Let’s get weird.
The king of platformers is finally coming to mobile with Super Mario Run. To celebrate this milestone, let’s look back at the plumber’s first handheld adventure, Super Mario Land.
Released in 1989, Super Mario Land was a launch title for the groundbreaking Nintendo Game Boy. Notably, series creator Shigeru Miyamoto was not involved with the game’s development, and instead, production was overseen by the late Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game Boy.
Like any 2-D Mario game, the player is tasked with completing stage after stage of stomping on foes and jumping over bottomless pits to save a princess. While all of these classic elements are present in Super Mario Land, what makes the game stand out to this day is how it slightly changes the Super Mario Bros. formula to create something unique and different.
Basically, Super Mario Land is weird.
Rather than saving Princess Peach from Bowser in the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario must rescue Princess Daisy from the clutches of the alien Tatanga in Sarasaland. Mario still stomps on the heads of Koopa Troopas, but rather than going back into their shells, they explode. Fire Flower power-ups are still obtainable after collecting a Super Mushroom, but they now fire angled projectiles that bounce everywhere and able to collect coins.
Instead of leaping to a flagpole at the end of each level, you are presented with a platforming challenge which could lead to a bonus game for extra lives. When you collect a star, you still turn invincible, but now the can-can music plays. There are two Gradius-esque shooter levels…and one of them is the final boss fight where Mario flies a plane.
While these weird variations on the Mario formula are at first jarring and uncomfortable, you quickly realize that the oddities of Super Mario Land contribute to it’s charm. The game embraces it’s weirdness, and revels in it.
Sarasaland is unlike any other Mario game setting. It’s four worlds each have a distinct look and feel to them, with different enemies and obstacles exclusive to each one. For example, World 1 is based on ancient Egypt and features Sphinx-like foes, and World 3 is based on Easter Island, with flying moan creatures, and rolling boulders you leap through. There isn’t a generic ice or lava world, but instead very distinct and purposeful locales brought to life through simple but effective line art.
The game is very distinct in the presentation department as well. For the first Game Boy title, Super Mario Land is easy on the eyes and vibrant. Sure, Mario looks like a knockoff clone of himself, and the game’s palette is extremely limited (it’s monochrome on a regular Game Boy, but colored on Super GB and GB Color), but each platform and enemy is designed to pop out visually inside of the tiny portable screen. The game doesn’t use the series’ iconic theme, but rather original tunes that radiate jolliness and good vibes. The first overworld theme and the second are unbelievably catchy, and the oriental inspired World 4 theme is great too.
While Super Mario Land soars with it’s unique style, it struggles in a couple key areas. The game is very short. For this review, I finished the title in a little over an hour. While all three Super Mario Bros. games on the NES are short as well, there’s plenty of incentive to replay them, with their multiplayer components and hidden goodies. There isn’t really much of that in Land, and chances are you’d be done with the game way before you reached your destination in a long car trip.
Also, Mario doesn’t feel great. Controlling the plumber is notably clunky at times, and gaining momentum to make tough jumps can be unnecessarily frustrating. But hey, it was his first time platforming on the go, and it could have been a lot worse.
Super Mario Land is weird. It’s definitely a Mario game, but it takes tropes and gameplay mechanics we’re all familiar with, and warps them into a strange, but charming portable experience. As Mario leaps onto iPhone, don’t forget to revisit this quirky little Game Boy title that started it all; in your hands at least.
FINAL SCORE: 4.5/5
Super Mario Land is available to download on the 3DS Virtual Console.