Friday, March 4, 2022

Super Mario Land (Game Boy, 1989)


It's March 4th, you know what that means. Time to march forth with Impromptu Mario Week! What awaits in this impromptu week of Mario? Tune in to find out. First up, the Game Boy classic that punched well above its weight. This is something I wanted to play as a kid, but didn't get around to it until I was an adult. Actually played the second one way before I played this one. While the second is objectively a much better game, I kind of preferred this one for its elegant simplicity and lack of gimmicks. Not being tired of the Mario format yet is probably a large factor in this.

That box art is tremendous, too. So colorful and action-packed. If I'd seen this in a store as a kid, I no doubt would have begged my way into getting it. Instead, Kirby's Dream Land was the lucky winner of the first game choice...mainly because Caldor didn't have this game. Let's get to it.

The NES had Super Mario Bros. The SNES was going to have Super Mario World. So Game Boy was stuck with just Land. While the other games usually have 8 worlds (sometimes 7) this one only has 4. It really is a scaled-down Mario in every sense, though we kids would lap it up regardless because there was something to be said for it being portable. Nowadays everything is portable, but in 1989 it was insane to be able to play something on the go.

Quick reference to the Game Boy Player's Guide and the main thing that made me want to play this game: The enemy pages. Each world has really distinct enemies (though they generally share Goombas and Koopas) which adds to the game's appeal. I can really detect the Gunpei Yokoi-ness in a lot of these designs, too. The bosses are particularly cool, and more interesting than Super Mario Bros just giving you Bowser at the end of every world.

Side note: A friend of mine who played Super Mario Bros 3 first told me that the endboss of the Super Mario Bros worlds were the Koopalings, they just didn't have different sprites yet. That's not correct but it's an interesting theory for a kid to come up with. I'd gotten to the end of 1-4 a few times and really wanted to know who that guy was (this was pre Nintendo Power or anything else).

Another side note: Hard to believe that Super Mario Bros 3 came out the same year as this game. They're so monumentally different in size and scope, not to take anything away from this one.

The back half of the game is where about 90% of the challenge is. The difference between World 2 and 3 in difficulty is like the difference between World 3 and 7 in Super Mario Bros. It jumps upward and is a surprisingly steep curve. The bosses continue to be appealing, though I'm wondering who in the blue hell Tatanga is. An actual alien?

It's worth noting that Chai Kingdom is basically Japan, and has great music that I'll get to.

Pinopi looks like an evil Chaozu. Well, more evil.

The game itself...isn't much to look at visually, that's for sure. It does have a distinctive theme and art design to it, though. 1-1 shows you pyramids in the background, pyramids that you infiltrate in 1-3. These worlds only have 3 stages a pop, though the stages can get pretty long.

Side note: It's great how Pause has hearts around it. Like "there's nothing wrong with taking a break, we love you anyway". That's Gunpei Yokoi for you.

One of the things I didn't like about this game as a kid (before I played it) was that they replaced Fire Flowers with...Superball Flowers. These projectiles bounce off the floor and everything else, which sounds a lot harder to use than the traditional fireballs...and it is. They're best used right up close to an enemy. They have their charm though, like how you can use them to pick up coins in high places by bouncing them off of walls.

BEHOLD, Goomba. "We love America!" says Goomba. "USA! USA!"

...that's a reference to the Super Mario RPG posts from over a decade ago. Yeesh, that was over a decade ago?

World 1-2 gets a little more intense, substituting platforms for the stable ground of the previous level. Bottomless pits in these games made me so nervous as a kid.

Koopas are here too, but different. Now when you bop them, they EXPLODE afterwards. So you need to run away from them quick and treat them like a Bob-omb. This was a really odd design choice and I'm not sure I get it. I definitely prefer OG Koopas. I'm guessing there was an issue with making the shells move, so they had to just get them off the screen.

1-3 is the pyramid, and it's super atmospheric. I mean they did a LOT with this limited hardware. This was like a year one Game Boy game.

The sphinx boss LOOKS really cool, but doesn't have much to him. His fireballs are in a very set pattern unlike Bowser's more randomized pattern, making him easy to defeat with superballs. OR you can just jump over him and hit the end goal without even fighting (unfortunately the bridge doesn't retract and drop him in the lava in this one).

Princess Daisy is rescued, but it's a true "princess in another castle" situation as this one's a monster wearing a princess skinsuit. Eww.

Side note: Daisy is way hotter than Toadstool. Look at that flowing hair! Mario was chasing the wrong woman all these years.

World 2 contains leaping, snapping bone-fish. I...I don't wanna talk about it

2-3 is the first of two shooter levels in this game, and both of them are AWESOME. It's about what you'd expect, fly around in Rush Marine here and blast enemies with shots. The programming is totally different in these levels, with enemies homing in on you and firing projectiles of their own (compared to the normal levels where everything pretty much follows a set pattern that doesn't react to the player).

On one hand it's pretty weird to see Mario firing a weapon, but it does set this game apart from the other Marioes of the era.

Dragonzamasu is the first big difficulty spike of the game. Everything up to this point is pretty much smooth sailing, while this fight is fast and furious and requires some knowledge of geometry to avoid the big (jellyfish?) ball that is bouncing around the room. The boss moves up and down on the wall and can be skipped by shooting out the blocks at the lower right, though it's probably easier to just fight him. People who played shooters before this wouldn't have much trouble with the fight, but I wonder how many platformer-oriented kids ran into problems here.

Speaking of difficulty spikes, World 3's difficulty goes through the roof compared to the first two. This is the one that separates the people playing for fun from the people playing seriously, because the back half of the game doesn't give up without a fight.

Bullet Bills make their Game Boy debut! They function exactly the same, except they don't have a face. ...or do they?

Super Mario Land 2 refines the look of these guys quite a bit, along with everything else. It came out 3 years later, after the SNES launch, and I imagine it was a consolation prize for numerous kids who couldn't get the SNES yet.

The biggest PITA in World 3, and maybe the game, are these flying mask guys. They bounce around erratically and actually turn around to chase you if you run past them. Like the first night at Fight Club, you have to fight.

Riding boulders over spiked floors is just one of World 3's menaces.

The boss is this boulder-throwing moai statue who bears a striking resemblance to Kim Jong Un.

Pretty much HAVE to just run past this guy without fighting him. I don't even know if superballs damage him. And running past him means jumping off the boulders. Another place where a lot of kids might have met the game over screen. If this were Elden Ring, there'd be a ton of bloodstains on the ground around this fight, informing you that other players are struggling with it.

Finally, Chai Kingdom with its great music. The one track I remembered from the game, all these years later, is this one. It's almost victorious, like "you've made it". And incidentally, World 4 is actually easier than World 3, so in a way, you did make it over the hump. From here it's just a matter of sticking the landing.

World 4 is full of those evil Chaozu guys, and they're immortal. So you bop one and they fall on the ground, then revive and come after you again. What is this, Highlander?

4-2 has a few death traps in it, like this section with Bullet Bill harrying you while you're trying to avoid all the pirahna plants.

Look at Goomba over there. "I'm part of the death trap too!"

4-3 is a shooter level like 2-3, only now it's Rush Jet. It's more shootin', though here more enemies shoot back. The main threat are these helmet-wearing chickens.

The Giant Coin Room, something that intriged me in the player's guide, is actually a bit of a trap. The wall is incoming pretty fast due to the auto-scrolling, and you have limited time to make a couple pinpoint shots on those lower blocks and escape. Spend too much time grabbing coins, and you won't have enough time to get out. Nice bit of risk/reward right before...

...Brokinton, who has the boss music so he's serious business. This guy just fires chickens at you, no big whoop. He's no Kracko. After that, it's on to the real boss...

...Tatanga, who unleashes BULLET HELL with these shots that burst into trios. He fires very fast and makes everything else in the game look slow by comparison.

Seriously, this was a rough challenge when I first played it, even as an adult. They went nuts with making this guy a real threat, probably to extend the game's longevity a bit. Aside from World 3 being a big difficulty spike, this guy is the other main obstacle for beating the game. I bet a lot of tragic game overs happened here.

And that's it, you rescue Daisy, the real one this time. Daisy Daisy?

Yep, this game is short. Very short. It can be cleared in 25 minutes without much trouble. There isn't much to it, but I wanted to take a look at it anyway.

Mario and Daisy run (and I mean RUN) to his swank airplane so they can presumably haul ass back to his bachelor pad. Well, I'm glad things worked least until he gets back and finds out his castle has been commandeered. That, however, is a story for next time.

Gunpei "The Heck" Yokoi is one of the greatest designers in gaming history. Given what he was able to do with this game in 1989 with such limited hardware - and Metroid 2 shortly after - I wonder what he would have been able to do with the advanced tech of the modern era. Nintendo was certainly worse off without him, and on that sad note I tip my hat to this guy once again and call it a day with Super Mario Land.

So what's next? Super Mario Land 2 bay-beee.

1 comment:

  1. I mean if you compare this to a Tiger handheld... there's no comparison at all.

    Man, what a great song.

    In a way there isn't much to this game, but what's there is still pretty magical.