Super Mario Land (Game Boy) review
"Plumbing looks like a top career. You can let your weight go as much as you like. You can proudly wear the worst facial fuzz since David Bellamy. You can have dodgy dress sense. And still you not only manage to pull, but you unfailingly land members of the monarchy!!! It's genius I tell you..... Plus, if the Mario games are anything to go by (and I'm sure that they are) the whole 'having to stick your arm down someone else's toilet? Lies. I've never once seen Mazza go near a U-Bend. Hell, he has..."
Plumbing looks like a top career. You can let your weight go as much as you like. You can proudly wear the worst facial fuzz since David Bellamy. You can have dodgy dress sense. And still you not only manage to pull, but you unfailingly land members of the monarchy!!! It's genius I tell you..... Plus, if the Mario games are anything to go by (and I'm sure that they are) the whole 'having to stick your arm down someone else's toilet? Lies. I've never once seen Mazza go near a U-Bend. Hell, he hasn't even sent Luigi to do any lavatorial maintenance, and Luigi's basically just his gimp! Yessir, plumbers have it sweet.....
....Unless, that is, they happen to be travelling through Sarasaland. You see, an extraterrestrial menace calling himself Tatanga has visited this fair land, and has kidnapped the lovely Princess Daisy. For reasons unknown, the Sarasaland natives call upon everyone's favourite Brooklyn plumber to save the day. And so Mario leaves the Mushroom Kingdom behind and ventures into new territory in order to once again save a land - and it's princess- from the clutches of evil.....
And that is pretty much the basic concept behind Super Mario Land on the Game Boy. As a launch title for their pioneering handheld, it made sense for Ninty to send their most recognisable games character in a new direction - they needed to give the Game Boy an identity of it's own in order to persuade NES owners to fork out on another machine. As such many of the mainstays of the Mario series are absent here - the Mushroom Kingdom is left behind. Luigi is missing in action (perhaps Mario did send him to do some plumbing after all....). Instead of Princess Toadstool, we have the rather-more-attractively-named Daisy. And instead of Bowser (or even the giant frog dude from Super Mario Bros. 2) we have Tatanga - a being best described as a catlike creature in a spaceship. Even the normally recognisable - even iconic - bad guys scattered throughout the levels are different: the goombas, pipe-plant-things and Bullet Bills are all still there (albeit referred to in the manual by another name), and the Koopas are still present, although unlike other games in the series they leave bombs in their wake, as opposed to shells that can be booted around, but other than that it's all new territory - spiders, bees, seahorses.... even chicken's are gagging to send Mario to his messy, messy death. This attempt to find a new voice for the series makes Super Mario Land somewhat of a black sheep of the Mario family - not unlike Mario 2 on the NES, it has come in for a lot of undue criticism for not really following the Mario formula to the letter. However, unlike that particular NES adventure, the differences between Super Mario Land and it's big-screen brethren are mostly window-dressing - for the most part this game plays just like the classic Mario games.
The simple platforming action first seen in the NES original is recreated brilliantly here. You run about a bit. You jump from platform to platform a lot. You jump on enemies to kill them. You headbutt blocks in order to get power-ups (mushrooms that make you taller, and able to withstand one enemy attack; flowers that grant you the ability to shoot fireballs; stars that grant you temporary invincibility; and of course the standard extra lives). You collect coins in an attempt to earn extra lives. It's a classic formula, and one that has not suffered at all in the transition to the small, green'n'black GB screen. In fact, the gameplay is as blissfully well designed as ever. Hidden rooms still abound, full of lovely money, and many of them require special tactics in order to scoop all of the loot. See some coins that are just out of your reach? Shoot a fireball at them in order to collect them.... the fireballs can even bounce of different surfaces, enabling you to get at even the harder to reach spots. There are also several nice touches that reward the more vigilant player: some of the better power-ups are hidden in blocks that are invisible - only by knowing exactly where to jump can you obtain these goodies. And there are even some platforms that are invisible, but lead to shortcuts or extra power-ups and coins. There are pixel-perfect jumps that need to be made, an impressive amount of enemies that need to be dispatched, and some memorable bosses to be vanquished. Everything that should be present in a classic old-school platformer is here, and in exactly the right place. This really is a stunningly well designed game. But it isn't all platform action on offer here - just when you think you have things worked out, Super Mario Land throws a few surprises your way, in the shape of two levels unlike anything seen before in a Mario adventure.
The final level in both the second and fourth world in the game takes you on an entirely different type of experience to the rest of the levels in this game. By placing you in control of a submarine and an aeroplane respectively, they present you with some classic side-scrolling shooter action. As bizarre as it may seem, these levels play in a similar way to games such as Gradius or R-Type. Your vehicle is given free range of the screen - you can move in all four directions at will, although the level scrolls at a relatively slow pace, ensuring that you are always being gently pushed in the right direction. And your transport is armed. There's no need to resort to squishing the enemies, or munching plants in order to throw fireballs at them here, no, in these levels you simply blast away with either torpedoes or missiles, depending on the stage you're playing. It really is a complete diversion from what we've come to expect from a Mario game, and once again this is something that has raised more than a few despairing cries from some gamers over the years. However, controversy aside, these levels play very well - there's no dip in quality compared to the rest of the game whatsoever - and the variety they offer is actually quite welcome, and if anything, it actually raises this particular Mario title above many of it's stable-mates.
Another way in which this title differs to previous games in the franchise is in the way the levels end - instead of jumping on a flagpole, or simply wandering into the next stage, at each levels conclusion you are presented with two doors - one at the top-right hand corner of the screen, one in the bottom-right. Gaining access to the top door (which is increasingly difficult as the game progresses, naturally) sends you into a bonus room where you must face a small mini-game challenge. In these one-screen chambers are several platforms. At the end of each is a power-up - there's a standard flower, and there are various numbers of extra lives. Mario travels between these platforms at some speed, as does a ladder (which moves at a different pace). When you hit a button Mario and the ladder stop, and our hero toddles forward. If he reaches the ladder he climbs it. When he reaches whichever power-up he reaches, he collects it an it's off to the next level. It's a blissfully simple thing, really, but at the same time it breaks up the main action nicely, and again gives Super Mario Land an individual flavour.
As utterly marvellous as the gameplay here may be, sadly there simply isn't enough of it. The only real flaw that can be thrown at this game is that it's shorter than a child version of Tom Cruise, who has lost his legs while playing at being a fighter pilot. And then been hit by a shrinking ray. This game consists of just four 'worlds', each comprising of a mere three levels. Since this is not really the most challenging of games at the best of times, and downright easy for just over half of the experience, that means that this game will not take long to complete. Thankfully, it's enjoyable enough to keep you coming back for another run through long after you've seen all it has to offer (I still take it for a spin quite often, and I've had it in my collection for just over twelve years now), but you can't help but feel a little let down when you polish off Tatanga on what will probably be your first day.
Graphically, this game is extremely accomplished, seeing as it's a first generation title for the Game Boy. The four worlds all look distinct, and take in locations that had never before been seen in a Mario title - our hero first visits an area much like Egypt, complete with a catacomb level and a sphinx-like boss, before taking in a marina, an Easter-Island themed world (with obligatory rock based enemies, and with some spooky caves thrown in for free), before heading off to an Oriental-themed locale. While the backgrounds in each of these areas are quite sparse, the developers make excellent use of what they have: a distant pyramid here, a large head-statue there.... each area looks impressively varied from the last, and the whole feel of the levels seems graphically quite fresh, even today (an effect no doubt helped no end by the fact that some of the locations here have not been recreated in subsequent Mario adventures... Sonic Team could take a leaf out of Super Mario Land's book next time they think about opening a Sonic game with a variation on the Green Hill Zone...). The character design, however, suffers quite badly, due mostly to the sprites being even shorter than the game's length.... Especially when not empowered with the super size that comes from collecting mushrooms, Mario looks unbelievably dinky on screen. It's never really enough to mean that you can't really see what's happening, but it may cause some eye strain at times.
The tunes, too, are absolute classics. From the jaunty theme tune that accompanies the very first level, to the almost-tense warble of the boss music, right down to the melancholy collection of notes that accompanies the 'Game Over' screen, almost every song in this game is memorable - it's entirely possible that you'll find yourself humming them even if you haven't played the game in a while. It really is impressive, the way Ninty can take the oh-so-often annoying and tinny beeps and twangs usually emitted from the Game Boy's speaker and turn them into something that you can happily listen to - a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that this was one of their first attempts to do so, being such an early GB title. The sound effects in the game don't fare quite so well - when the Sphinx boss in particular breathes fire at you, it sounds very much like a sixty-a-day smoker trying to breathe - but on the whole the quality of the music easily balances out any aural shortcomings.
In order to convert gamers to the charms of portable gaming, the Game Boy needed some worthwhile and fresh titles to launch with. It was inevitable that Mario would be there, but it was imperative that is was a game that wasn't just the NES Mario, appearing on the Game Boy, but rather the Game Boy Mario, with it's own voice and style. It had to be recognisable enough to the fans of the previous games, but unique enough to ensure that people wanted to get it as opposed to just sticking to what they had. Super Mario Land pulled this off in fine style, and was undoubtedly one of the reasons to which can be attributed the early success of the Game Boy. It's just such a damned pity that there wasn't more of it. This is still an essential gaming experience, it's just not a long-lasting one.
Community review by tomclark (March 07, 2004)
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