Super Mario Advance review
Advanced to a Remake


Pretty much every Nintendo console and handheld has had some kind of Mario game help launch the system. Often it's a true Mario platformer to continue the series with, whereas other times it's a somewhat related title that has Mario in it. Whatever the case, the iconic plumber swoops in and steals the show to showcase the hardware. Super Mario Advance, while still a Mario launch title, comes off as odd because it's not a new game but a remake of an old NES/SNES title. Still, handheld gamers have gotten the chance to explore Subcon in this game that really ignored a lot of what has become core Mario guidelines and provided an usual platforming experience.

For those not in the know here's a quick recap of the plot. Mario dreams of another world which needs his help, then the very next day he and his friends find a mysterious door that leads into that exact same world, with the residents seeking the help of the Mario group to save them from the oppressive ruler of Subcon. Yeah, that's pretty much the gist of it. Yet it probably ranks higher than many other Mario platformer stories, if only because it doesn't revolve around a princess getting kidnapped. Other than that don't expect stuff like character development or exciting plot twists. Go check out some RPGs or something like that if you want a more involved plot. For the purpose of providing a reason to go curbstomping every living creature into oblivion this plot serves its purpose just fine.

Anyone used to the usual style of Mario platformers will likely be thrown for a loop with the changes in here. The first (and most welcome) difference is that you can choose between four characters and can change between levels or deaths. The way characters control depends on who you are using too. Mario is the predictable all-rounder, doing decently in all areas but not specialising in anything. Luigi is the higher jumper of the group but isn't easy to control. Toad surprisingly has loads of speed both for movement and item grabbing but lacks jumping ability. Peach (yes, the actual princess is playable) is fairly slow but possesses a unique float jump, making navigating platforms a breeze. Having this choice is amazing, not only for the novelty of Toad and Peach making themselves useful but allowing for the variation in play styles. It can even serve as something of a difficulty slider. Peach's float jump makes things a lot easier, whereas Toad's poor jumping serves as a much harder challenge.

Enemy interaction is also different. Jumping on anyone's head will (spiky enemies notwithstanding) result in you hitching a ride atop them instead of flatting them. Instead, you can pick most enemies up and throw them at others, possessing chaining hits to take out entire lines of baddies for that extra cool factor. You can also pluck vegetables out of the ground to hurl at baddies, grab eggs mid flight, blow them up with bombs, smash pow blocks around or grab a star and crash into them head on. There tends to be more choices available here for taking out the local hostile wildlife than other 2D Mario games and it makes things interesting, especially how some of these are handled. In some instances, for example, you find yourself using an enemy to ride across otherwise harmful spike pits.

Boss fights have thusly been upgraded a bit from "jump on it until it dies" or the gauntlet run to the axe. Birdo will appear many times and force you to grab eggs out of the air and throw them back. Other bosses will attack with means like bombs or fly around the arena dropping fireballs. Taking on each one tends to require varying tactics and proves to be quite interesting.

More emphasis is placed on exploration than other games, as levels tend to have a few off-shoot areas, alternate paths or secret areas to find. It's not as extensive as something like Super Mario 64, but it helps to avoid the levels feeling too linear. These other ways can have some inventive means of accessing them too, such as sinking into quicksand to travel underneath a wall, dropping blocks onto clouds to provide leverage for a leap across a gap (no, don't ask how that works) or taking a leap of faith to drop down what looks like a bottomless pit fall. It's quite fun to find these areas and reap the benefits they offer and a little bit of a shame that the team didn't take the remake opportunity to flesh out these levels even further.

Characters now have a health gauge which starts at two for each level and can be increased to a maximum of five in any given level by searching and finding the special mushrooms (a task in itself helping the incentive to travel around the environments as fully as possible). Hearts to recover lost health tend to be plentiful as well. However, this hasn't softened the difficulty as much as one would expect. Some of the later levels are quite happy to throw armies of enemies at you, throw shy guys in as you're trying to dig down in the sand or place bullet firing snifits in the most awkward of places with bottomless pit gaps waiting below. Platforming itself, while toned down a bit, can still provide some difficult moments. Well, unless you float along with Peach, but then real gamers use Toad anyway. Veterans may scoff at the idea when comparing to nail biting close call encounters of some of the other 2D Mario games, but on its own merits it can provide a decent challenge.

In order to entice players of the original there have been several additions to the game. A save system is definitely a major step up from the original NES incarnation, and of course vital to any large handheld game that is useful for taking breaks in playing. You can also replay old levels at any time, letting you venture into those favourite stages of yours. One extra mushroom has been added to every stage to encourage more exploration. An extra sidequest has also been integrated in where players can hunt down Yoshi coins hidden in every level, which are found using the same manner as the mushrooms via potion doors. This extra content in the main game helps to go some way to entice gamers of the original to come back for this version, although sadly the changes probably are not significant enough, especially if you have played SMB2 recently.

As a bonus extra the game also contains a version of the original Mario Brothers arcade game. Here all the action takes place on a single screen and the aim is to defeat the enemies by hitting the ground beneath them to flip them over and then kicking them away before they recover. You'll face a nice selection of enemies from the mundane spinies to the rage crabs and the freezies that cover platforms in ice if left to their own devices. As you move up through the levels the difficulty continues to increase with enemies increasing in frequency and speed. Unlike the main game it is all one hit kills here, so difficulty is a notable notch higher and this can be prove to be an entertaining diversion from the main game.

This side game also provides multiplayer support and even off a single cart. The full options can see you and your friends dashing around smashing enemies away, and it is easily one of those games that could potentially throw friendship bonds out the window as rivalry takes center stage. There's something deviously funny about helping an enemy to recover just as your friend is about to kick it away, or bouncing off another player's head just because you could. With up to 4 players around at once it can make for some frantic excellent gaming sessions.

In terms of the graphics the GBA hardware is put to good use to provide us with a more visually appealing game than the originals. Backgrounds are more detailed in order to flesh out Subcon, colours are more vibrant and the game happily fills its stages with various objects and points of interest. Character sprites used in the game have received some attention, which are better defined and animated than before. Powerup items also appear to look great as well with some nice little effects like the screen shaking of the POW block smashing into the ground. The world of Subcon is a great place to look around as you explore and admire its structure. These improvements aren't quite as big a step as SMB2 was to the original SMB, but it's significant enough to notice and appreciate.

The music selection isn't really much different, providing the same style of fantasy themed tunes adjusting to meet the specs of the handheld's audio capabilities. You won't be humming the tune to world 1-1 down the street anytime soon but it is enough to compliment the onscreen action. Sound effects do seem to have received a boost, especially with characters sounding more vocal than before. Otherwise this area is about the same as before and being suitable for the game.

A remake of SMB2 is probably going to remain as one of the oddest choices to have been picked as the GBA Mario launch title, but it is quite a good game. The differences compared to the original game aren't really enough to convince fans to go for it, but on its own merits it is a worthy platformer with plenty of charm. It's also one of the only chances you'll get of using Peach in a non-sports/party playable role, which in itself is plenty of reason for go for it.

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