The Game Boy was a success when it launched in 1989 with demand often exceeding supply. Among its launch titles was Super Mario Land, a 2D platforming game starring Nintendo’s mascot. Though Nintendo considered bundling a copy of Super Mario Land with every console, they instead chose Tetris, a puzzle game from the Soviet Union that was quickly becoming a phenomenon in its own right. This minor setback didn’t stop Super Mario Land from becoming a hit, as sales figures managed to surpass those of its direct predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 3. With thousands upon thousands of Game Boys sold and the console boasting a number of highly popular titles from the outset, the only thing left to do was continue experimenting with the platform.
In November of 1991, development for a sequel to Super Mario Land began. Production of the game went smoothly, only taking ten months to complete. It was released domestically in October of 1992 under the name Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins. The game received a North American release the following November, and it saw the light of day in Europe in January of 1993. Like Super Mario Land, the game was a commercial and critical success. Since then, it has been considered one of the hallmarks of the original Game Boy. Official Nintendo Magazine ranked Super Mario Land 2 forty-fourth on their list of the Greatest Nintendo Games in 2012, implying an enduring appeal. The takeaway is that most people who compile a list of the best Game Boy titles will include Super Mario Land 2. Does it indeed manage to surpass its predecessor – the game that marked the debut of Nintendo’s flagship franchise in the handheld market?
Analyzing the Experience
Thanks to Mario’s efforts, Tatanga’s invasion of Sarasaland was thwarted. Unfortunately, when Mario returned to his castle, he was shocked to discover it and the surrounding land had been placed under an evil spell. A childhood friend of his, Wario, took over his castle. He had always been jealous of his popularity, and his previous attempts at stealing Mario’s castle proved futile – until now. The six golden coins needed to enter the castle have been removed the entryway and are now possessed by Wario’s minions. With no time to rest from his last journey, Mario must travel the land and recover the six golden coins so he many challenge the dastardly Wario and reclaim his castle.
One of the first things a player fresh off of Super Mario Land would notice is the graphics. While the original Super Mario Land scaled the gameplay of Super Mario Bros. to fit the Game Boy’s screen, Super Mario Land 2 opts for a slightly different presentation. The graphical textures make the game look like an 8-bit version of Super Mario World – particularly in how Mario’s sprite is drawn. This by itself is quite a step forward from Super Mario Land wherein Mario’s small and large forms were nearly indistinguishable from each other.
However, as praiseworthy as these visual upgrades are, they would be for naught without any gameplay to analyze. Naturally, Super Mario Land 2 builds on the gameplay established by its predecessor. The controls are identical to Super Mario Land. The directional pad is used to make Mario walk, the “A” button allows him to jump, and holding down the “B” button while moving causes him to run. The average player will notice several improvements before they have even finished the first level. Because drawing a larger sprite for Mario means having to make everything else – including enemies, blocks, and platforms – proportionally larger to match it, the screen now scrolls in relation to all of his movements. Not only does this allow players to backtrack for whatever reason, it also rises as he nears the top of the screen in addition descending as he does.
Mario’s sprite resembling his own from Super Mario World isn’t a coincidence, for the creators of this game saw fit to import some of his abilities from that title as well. As usual, when Mario obtains a mushroom, he becomes Super Mario, physically increasing in size. In Super Mario Land, this form didn’t serve a practical advantage other than allowing Mario to take an additional hit without dying. It was all but rendered obsolete when he obtained a Superball Flower. Though it’s similarly a vanilla power-up in Super Mario Land 2, the mushroom allows Mario to perform a special maneuver. By pressing down when Mario is midair, he can utilize a spin attack. It can be used to break destructible blocks from above much like in Super Mario World. Furthermore, as Koopa Troopas no longer explode when stepped on, Mario can pick up their shells after stomping on them. From there, he can chuck them at his foes.
After its absence in Super Mario Land, the Fire Flower makes a return in this game. It functions exactly as it does in any other Mario game that featured it thus far. By tapping the “B” button, Mario shoots fireballs that bounce along the ground until they hit something or leave the screen. Owing to the Game Boy’s monochrome graphics, this form is indicated by a feather in Mario’s cap rather than his clothes changing colors.
Starting with Super Mario Bros. 3, console installments in the Mario series have had the tendency to include an alternate power-up to the Fire Flower. Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced the Super Leaf while Super Mario World had the Cape Feather. Though mechanically distinct, they were similar in function, granting Mario the ability to fly while also slowing his descent from large drops. Following in the steps of its precursors, Super Mario Land 2 gives Mario a Carrot as a power-up. Naturally, being in a Mario game, it’s hardly a normal vegetable; once consumed, bunny ears sprout from the protagonist’s cap.
Though Bunny Mario doesn’t exactly have the impressive flight capabilities as Raccoon Mario or Cape Mario, the ears do allow him to glide through the air when the player holds down the “A” button. Once again, as quite a lot of the game’s challenge stems from precision platforming, getting this power-up can mean the difference between success and failure. When placed opposite the Fire Flower, it creates an interesting choice for the player, allowing them to choose between a power-up that increases Mario’s offensive or mobile capabilities.
Before the game even begins, one improvement Super Mario Land 2 has over its predecessor becomes known: there are save files now. This means you no longer have to complete the entire game in a single session. Because the game features thirty-two stages to the original’s twelve, this is greatly appreciated. Moreover, unlike in Super Mario World, Super Mario Land 2 automatically saves your progress upon reaching the end of any stage. Though once could argue this takes some of the challenge out of the game, I personally don’t have a problem with it; backtracking and completing an older stage just to save in Super Mario World did get annoying at times.
Completing the first stage allows Mario to properly enter the overworld. Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World both started off in a fairly linear fashion only to occasionally give the players a choice between two or more stages, Super Mario Land 2 goes in a completely different direction with the idea. The world of Super Mario Land 2 is divided into seven regions: the Tree Zone, the Space Zone, the Macro Zone, the Pumpkin Zone, the Mario Zone, the Turtle Zone, and the overworld that connects them all. Indeed, in a stark contrast to the corresponding one from Super Mario World, the overworld of Super Mario Land 2 has only a handful of stages. The main aspect that distinguishes level progression from previous installments is how the worlds can be completed in any order.
Each world has anywhere from two to five standard stages. If you’re particularly thorough in exploring these stages, you may stumble upon an alternate exit. If you find one, you will be taken to a special stage. They tend to be rich in coins, allowing you to gamble them at a casino in an attempt to gain extra lives. The more coins you spend, the higher the potential payoff will be. Defeating the region’s boss will allow Mario to recover one of the golden coins required to enter Wario’s castle. It’s important to be wary of how many lives you possess. Expending them all won’t erase your save file, but any golden coin you have will be forfeit, necessitating Mario to defeat the bosses again to regain them.
In a 1992 interview, the game’s director, Hiroji Kiyotake, spoke about how he and his team originally wanted to divert from conventions established by past Mario titles. To this end, they wanted to give Mario an entirely different objective. Though the premise of Super Mario Land 2 has little bearing on the gameplay, it does provide an interesting take on the series’ formula. Mario had always fought the forces of evil for entirely altruistic reasons. In Super Mario Land 2, he is fighting to win back something that has been taken from him. Though it’s easy to overlook this development, it’s highly fascinating compared to the usual fare. With the bare minimum of context, the developers managed to shed some light on an aspect of Mario’s character that had never been explored.
It was only appropriate that the catalyst behind Mario’s journey this time around be his antithesis, hence Wario. Mr. Kiyotake decided on the name Wario before his character was developed. His name is derived from the Japanese word “warui”, meaning “bad”. The turning point for Wario’s design was when Mr. Kiyotake discussed the idea with his assistant character designer and co-director, Takehiko Hosokawa. To the former’s surprise, the idea to flip the “M” on Mario’s Cap, creating a “W”, was met with overwhelming enthusiasm from the rest of the staff. Though the entomology is lost in translation, the simple fact that Wario’s cap bears what could be seen as an upside-down “M” signposts to a player his status as Mario’s arch-rival. In doing so, this facet found a way to break past the language barrier.
Mr. Kiyotake would also state how Wario’s relationship with Mario was inspired by the American comic book characters Popeye and Bluto. The latter was physically imposing and motivated by self-interest. Though he would often prove to be more cunning than Popeye, the latter found ways to defy the odds and defeat him almost every time. The creation of Mario was also heavily inspired by Popeye with Shigeru Miyamoto wishing to create a game based off of the franchise. It was because the rights were denied that he needed to come up with a new idea using his own characters.
When it comes to analyzing the gameplay of Super Mario Land 2, I can safely say that it manages to be an improvement over the original. Mario is far easier to control this time around because he can now change directions in midair regardless of whether he is jumping straight up or diagonally. This by itself makes landing on precarious platforms less of a hassle. What also helps is that the graphics are now larger, meaning there is less ambiguity when it comes to the task of gauging the length of platforms. Even platforms that are only a single block in length are wider than corresponding ones from Super Mario Land, but if you find a jump you just can’t make, you can simply return with a Carrot power-up and you should be fine. To achieve this, you can revisit completed stages. In one, you can press “SELECT” as the game is paused and you will be returned to the world map with any power-ups you may have collected.
There are some other minor touches I enjoyed as well. Just the fact that the Fire Flower has replaced the unwieldly Superball power-up means you don’t need to worry about being under a ceiling in order to have an effective ranged attack. In another aspect imported from Super Mario World, using the invincibility star grants the player extra lives after defeating enough enemies. There is also a larger array of bonus minigames available to the player should they attempt to ring the bell at the end of each stage. This includes a slot machine and a crane game in addition to a reworked version of the Amida lottery from the original.
But even with all of these improvements, a platformer lives or dies based off its level design. Though the game is rather short, I could tell the developers put more effort into designing stages this time around. Creating four real-world analogies in Super Mario Land was a novel idea, but outside of the shoot ‘em up stages, you were always going through the same motions to reach the goal. Super Mario Land 2 has the advantage because it actively incorporates the environments into the level design.
One stage in the Tree Zone has Mario explore the interior of the eponymous tree. Here, he travels through the tree’s sap. It functions as though he’s swimming through water when he is in it. The biggest difference between navigating the sap and a water area is that the former can float in midair. This allows Mario to pull off some interesting maneuvers – as though they made a small-scale platforming game out of leaping from bodies of water.
The rest of the game has distinct stages as well. The Space Zone culminates in a zero-gravity maze wherein Mario must avoid getting burned by the stars. The Macro Zone takes place in an ordinary house with Mario shrunk to the size of an ant. One zone even has Mario exploring a giant mechanical statue of himself.
Though I give Super Mario Land 2 a lot of credit for innovation, it still falls short in several ways. As a consequence to making every single world open to explore from the onset, the game’s difficulty doesn’t progressively increase. Though the level design has enough diversity to sustain one’s interest throughout, this development does have the unintended effect of making the experience feel unfocused. As a counterexample, in the Mega Man series, players can choose the order in which they complete the levels before being thrust into the endgame. Every stage ends with a battle against a Robot Master. Defeating one grants Mega Man their power, which can, in turn, be used against other bosses. This is why it’s important to consider which levels to complete first; certain bosses and stages are easier than others, and having the proper resources is the key to success.
If Super Mario Land 2 provided players with an incentive to explore the worlds in a certain order, the designers may have had something there. As it stands, I could only really envision somebody putting thought into which zone to tackle first based on how difficult they find them. Because the six golden coins are lost if the player runs out of lives, it would make the most sense to start with the trickiest zone first. Alternatively, one could complete all of the zones up until the boss stages and proceed to take them out one-by-one. Though there is a consequence for losing all of your lives, it doesn’t completely undo your progress. You can still skip a stage as long as you’ve reached its goal at least once.
One subtlety annoying issue I had with the game is that you cannot retry a special stage if you lose a life in the attempt. In fact, only one can be freely reentered upon completion due to providing a shortcut to the final stage. This is admittedly a non-issue because most of them are clearly intended to be bonus stages. When they aren’t, you only have one chance to complete them before you’re kicked back to the stage with the alternate exit. The reason it’s not a debilitating flaw is because they’re not required to complete the game. In fact, it’s difficult to say why some are even there. This idea worked in Super Mario World wherein they often opened up alternate paths, but in Super Mario Land 2, it feels as though they exist simply because the previous game had them.
Though I praise Super Mario Land 2 for having better hit detection than that of its predecessor, it did come at something of a price. Because everything in the game was enlarged in proportion to Mario’s sprite, it is difficult to gauge what lies ahead of him. The designers wisely made it so that Mario doesn’t have to go more than halfway across the screen in order to make it scroll. Nonetheless, not being able to see too far ahead of him runs the risk of colliding into fast-moving enemies.
This oddity also extends to any platforming segment involving large leaps. This is the most obvious in the two stages that take place on the moon, but it shows up in lesser forms throughout the game as well. Unless you’ve memorized the stage layout front to back, any big jump runs the risk of Mario falling into a hazard. This isn’t an issue in console installments wherein you can easily see the borders of a stage. When the camera focuses on Mario at all times, on the other hand, even bottomless pits aren’t always obvious.
Finally, I would have to say the biggest problem with Super Mario Land 2 lies in its endgame. It’s as though the developers took note of the static difficulty prevalent throughout the rest of the game and decided to compensate by placing all of the challenge in the final stage. Wario’s Castle is a brutally long gauntlet of traps and strategically placed enemies. The boss encounter with Wario isn’t terribly difficult if you know what to do, but because there are no checkpoints in this stage, you only have one chance to defeat him. This means unless you are exceptionally skilled or lucky, you are likely going to spend half of an hour or longer trying to complete it. Because you can’t even face Wario a second time unless you go through the rest of the stage, you don’t get a substantial chance to practice and learn his patterns. By the time you’ve reached him again, there’s a chance you will have forgotten what you need to do.
Bunny Mario’s ability to float through the air can trivialize the arduous challenge, but you wouldn’t be able to afford getting hit once. Making the final stage markedly more challenging than anything that came before isn’t unreasonable. In fact, failing to do so may result in a horribly anticlimactic experience. However, as Super Mario Land 2 demonstrates, there is a fine line between a reasonable challenge and a tediously drawn-out sequence that can only be cleared through sheer repetition.
Drawing a Conclusion
A lot of fans vouch for the quality of Super Mario Land 2, and in complete fairness, there is quite a lot to like about the experience. Though the level design of Super Mario Land showcased a surprising amount of ambition, it becomes clear even before completing the first stage of Super Mario Land 2 that it dominates its predecessor in this field. In doing so, Super Mario Land is almost rendered an elaborate prototype by comparison. I can agree that Nintendo deciding to drop the shoot ‘em up stages was a disappointment, but I would rather have a game do one thing well than several things only somewhat competently.
Although I have no question that Super Mario Land 2 is the superior product between the two titles, I still find recommending it a tricky proposition – albeit not to the same degree. Just like its predecessor, Super Mario Land 2 benefitted from the time in which it was released. By 1992, many third-party developers had been throwing their hats in the portable market ring. While some efforts such as Final Fantasy Adventure managed stand as solid efforts in their own right, a significant portion of them were inferior versions of popular games. As such, many of them took solace in the fact that these titles were portable, giving them a definite, enticing advantage over their more technically sound rivals on consoles or in arcades.
In light of these facts, I can’t help but think of Super Mario Land 2 as an inferior version of Super Mario World. Similar to the relationship between Super Mario Land and Super Mario Bros., this was excusable back when the games weren’t directly competing with each other. However, now that portable versions of both games are readily available to the public, I couldn’t really formulate any substantial argument that advocates playing Super Mario Land 2 over Super Mario World. That being said, if you’re particularly fond of 2D platforming games, I can recommend playing Super Mario Land 2 at least once. If you wish to get into the series, it wouldn’t be a bad one to start with either. As for those who outright dislike the franchise, I can safely say this one wouldn’t change your mind. Even if it hasn’t aged well, I at least give credit to Mr. Kiyotake and Mr. Hosokawa for pushing the envelope with a well-known franchise in a time when portable gaming was seen as a novelty.
Final Score: 5/10