This was something of an unexpected entry into the series, coming about because of my inability to stream Another Metroid 2 Remake earlier in the week. Game Boy games go!
While Tetris was its pack-in game–a savvy move by Nintendo, as Tetris was one of the first games to appeal to “Casual” gamers and broaden Nintendo’s audiences, taking a role similar to games like Candy Crush Saga or Bejeweled would today–Super Mario Land was probably the closest thing the original Nintendo Game Boy had to a “killer app”. This was 1989, effectively the height of Nintendo’s dominance, meaning the game was guaranteed to sell like hotcakes regardless of its quality.
It’s an interesting entry in the series. While it stars everyone’s favorite plumber, Mario hadn’t totally settled into its formula yet, meaning Princess Toadstool/Peach and Bowser are nowhere to be found. Instead of the Mushroom Kingdom, the game takes place in Sarasaland, where a new Princess, Daisy, has been kidnapped by the mysterious space being Tatanga. Tatanga wants to marry Princess Daisy and take over Sarasaland. Mario, hearing of this, begins a journey to Sarasaland’s Chai Kingdom to rescue Daisy and restore peace. Essentially, the plot is what you’ve come to know and love from Mario, but with different characters and a new setting.
The gameplay is also, for the most part, what you know and love. Mario travels through a total of twelve levels, running, stomping enemies, and throwing balls. Not fireballs, though–your powerup this time around is a “superball” which hits the ground and bounces off at a 45-degree angle. It bounces off of floors, walls, and ceilings, and can even be used to collect coins. It’s fun, though the limited horizontal range means its tricky to aim.
One of the things Super Mario Land introduces to Mario is the concept of autoscrollers. In two levels, you climb into a vehicle (Either a submarine or an airplane) and the game turns into a shoot-em-up along the lines of Gradius. It’s not something you’d expect from a Mario game, but it is a fun diversion.
Something interesting with the game is its aesthetic, believe it or not. Each of the four kingdoms you travel to is based somewhat on an actual location–the first world is very Egyptian-themed, while the third is centered around Moai-heads, recalling Easter Island. It’s cool that a Mario game has these vaguely real-life ties in its worlds, even if the gameplay is decidedly not realistic.
The controls in the game can best be described as “squirrelly”. You have a run button, of course, but momentum works strangely, particularly when you’re in the air. The end result is a lot of missed jumps and falling into pits, or running into enemies. I started level 3-2 with 12 lives, and ended world 3 with 1, mostly due to the controls. This may be for the best, though, because Super Mario Land isn’t a long game in terms of the number of levels or its real-time length. Having not played the game in years, I managed to get through it in the neighborhood of half an hour.
In all, Super Mario Land is a cool game that’s probably known more for the side series it would spawn later (Super Mario Land 2 introduced Wario, another of Mario’s nemeses; from there, the Wario Land series would go on to be its own series) than on its own merits. This is probably as it should be, as Super Mario Land itself is a short game along the lines of Kirby’s Dream Land. Whether this is due to Game Boy limitations or not is hard to say, but that probably played a factor. It can be found on the 3DS Virtual Console for $4 US, which sounds like a fair price for what you get.