The golden age of arcade games helped solidify the medium, and it didn’t take long for the creators to begin experimenting. During that time, the only way to play a video game was to visit an arcade and insert coins into a cabinet. Because of this, the idea of being able to easily port one around on one’s person was particularly enticing. One of the earliest attempts at creating a handheld experience came in the form of Nintendo’s Game & Watch product line. This idea resulted from its creator, Gunpei Yokoi, observing a bored businessman on the Shinkansen playing around with his LCD calculator in 1977. The first few models sold under the Game & Watch trademark sold millions of units, effectively inventing a secondary market within the industry.
Though the subsequent success of their Famicom console cemented their status as one of the big players in the home gaming market, Nintendo wasn’t done experimenting with handhelds. As the eighties drew to a close, Research & Development 1, the team led by Mr. Yokoi, worked on a product to succeed their Game & Watch line: the Game Boy. However, this product had one important distinction from what came before. Still images were printed onto the LCD screen of a Game & Watch unit akin to how numbers are displayed on a basic calculator. This allowed the creators to get around strict memory limitations by not having to animate sprites. This wasn’t going to be the case with the Game Boy. It was to be a true 8-bit console, making full use of interchangeable cartridges – just like the Famicom. The only drawback is that it would lack color.
Part of what allowed the Famicom, or the Nintendo Entertainment System as it would be dubbed overseas, to enjoy the success it had was thanks to a little game called Super Mario Bros. It became a phenomenon upon release in 1985, not only pushing the sales of more units, but also revitalizing the American gaming market after its debilitating crash in 1983. Partially because it often came bundled with the console itself in package deals, the game went on to sell over forty-million copies. Overnight, Mario became one of the most recognizable video game characters of all time, so it was only natural that he should star in one of the Game Boy’s launch titles as well.
Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who created Super Mario Bros., left development of this new Mario title in the hands of Gunpei Yokoi’s team. Appropriately, the one who invented the Game Boy, Satoru Okada, would serve as its director. It was planned as the console’s premier title until Dutch gaming publisher Henk Rogers brought the highly popular Tetris to Nintendo of America’s attention. From there, he convinced branch founder Minoru Arakawa that the game would help Nintendo reach the largest audience. The company then agreed to bundle Tetris with every Game Boy purchase.
April 24, 1989 marked the domestic release of the Game Boy. The entire stock, which consisted of 300,000 units sold out within two weeks. It then proceeded to sell 40,000 units on its very first day when it launched in North America a few months later. Despite Nintendo electing to make Tetris the showcase title, the finished Mario installment, Super Mario Land, was among the handheld console’s launch titles. That it wasn’t bundled with the Game Boy did nothing to deter fans, for it managed to sell over eighteen-million copies, eclipsing figures of the series’ previous installment, Super Mario Bros. 3. Does it hold up to the same degree as its generation-defining predecessors?
Analyzing the Experience
The peaceful world of Sarasaland has been besieged by a space monster named Tatanga. He intended to conquer the land’s four kingdoms, hypnotizing its citizens so they would obey his every command. He also kidnapped the kingdom’s princess, Daisy, with the intent to marry her and make her his queen. The hero of the Mushroom Kingdom, Mario, learned of Tatanga’s wrongdoings. He has journeyed to Sarasaland to rescue Princess Daisy and defeat Tatanga, thereby restoring peace to the world.
To anyone familiar with Super Mario Bros. or its sequels, the gameplay of Super Mario Land will be instantly recognizable. It is heavily modeled after the first game in particular, featuring a linear level design that disallows backtracking. The controls are similar as well. The “A” button is used for jumping while holding down the “B” button along with pressing a direction on the cross pad allows Mario to run.
Like the Mushroom Kingdom, Sarasaland features an abundance of blocks with question marks printed on them. By striking these blocks from below, a useful item will emerge from within it. A majority of them have coins, and collecting one-hundred of them will grant you an extra life. A select few contain power-ups. The first power-up you can obtain is a Super Mushroom, which allows Mario to increase in size, becoming Super Mario. If he finds another power-up in this state, he will instead find a flower. Though one could assume the famous Fire Flower from Super Mario Bros. makes a return, this only a half-truth. The power-up does afford Mario a ranged attack, but it allows him to shoot spheres of energy rather than fireballs.
This projectile, called a Superball, has properties that distinguish it from the more familiar fireball. Rather than bouncing in arcs along the ground, the Superball ricochets off of the ground at a ninety degree angle. It then travels through the air until it hits a ceiling, which causes it to drop down at the same angle. It repeats this process until it leaves the screen, hits an enemy, or dissipates. The other notable difference is that the Superball can be used to collect coins from afar. All you need to do is fire the Superball into a coin to collect it. Mario’s heroic reputation may precede him, but he is initially incapable of taking a hit without losing a life. If he takes damage as Super Mario or Superball Mario, he will revert to his normal size. After this, his sprite will blink for a few seconds, rendering him temporarily invulnerable.
The other potential items you can find in blocks are standard for a Mario game. If you’re particularly lucky, you will find a star. Collecting it will make Mario invincible for a brief duration. If he defeats enough enemies while affected by the star, he will gain an extra life. As the Game Boy featured monochrome graphics, 1-UP mushrooms, which grant the player an extra life when found, have been replaced by hearts.
To this day, Super Mario Land is considered one of the hallmarks of the Game Boy’s library. Playing it for even a brief time reveals why it was such a big deal in 1989. In addition to the aforementioned Game & Watch line, Tiger Electronics issued several handheld games based off of popular titles from both home consoles and the arcade. Enthusiasts could easily overlook the often inane gameplay because the sole alternative was to not play anything at all. When Super Mario Land arrived on the scene, it garnered praise for offering something Tiger and even Nintendo themselves couldn’t in the past. By this point in history, most people had accepted the fact that cutting-edge experiences were offered by PCs, consoles, or arcade cabinets. It was nearly impossible to entertain the idea of having an actual full-fledged gaming experience one could easily take with them on a trip.
After having established what made Super Mario Land and the Game Boy such a success, the next question the average reader is going to ask likely concerns how well it stands the test of time. Before I can fully detail my answer, I feel it appropriate to lay bare what Super Mario Land does well. One of the greatest strengths of this game lies in its art design. Though obviously minimalistic by today’s stands, the designers did a great job giving each world its own identity, meaning the art style extends beyond the game’s superficial elements.
The four kingdoms that make up Sarasaland are Birabuto, Muda, Easton, and Chai. They are heavily based off of real-life locations – ancient Egypt, Bermuda, Easter Island, and the Chinese highlands respectively. What I particularly like about this development is how each kingdom has a unique set of enemies. In Birabuto, Mario will find himself dodging fireball breathing sphinxes while his journey through Easton has him accosted by autonomous Moai statues.
Creatures known as the Pionpi roam the Chai Kingdom. They’re based on the jiangshi, a vampire-like creature from Chinese folklore. As one would expect from an undead foe, they revive seconds after being stomped on. Moreover, one could make a connection between these four kingdoms and the four classical elements with Birabuto, Muda, Easton, and Chai representing fire, water, earth, and wind respectively.
Though Super Mario Land is a platformer first and foremost, the developers found ways to break the mold. Specifically, the final stage in the Muda Kingdom takes place beneath the ocean’s surface. Unlike corresponding stages in Super Mario Bros., this underwater stage has Mario pilot a vehicle – a submarine called the Marine Pop.
For this stage, the game turns into a shoot ‘em up. The submarine has an unlimited supply of torpedoes, and the screen scrolls automatically. While a majority of the game involves precision jumping and negotiating various obstacles, this stage has you rely on twitch reflexes. Blending genres isn’t an unusual practice these days, but partially due to memory limitations, it was exceptionally rare in the eighties. That one of the debut Game Boy games would see this happen only further cemented Nintendo’s status as industry frontrunners.
Even better, the final stage in the game takes place in the skies of Chai Kindom. Here, Mario is made to pilot his personal airplane – the Sky Pop. Considering Tatanga is an alien invader who commands a spacecraft, it’s highly fitting that the final duel becomes a dogfight.
Despite the many compliments one could pay this game, a majority of them are unfortunately subverted due to the passage of time. By far the biggest problem with Super Mario Land is that the controls have a distinct lack of polish. Though it’s a bit difficult to describe without having experienced it firsthand, I can say that a majority of these problems manifest whenever Mario jumps. As he jumps diagonally, you can’t control how he moves. This makes jumping onto moving platforms unnecessarily difficult because if you overshoot, you almost no chance of salvaging the mistake, causing Mario to fall into the abyss below. Compounding this oddity is that you can control his midair movements should you make him jump straight up in the air. Even worse, he doesn’t maintain any momentum during these movements. This means Mario’s jumps are the same regardless of whether he is charging full speed ahead or at a standstill before preforming one. It’s never a good sign whenever jumping is rendered overly complicated in a platforming game.
Furthermore, the hit detection in this game is a little suspect. In the installments leading up to Super Mario Land, it was easy to gauge how much of a margin of error you had when negotiating platforms. No, it did not make any sense how Mario could stand perfectly fine on air as long at least one foot resided on a solid surface, but it didn’t matter because it was in service to the gameplay. In Super Mario Land, you only stand a reasonable chance of staying on a platform if you’re dead center. If Mario is near a ledge, he will likely plummet.
This quirk also shows up whenever a normal-sized Mario travels through a tiny gap. His head proceeds to clip through the higher block. This does work to the player’s advantage in that the top of his head doesn’t register damage, but it also has the unintended side effect of making it difficult to tell which block Mario is jumping into at a given time. A lot of this resulted from downsizing Super Mario Bros. to fit the Game Boy’s screen as evidenced by how the blocks are smaller than Mario’s default form. Speaking as somebody who has played this game on the original console, I can assure anyone that all of these problems were made worse on a blurry screen with no backlight. At the same time, playing this game on a clearer console doesn’t do much to address these serious issues.
Though a relatively minor issue compared to some of the other problems this game has, the Superball is a terrible power-up compared to the Fire Flower. Its fatal flaw is that it’s difficult to aim properly. Because the projectile bounces off of the ground immediately in front of Mario and travels until it hits something or flies of the screen, it has practically no range in outdoor areas. It’s more reliable if there’s a ceiling above Mario’s head, but even then, it has poor accuracy. To make matters worse, only one Superball can be on the screen at a given time. This means if you miss, you have to wait for the Superball to disappear before you can fire another one. Though the situations in which Mario finds himself accosted by an overwhelming number of enemies outside of the shoot ‘em up stages are rare, it makes any such situation difficult to survive without getting taking damage – especially when one considers that certain foes take multiple hits with the Superball to defeat.
I give Mr. Okada and his team credit for giving each world its own identity. On this front, it could claim superiority over the original Super Mario Bros., which had very little to distinguish its eight worlds. This barely matters in the end, however, for the game has a scant twelve stages. For reference, Super Mario Bros. had twenty-four while Super Mario Bros. 3 featured more than sixty. One could cite the old adage that encourages people to appreciate quality over quantity as a rebuttal to this criticism. Given the decidedly bad controls, this argument is a moot point. It doesn’t matter how diverse the set pieces are if controlling your character is troublesome.
On the other hand, unlike any of its predecessors, there isn’t a single warp zone to be found. This means to clear the game, you need to finish all twelve stages. Only eight stages in Super Mario Bros. were actually required to finish the game while one could potentially clear Super Mario Bros. 3 only having gone through the final world. Then again, even without the benefit of warp zones or continues, a skilled player can complete Super Mario Land in less than an hour. This wouldn’t have been so bad had it been a predecessor to Super Mario Bros., but as a sequel to both it and Super Mario Bros. 3, it falls woefully short.
Drawing a Conclusion
At the end of the day, Super Mario Land greatly benefited from a time in which it had no competition to speak of. The only other worthwhile portable gaming experiences available to the public as the eighties drew to a close were on the same console. Super Mario Land was the only one that could claim to provide Nintendo’s signature platforming fun in such a format. Unfortunately, this doesn’t stop the game from being a rather underwhelming experience. While most of these flaws were easy to overlook back in 1989, they have become far less defensible with time. People who grew up with Super Mario Land had little difficulty accepting it as an all-time classic because though it was an overall step down from its predecessors, the circumstances surrounding its debut prevented them from directly competing with each other. As long as the only way to play Super Mario Bros. was on a television set, nobody thought of Super Mario Land as its inferior counterpart. Given how easy it is to obtain a copy of Super Mario Bros. on a handheld platform these days, that is exactly what I think of the those two games in relationship to each other. There’s no getting around it anymore – at the time of its release, Super Mario Land was the weakest installment in the franchise.
Even in light of all of this, I can imagine some are wondering if Super Mario Land is worthy of at least one playthrough. In all honesty, I think the only proper answer to such an inquiry boils down to how much of a fan you are of the Mario franchise. If you’ve played the console installments extensively and are looking for one you may have overlooked, trying out Super Mario Land could be worth your time. Everyone else is better off saving their money by passing on this one. Super Mario Land deserves credit for blazing the trail for portable gaming as a whole, but in the grand scheme of things, it comes across as an advanced prototype rather than anything that had a reasonable chance of standing the test of time.
Final Score: 4/10