Super Mario Land
Platform:  Game Boy
Players:  1

    In the past things were different.  When Nintendo released a new hardware platform, regardless of its specifics, there would always be a Super Mario game released at the same time and the Gameboy was no exception.  While Tetris was the pack-in title, Super Mario Land was released right along side as one of the original Gameboy launch titles in 1989.  While games like Golf and Baseball were mostly reworks of their NES counterparts, Super Mario Land was a totally new alternate adventure for the world's most famous plumber.  Instead of being designed by Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Land was created and produced by Gunpei Yokoi, the brilliant engineer who also created the Gameboy among other things, including the programming and hardware side of the original Donkey Kong coin-op. This proved that excellent Mario games could be created by people other than Shigeru Miyamoto.  Gunpei Yokoi would also go on to create the sequel to Super Mario Land.

Description:  Super Mario Land doesn't take place in the Mushroom Kingdom but instead in an area known as Sarasaland.  Four worlds compose Sarasaland, each modeled after a specific theme.  World 1 is known as Birabuto and is heavily influenced by Egypt with deserts and pyramids.  World 2 is Muda, an aquatic beach front world that includes the submarine stage the game is known for.  World 3 is Easton, a compression of "Easter Island" famous for its Moai statues (also common in the Gradius games) which appear in this world.  World 4 is known as Chai, Asian themed with bamboo, Asian sounding music, jumping ninjas and so forth.  World 4 is also well known for its final stage which puts Mario in an airplane.  Rather than the goal being to rescue Princess Toadstool, Super Mario Land introduced Princess Daisy who would go on to appear in spin-off Mario games such as the Mario Party series.  She would eventually be branded as Princess Toadstool's counterpart, often appearing with Luigi.  Super Mario Land sticks to the traditional platforming action of the original Super Mario Bros. however adds the challenge of world specific boss battles and totally new stages such as the Marine Pop and Sky Pop levels.  All of this is a welcome addition that sets Super Mario Land apart from anything that came before it and keeps the game feeling like a separate adventure from the console versions.

Super Mario Land would also be the first "true" Super Mario game to include the system of having multiple non-warp exits to a level.  This would become a staple of the Super Mario Land series and carry over in different incarnations to other Super Mario franchise games such as Super Mario World.  In Super Mario Land there is an upper exit that leads to a bonus stage and a lower exit that simply goes to the next stage.  While the upper exits are easy to get to in the earlier levels, they become increasingly hard to reach as the game progresses but never get all that super challenging.  In Super Mario Land 2 this was changed to having a bell up high above the exit that when rung would take the player to the bonus stage after going through the exit, in effect the same as having an upper and lower exit to the stage.  The bonus stage is comprised of four levels, three of them have a number of extra lives and one of them has a flower which will change you to Superball Mario unless you're already powered up.  Mario flashes down each row along with a ladder that flashes in the middle of each row.  Pressing A will stop the sequence and Mario will walk across the row he stops in.  If the ladder ends up touching that same level then Mario will either climb up it to the above level or down it to the level below.  Mario will then continue to the other side and collect the prize at the end.  While the sequence can be stopped whenever the player wishes, it's still pretty random since the ladder is always moving along with Mario and the order of the prizes comes up randomly when the bonus stage begins.

Graphics:  When this came out it was incredible.  It was the most indepth handheld game of it's time.  While the Atari Lynx had full color graphics and a backlit screen, many of the titles for it were fast play arcade conversions or puzzle games that constantly recycled the same graphics.  Super Mario Land was the perfect balance of quick fix portability and expanding challenge.  There were always new enemies appearing, different looking stages, and new backgrounds.  For a monochromatic portable at the time this was amazing.  All the sprites are nicely detailed and show up well, even under fast movement.  Each sprite has genuine animation sequences from the lowly Goombas to Mario himself.  Each stage has true backgrounds, not just a simple endlessly repeating pattern, things appear to have been placed where they are for a reason.  Everything moves smooth and fluent with not a hint of slowdown.  The only place the visuals get a little dodgy is in World 3-2 and 3-3 where there are large waterfalls with platforms in front of them but this is simply do to the limited contrast pallet.  All the new enemies, and there are a lot of them, are well designed and animated with nice details especially considering this was a launch title.  Yet that doesn't truly describe how well designed the boss enemies are, especially at the end of World 2-3.  Honestly the graphics feel like a rework and enhancement of the original Mario Bros. arcade game mixed with some of the Game & Watch visuals, it's very unique and very well done.

Sound:  Super Mario Land still has some of my favorite game music to this day.  The early stages have a fitting light Super Mario Bros. like soundtrack with interior levels having a psudeo-Egyptian sounding score, it almost sounds like a heavy remix of the underground music from Super Mario Bros. 2.  However without a doubt the music in worlds 2-1 and 2-2 is my favorite, it's hard to explain why but it's simply a very unique piece of digital music.  The Marine Pop and Sky Pop stages play a direct enhanced remix of the theme from the original Super Mario Bros. which again is excellent and fits the pace of the stages perfectly.  Boss battles have a specific tune as does the bonus stage.

Sound effects are equally impressive.  There are the usual enemy squash sounds and powerup alerts but they are clear and don't get garbled up with nor overpower the music.  This is also the first Super Mario game to be in true stereo sound when using a pair of stereo headphones or the supplied Gameboy earphones.  Some of the sound effects need to be listened to in true stereo to be properly appreciated.  For instance jumping on a turtle enemy leaves behind his shell, which is actually a bomb and explodes a few seconds later.  Under the normal Gameboy speaker this has a nice effect but it's totally different when using the earphones.  Instead of just an explosion sound there's a nice reverberation effect that I've still heard nothing like.  When some enemies are defeated they peel off of the screen and fall down to the bottom like in the original Mario Bros. and this too has a rather unique sound effect that sounds great in stereo.  When boss enemies are hit with Superballs, torpedoes (Marine Pop) or missiles (Sky Pop) they give off one of the strangest sounds in gaming history.  They actually sound like sheep, "baah, baah."  Perhaps this was the best sound to differentiate boss damage they could create at the time on the hardware?  Who knows but it does the job and lets you know when your shots are making contact.

Play Control:  Now this takes a moment to get used to.  Initially things feel a little loose but most of that is due to the size of the screen and getting used to the closeness of the controls to the display.  In the later levels, especially World 3, the controls can seem to get away from you again.  This isn't the case, the jumps are just really intense.  In fact this is one of the most technically challenging Super Mario games in terms of platform jumping.  While it may not be the most difficult Super Mario game overall, there are some parts here and there that require you to be perfect with your jumps.  Missing these can lead to frustration which will rapidly deplete your extra lives.  Another aspect of the game that is different from any Super Mario game before or since is the powerup the flower gives you.  Instead of changing you into Fiery Mario and adding fireballs to your arsenal, the flower turns you into Superball Mario.  Superballs are shot like fireballs however that's where the similarities end.  Only one superball can be onscreen at a time.  Instead of bouncing on the ground and disappearing or rolling offscreen, superballs ricochet off anything and everything until they hit an enemy or deflect offscreen.  This means missed shots can cost you, sometimes leaving you open for an attack.  On the other side of the coin superballs allow you to make bank shots to take care of enemies.  Superballs can also be used to collect coins from hard to reach areas.  Aside from that change the standard Super Mario controls are spot on.  The Marine Pop and Sky Pop stages are very responsive and intuitive as well.

Replay:  Even though there's a lot of game here, it still can be completed rather quickly if you know what you're doing.  This is both good and bad as the game doesn't feature a backup battery or password system so one wouldn't want to have a huge game that had to be completed in one sitting.  Yet for a long indepth gaming session this really isn't all that great.  Some replay is added in that upon completing the game it can be played through again in a "hard mode."  The hard mode adds more enemies and more level hazards such as falling ceilings.  That pretty much doubles up the game but without battery backup and no password system it can be counter rewarding.  There are also a few mini hidden areas to discover in the game but they're nothing amazing.

Final Verdict:  This game is an absolute classic and a must have for anyone with a Gameboy, a perfect mix of old and new.  Super Mario Land 2 would go on to surpass this title but the original Super Mario Land is still a good way to kill an hour or so.  Of all the original Gameboy games I've ever owned this one has probably gotten the most playtime, it was the bane of my existence in my younger days - plowing away at it for days at a time.  Month after month until finally reaching Tatanga in his spaceship at the end of the game with my last life, only to be rapidly put to death.  Of course this resulted in more months of playing the game until I could get to the end with enough lives to figure out Tatanga's attack patterns and finally complete the game.  Although there were a ton of them made this game is sill somewhat hard to come across in the wild but it's well worth the hunt and the $10 or so it'll run you.

Written on 03-16-06 by David,

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