Insanity Prevails' Super Mario Land Review
Great cast of enemies
Bosses more interesting
Varied levels with branching routes
Jumping more awkward than it should be
No save system
Bowser kidnaps Peach. Mario saves Peach. It's a scenario we are all too familiar with, with it being the basic setting to almost every Mario platformer since the series began. Enter Super Mario Land, which not only serves as Mario's first platforming foray onto the Gameboy system but also provides a whole new setting and cast.
However, while there are obvious setting differences here it's hard to appreciate them because at the end of the day the concept is basically still the same. You're still guiding Mario across several worlds beating on bad guys to save a princess. The name may be different but there's not really anything there to make Daisy any different to Peach.
Anyway, it seems the princess Daisy has been kidnapped and her kingdom invaded by some alien force led by the oddball Tatanga, an alien whom we learn absolutely nothing about and thus whose only role is to provide a leadership face to the enemy forces. Functional but hardly an awe-inspiring backstory.
OK, OK, so the storyline aspect was never going to be anything major. By a similar note we can take comfort in that the graphics themselves were never going to be totally awesome. However, it's not that SML's visuals are bad for the current time - they fell short of the target even then.
Putting aside the unfortunate system trait of viewing everything in various shades of green, the graphics in this game just aren't that impressive. The sprites used are lacking in sufficient detail, due in part to most of them being pretty small. Sure, each sprite does at least look like what it is supposed to look like, but functional shouldn't be the goal here. The animation also seems to run along a level resembling basic.
The effects are also disappointing. The starman ability is signified by nothing more than Mario blinking, which is a far cry from the sparkle effects that are more associated with it. Other things like explosions are kept fairly minimal as well.
A shame, because the background level design has some neat touches to it, like the hieroglyphics on one level adorning the back wall. Overall a little sparse and once again lacking in true detail needed but nice all the same.
Sounds are probably what you'd expect too, coming from the teeny speaker sat on the handheld, but work well enough to make the most of that speaker. The tunes are somewhat related to the tunes found in other Mario titles and have a similar energetic theme to them. Many of them are also quite well suited to the environments they are used in. Sound effects are better described as functional though, since while I can't really say anything is terribly wrong I wouldn't say anything there is exactly right either.
But what does any of that actually matter when it's the gameplay that has defined the Mario series, right?
Super Mario Land sticks fairly rigidly to the basic formula set down in Super Mario Brothers, for the most part. There are four worlds split into several levels, with the overall goal being to take Mario through each level beating bad guys and reaching the end goal.
As a platformer you would no doubt expect jumping to play a vital role, and that is indeed the case. There are numerous gaps and chasms that Mario must leap over gracefully to avoid a fast demise and a restart from the nearest checkpoint. The actual setup looks pretty solid too. The platforming sections range from the simple short gaps of the earlier stages to the more precise small ledge jumps and even encouraging some clever hopping off enemy heads to reach other areas. However, SML's platforming isn't perfect.
See, the issue isn't the platform sections themselves, as they are laid out quite well and under other circumstances would provide the correct level of challenge needed. Rather it's that jumping around itself is fairly awkward. The controls are responsive and Mario can move some distance in the air. However, the biggest concern is how small everything is. It's hard to judge leaps correctly when your target is only a few pixels wide. There's also the general speed of things, as Mario seems to fall surprisingly fast and there's a rather significant gap between a standing jump and a running jump. It's not completely broken but it will lead to some unnecessary deaths.
This faulty concept also affects the fighting off the enemy hordes as well. Many of the bad guys are defeated by stomping on them from above, but many of the game's enemies are so small that it is far too easy to miss, so it's actually much easier to just dodge past them and head for the goal, which seems to miss part of the game's point.
A shame really, because there's a fairly solid cast of baddies spread throughout the game. Some of the enemies are just SML variants of traditional Mario baddies given a different name, so enemies similar to Goombas and Pirahna Plants appear. Some are altered forms, like the turtles who explode a few seconds after getting pounded. Later on the game brings in some fairly unique enemies though, such as the jumping zombies of world 4 that can only be defeated by a superball shot.
Bosses also come more varied than the original SMB, as instead of slightly different versions of the final boss you get individual bosses tailored to match each world. All of them can only be defeated by firing at them, although some can also be dodged past. Attack patterns also vary between them, whether it's spitting fireballs or throwing rocks. A definite improvement over the original game.
SML also puts in a few powerups for the Mario player. The super mushroom is the classic powerup designed to allow an extra hit from enemies or traps before killing Mario. The starman offers temporary invincibility from said hazards (although useless against missing jumps). The superball flower is an oddball though. Initially resembling the fire flower item, the execution of this is totally different, but not necessarily for the better. On the positive side, superballs can collect coins, thus making for some neat setups where some coins are out of reach otherwise. However, these superballs bounce off stuff at 90 degree angles, which means that firing on the ground tends to see the ball bounce skyward off the screen. Hitting enemies in this case involves awkwardly jumping into the air to launch the balls downward, which is annoying enough, but we also come back to the size issues of trying to hit something only a few pixels wide.
The level design is fairly solid overall. Each world has a specific theme to it, and the enemies and traps will match that theme. Platforming sections are set up pretty well and there's a decent spread of powerup items through each stage. There is a decent spread of checkpoints as well so players don't have to trek too far if they miss a jump. The difficulty also increases steadily as Mario goes through the levels too.
The levels themselves also offer split paths at various points. Most of these involve diving down pipes to coin-filled rooms to reappear further along the stage or choosing to ignore the pipes, but there are some variants like running along the roof of stages. This helps to give the game a more open feel.
If only the screen actually scrolled both ways. Much like SMB, this game will also only scroll the screen to the right, meaning that the player is never given the option to actually backtrack.
With the exception of the boss levels, every other level has two exits at the far right side. The lower door simply leads to the next level, while the upper door leads to a bonus level first where the superball powerup or extra lives can be gained. Getting to that upper door isn't so simple though, as it generally involves some clever jumping, such as over collapsing blocks or bouncing off an enemy's head. The jumping mechanics can make this more awkward than need be, but it's a solid idea.
Two levels in the game mix up the gameplay by putting Mario into a special vehicle. The Marinepop and the Aeropop (a submarine and an aeroplane) are pretty much the same in practical use, where Mario is afforded full movement in all directions along the screen, barring obstacles. Each vehicle also comes with an unlimited supply of torpedos/missiles that can be fired upon enemies to defeat them.
During these stages the screen automatically scrolls to the right, which can lead to some unfortunate crushing deaths if the player isn't fast enough to guide Mario through the obstacles. The layout of these two levels are great with a steady mix of active enemies and physical obstacles and fighting enemies is more fun here as firing the torpedoes/missiles isn't anywhere near as problematic as trying to land on baddies or firing superballs. Progress does feel a tad slow though, as you can't force the screen to scroll faster than it is already going.
Much of the game isn't really that difficult in all. Many of your problems are going to come from the precise jumping that the tiny graphics will happily screw you over on. Enemies are more often than not easily dodged past and traps tend to pose only a minor threat. The game is also fairly generous with the lives it gives, especially if the player managed to get to those bonus stages. Continues are also offered for every 10,000 poinits scored. For a gameboy title the game does offer a decent lifespan too with a set of 12 levels of decent sized length and there's a strong replay value to going through the stages.
Completing the game once through then opens up a harder second playthrough. Essentially this is more enemies and some enemies replaced by others. This can provide a surprising boost to the difficulty to those who think the initial game setup is too easy. A pity that this mode can't be permanently unlocked, as even for players that already know the game well it can take a while to blast through all 12 levels.
Perhaps my biggest complaint is the total lack of a save system though. Although shorter than various home console games at the time, the game was still lengthy enough to pretty much require a save system, especially when we're talking about a handheld game. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have one, or in fact any way to skip to a later level, making quick plays impractical. Even the scores don't get saved, which begs the question as to why they'd display a high score on the title screen when it gets wiped when the power is turned off.
Super Mario Land has some pretty notable flaws that prevent it from being a true classic, but despite them the game is still a great platformer. Work with the jumping issues and you'll find an enjoyable experience here.
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