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Super Mario Land: A short, oddball entry

Super Mario Land was a Game Boy launch title, but not the pack-in game. That honor went to Tetris. Tetris is an incredible game with perennial appeal, and it propelled the Game Boy's explosive success. Super Mario Land is not as impressive but still fun.

Super Mario Land is a bit odd. It doesn't feel like other Mario games. Only four of the classic enemies appear: Bullet Bills, Piranha Plants, Goombas, and Koopa Troopas. Even the koopas behave differently: their shells can't be kicked and instead explode like bombs. Most of the enemies are assorted creatures, like spiders, robots, ghosts, and Moai heads. The Fighter Flies from the original Mario Bros. arcade game also appear.

The Super Mushroom, coins, and Super Star appear, as well as question blocks. The Fire Flower, however, has been replaced by a similar flower power-up. It lets Mario throw a bouncing ball. It ricochets off walls like an old screen saver, and only one can be on screen at a time. Weird! Extra-life mushrooms have been replaced by hearts, so they can't be confused with Super Mushrooms.

The game takes place in Sarasaland, whose princess, Daisy—destined to fame through future Mario sports games and Mario Party—has been kidnapped by an alien called Tatanga. I have fond memories of this bit of Mario lore only because it appeared in a strange comic in the 1991 graphic novel collection The Best of Super Mario Bros.

Each world in Super Mario Land has a different theme: Egyptian ("Birabuto"), water ("Muda"), Easter Island ("Easton"), and China ("Chai"). The music matches the themes; you get a stereotypical Asian sound for the Chinese-themed world, for example. As with everything about this game, the music is good, if not quite up to the lofty standards of the NES games.

Each world has just three levels, with a simple boss at the end. The game can easily be beaten in under an hour. One of the main complaints against the game is that it's so short. Granted, it was a handheld game in 1989, but the original SMB from 1985 has 32 levels. This has twelve. Not only that, but levels reuse earlier segments with slight changes. I learned from Jeremy Parish that, even with this repetition, the game used twice as much data—64 kilobytes—as other launch titles.

At the end of each level, if Mario can reach the higher exit door, he plays a simple bonus game in which he can win up to three extra lives. In part due to these extra lives, Super Mario Land is easier than the NES games. The level designs don't feel quite as expertly designed, either. Don't get me wrong; the stages are fun to play, but they don't stand out. There is, however, another oddity: 2-3 and 4-3 see Mario board a prop plane, and suddenly it's a side-scrolling shooter! These are fun levels, and I'll give the designers props for trying something different, but it only reinforces how un-Marioish the game is.

To accommodate the Game Boy's small screen, Super Mario Land uses small sprites. Super Mario is only 11 pixels wide, compared to 16 on the NES. The Goomba (technically a variant called a "Goombo") is just eight pixels wide, half the usual size. On the original Game Boy, the game was hard to see, especially with the motion blur. Our standards for handheld gaming were way lower in 1989, but even then, as a child, I thought the game looked pretty bad. A couple years later Super Mario Land 2 used NES-sized sprites, and it was so much better. While working on this review, Nintendo added the game to the Switch online service, and I found it more fun playing on my TV than I did on my 3DS thanks to the improved visibility.

Perhaps owing to the small sprites, Mario doesn't handle as smoothly as he normally does. His jumping can feel a bit erratic. In any other game, it would be fine, but, again, the standards in the Super Mario series are so high that even slightly inferior controls are noticeable.

Super Mario Land is enjoyable, but it can't equal the high standards of the Super Mario series. The game is not in the same leagues as later Game Boy platformers, like Super Mario Land 2, Wario Land, Wario Land II, or Donkey Kong. This game was solid in 1989, but it can be skipped. Sorry, Daisy!

Grade: C+

Linked Review
"Super Mario Land was impressive when it was first released for the Game Boy, but given how the length and overall quality of Game Boy releases increased shortly thereafter, it only made this original seem even more inadequate by comparison."
— Corbie Dillard, Nintendo Life, 7/10

"Super Mario Land takes a skewed approach to being a Mario platformer. It's Super Mario as made by a bunch of people who didn't normally make Super Mario games ultimately coming up with something much quirkier and in some ways more interesting."
— Jeremy Parish, Game Boy Works


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