m one of the people who shunned the game. There were quite a few incredible Game Boy games at the time, and there’s a reason the hardware became what it did. Mario Land simply fell to the wayside, especially when a year later the NES was graced with Mario 3.

What brought me back was an oddball radio remix of the main theme by Ambassadors of Funk that became a huge player on local radio. Looking back, it’s one of the worst things I ever heard, but to the ears of a 12-year-old kid, this was golden. Setting 8-bit music to rap was never a good idea, though if it led me to realize this game as a classic, it was worth it.

Images and review courtesy of Digital Press.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • RCM

    Gunpey came out for Wonderswan (originally)which Yokoi also had a hand in creating.

    Didn’t Metroid II pioneer the double jump? I swear it did.

    I dig this title, it has a distinct feel and charm when compared to the Miyamoto Marios and is far greater than New SMB for DS.

  • Yeah, and I’m so glad to see Gunpey branching out too. It’s a great design.

  • Wacky

    hey, i love this game it was the first game i ever played on gameboy, it game with it youknow the original fat one, seethrough edition. is it on wii yet? and if not any idea when it will?

  • Game Boy games aren’t on the Virtual Console. Don’t know why, but if they eventually add them, I’m sure this would be on of the first.