Kickin’ It Old School – Super Mario Land/Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins

Nintendo continued its foray into the world of handheld gaming, following the Game & Watch series, with the Game Boy in 1989. Though it wasn’t necessarily graphically revolutionary (the Atari Lynx, released the same year, had a full color, backlit screen) its price tag, battery life, portability and expansive game library helped the Game Boy and its successors stay on top of the handheld gaming market for years. Game Boy was originally packaged with Tetris, one of the only games my parents could play along with me back in the day, but we’re here to talk about another launch title, and its sequel.

Super Mario Land (Game Boy, 1989)

Super Mario Land is a unique entry in Mario series. It and its sequel were not created by Shigeru Miyamoto, but by Gunpei Yokoi, the mind behind the first three installments of the Metroid series, the Game Boy itself, and later the Virtual Boy, but we won’t fault him for that one (not yet, anyway). Despite Miyamoto’s absence, Mario’s Game Boy series is certainly enjoyable, though it has its weaknesses.

The differences between Super Mario Land and the rest of the series at the time are apparent from the start, as this game does not take place in the Mushroom Kingdom, but in the (presumably) nearby kingdom of Sarasaland. The antagonist is an alien named Tatanga, who has invaded Sarasaland and taken the princess, Daisy, captive. Taking a break from vanquishing Bowser, saving Princess Toadstool and overcoming nightmares of frogs who hate vegetables (God I hate that game), Mario jumps to the rescue.

The gameplay is the same as Super Mario Bros. for the most part. You guide Mario through each level, collecting coins and stomping enemies as you go. At the end of each level is a boss that is defeated in the same way as Bowser in SMB: running past him and hitting a lever that takes the floor out from under the boss. Once the fight is over, we encounter Daisy, but she turns out to be a monster in disguise; once again, our princess is in another castle. Damn it all to hell, I thought we were past this.

Land brings some good innovations to the Mario series, most notably in the form of playing in an airplane and submarine in certain levels. The usual mushrooms, starmen, and fire flowers are still present; though fireballs now bounce all over the screen and can collect coins. 1-Up’s take the form of hearts instead of mushrooms, I’m guessing due to the lack of color to differentiate between the two different kinds of mushrooms. There are two exits to every level, one easy to get to and one that takes a few moves to reach. The harder to reach exit provides a bonus game that either results in one or more 1-Up’s or a fire flower.

So that’s the good, what about the bad? The controls are a bit loose, so if you’re not careful you could miss a jump or two, probably more though. Also, when you pick up a power-up or get hit you don’t freeze as you change, but play keeps on going, so if you’re running through the level and pick up a mushroom, you could lose it if you’re expecting time to think about slowing down before you reach the next enemy or hole. The graphics look like they were lifted directly from SMB, and in some cases are worse (Goombas and Koopas are essentially walking black dots) but realistically, this was an early launch title for the Game Boy, so I’m willing to let it slide if the graphics aren’t what they could be. Some innovations aren’t entirely necessary, for instance, Koopa Troopas explode after receding into their shells, rather than sticking around to let you punt them into other enemies. The bouncing fireball has a downside, as you can only have one fireball on screen at a time, so if you miss what you’re aiming at you may have to wait a bit to fire another one, and by this time you’re either dead or had moved on.

Probably the biggest complaint one can have about this game is that the story, though aesthetically similar, is a bit too much of a departure from the norm. Who is this Daisy, and what does Princess Toadstool think of Mario cheating on her with this home wrecker? Mario rescues her, takes her to a spaceship and rockets away (no pun intended). What makes it worse is that Daisy, one of the only two aspects of these games to be brought into Miyamoto’s canon, is later hinted to be Luigi’s version of Toadstool/Peach, meaning Luigi’s damsel in distress and love interest is being snatched away by his brother. What a douchebag!

Unfamiliar storyline, wonky controls and graphics and implied douchebaggery aside, Super Mario Land is a pretty fun game, being one of the highest selling installments of the series. Though it’s easy to see why it would be ignored canonically, besides a character or two, it’s still a classic, and left gamers begging for a sequel. And they would get it in 1992, as while Mario was cavorting around Sarasaland with some floozy, all was not well back in Mario Land…

Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins (Game Boy, 1992)

Super Mario Land 2 picks up right where the last one left off, as Mario returns home to find his…country? Kingdom? What is it supposed to be exactly? Anyway, Mario Land has been usurped by the anti-Mario, Wario. Wario was created as Mario’s antithesis: Mario is selfless and brave, Wario is greedy and evil. Wario’s name in Japanese even translates to “Evil Mario” (so sayeth Wikipedia, so who knows).

Wario has taken over Mario Land and locked himself in Mario’s castle, hiding 6 golden coins around the land that will unlock the castle for the final showdown. The levels include a tree, space (of which the boss is Tatanga from the first game…he must have gone to Bowser’s “School of Reincarnating After Getting Killed By Your Arch-nemesis”), a really big house, a haunted pumpkin, inside a giant turtle and an enormous statue of Mario. Between the castle, the multi-leveled statue, and his own country in which this all takes place, Mario has developed quite an ego in his success, wouldn’t you say?

The game plays very similar to its predecessor, although the graphics have certainly improved in the interim. Just as SML was influenced by the original Super Mario Bros., SML2 was influenced by later games such as SMB3 and Super Mario World. Stages were selected by an overworld map, much like those games, adding a nonlinear element to the sequel.

Koopas and Goombas are back the way we remember them, as are fireballs. A new power-up is the carrot, which makes Mario grow rabbit ears that enable him to float for…some reason. The controls are a bit better but still loose, and the bonus games at the end of every level are still available. One aspect of the game I like is the music; each level’s music is a different mix of the same theme, instead of being the same theme over and over, which was a nice touch.

Mario of course vanquishes the vile Wario in the game’s climax, but this is not the last we would hear from Wario, as he is the most widely used character introduced in this series, getting his own series’ and making appearances in various Mario sports games. The first Wario Land game, released in 1994, is subtitled “Super Mario Land 3″, but, outside of a Mario cameo at the end, that game has little to do with this series.

Despite the different producer, the Super Mario Land series still brings the awesomeness. It’s not hard to mess up the Mario formula, although some of the more weird innovations introduced by the games certainly try to.

Next Week: That Virtual Boy crack up there gave me an idea. Next week, The School will look at some of the biggest blunders in gaming history, in the special “What The #@*% Were They Thinking?” edition of Kickin’ It Old School. Got something you’d like to see in it, or want to comment on or request anything at all? Jump right over to the Official Kickin’ It Old School Forum Thread or shoot me an email.