Super Mario Land

Video Game Review: Super Mario Land for the Nintendo Gameboy
By Noah Diekemper

Super Mario Land is another solid Mario game. That’s the gist of it.

First off, it certainly helps that this game is both portable and cheap now; second, this game nails a lot of the key Mario gameplay dynamics, though it falls short in a number of areas.

The level design is masterful; twelve levels make for a bit of a short game, but they’re so challenging that it will take a few tries to beat and so well designed that it will be fun to play through again and again.

This game also sets itself apart from other Mario games in a number of ways; the first level, as opposed to the majority of platformers, whose first level takes place in some lush field, takes place in the desert; Mario rescues Daisy, not Peach, from Tatanga; Bowser is not heard of; the third world takes place in Easter Island, and the fourth in China. Two levels even feature Mario in vehicles – a submarine and a plane – which feature guns.

While it takes a while to adjust to these oddities, they do well to set this game apart from the rest of the series, who, while their level design is varied enough, seem to draw from the same well of world resources (anyone else notice that the eight worlds in New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii are exactly the same?).

There are, however, some dynamics you wonder they didn’t use: for one, the camera will only ever scroll left. It’s fine if it doesn’t backtrack, but there are never vertical or even branching horizontal scrolling levels.

The level design, however, features one horrible problem: the bosses are downright lame. And I don’t use that term lightly; I literally mean that it seems as though the code for the bosses was animated, shot in the leg, and then turned back into code.

To give you an idea of how bad they are; the first boss: you run right and jump over the boss to hit a kill switch. Second boss: you dodge a fireball and spam the “A” button and you will win. The third boss is by far the best (which unfortunately isn’t saying a lot), with a creative design and victory. The fourth boss is, relatively speaking, the worst; the penultimate boss should not be an easier clone of the second one.

The last boss, however, is a disaster; you have to keep your eyes plastered open to dodge bullets by slightly moving up and down while spamming the “A” button for a period of time that is too long given that your eyes are plastered open, yet too short given that this is thefinal boss and supposed to be difficult; once again, you will win.

The bosses, though, are only a small part of the twelve good levels in the game. The other problem is all-encompassing; the physics engine is too unruly. It’s not crippled like Sonic ’06 or Secret Rings, and can be learned, even perfected, through practice, but the learning curve is too steep given the genre and series to merit any sort of commendation.

This is compounded by the bizarre and inexplicable gameplay dynamics: Koopa shells explode when jumped on, fireballs shoot up into the sky after they’ve hit the ground, and the game doesn’t pause during super transformations. Eventually, though, these too can be learned.

The graphics are not too bad, but could certainly be better. On the one hand, you can basically tell what Mario is, what Goombahs are, etc. It is annoying, however, how the various types of inanimate objects – walls, bricks, platforms – all have significantly game-changing properties yet feature only subtle differences in appearance.

This brings me to the music, which is some of the best I’ve ever heard in a video game – let alone one for the Gameboy. From the first level, to World 1-3 (which I recently realized was redone and re-used for a Subspace Emissary Level in Brawl), to 2-1 to the credits music, which truly felt like a reward for beating the game and has become one of my favorite video game songs of all time.

Finally, after you beat the game once, you are offered the possibility to play through a hard mode.  However, the levels are almost exactly the same; there are more enemies just crammed in there, which wind up making the game lag not infrequently; a fair detriment in a game like Mario where timing precision and accuracy are imperative.

Just to make myself clear, the enemies are not thrown in haphazardly; they are placed with as much thought as they original level design; it’s just that they lag the game.

Oh yes, and the bosses. They’re almost exactly the same.

And another thing: on the title screen, you have the option to start the game – the only other thing that appears is a high score. Curious, given that this game predates battery saves. I mean, I knew the Gameboy’s batteries were resilient, but this is a little too much…

After playing through this game a few times, gaining a solid grasp of the physics engine, learning the levels, and anticipating the enemies, this game does become really enjoyable, and its portability and length make it a great occupation for moderate length car rides and the like (for context, it took me about thirty minutes to beat the normal mode of the game on my fourth winning playthrough).

Summary: A fun game with great level design (though poor bosses) and fantastic music that is fairly difficult, kind of short, and requires some time to fully grasp the physics engine. The more you play this game and the better you become, the more you will enjoy it. Definitely recommended.

Final Score: 8.1/10

Reviewer’s Completion: Normal Mode beaten x1 with continues
Normal Mode beaten x4 w/o continues: Most lives at end: 19; High score: 236,150
Hard Mode beaten x1 w/o continues: Mario x6; Score: 260,090

Music referenced in this review:

World 1-1 of Super Mario Land:
World 1-3 of Super Mario Land:
World 2-1 of Super Mario Land:
Credits music in Super Mario Land:


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