It was quite timely that the 2015 edition of Review a Great Game Day was happening as I began to cover the Game Boy library, especially since I was trying to get the 5 North American launch titles out of the way in relatively short order. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with them; far from it. In general, the launch library was a demonstration of the baseline for what the Game Boy hardware could do. Ultimately, many subsequent games released for the Game Boy would far and away eclipse the launch titles in terms of scope, size, graphics, sound and gameplay, as we’ll discover together through this journey. As most gamers know by now, however, the technical wizardry is only window dressing. If the game isn’t fun, it doesn’t matter how pretty it looks or sounds. Super Mario Land is a complete package – it looks good for its time, sounds good, and is loads of fun.
It’s no stretch to say that by 1989, as far as home entertainment goes, Nintendo ruled in North America. Microcomputers were still the rage in Europe, and Japan had a flurry of competition between Nintendo’s Famicom console, Hudson’s newer PC Engine console, and the still fledgling Sega Megadrive, the successor to the Mark III (Sega Master System). In the good old US of A, however, Nintendo dominated the market due to good marketing, and also due to some strong-arm licensing tactics that created difficulty with 3rd party publishers, especially if they wanted to develop software for a competing platform, such as the Master System or the new Genesis system. Between the popularity of the Super Mario Bros.franchise, 2 installments in (3 in Japan, by this time), plus other popular Konami and Capcom properties, the NES was a force to be reckoned with. It wasn’t the most powerful hardware on the market, but with games as good as what we were getting, that didn’t matter, because the final product was high-quality and fun. Nintendo of Japan wanted to replicate that success with the handheld market, which translated into the Game Boy. Naturally, Nintendo would want to bring their flagship character, and primary mascot, to the new platform. It had to be a good game, or the franchise’s staying power could be jeopardized. Thankfully, it turned out to be a great game.
Mario, being the nice guy he is, was somehow informed of the goings-on in Sarasaland, a magical place, not unlike the Mushroom Kingdom. Apparently, a ruthless alien named Tatanga has run amok throughout the 4 realms, and his minions have taken over. Princess Daisy, who rules over Sarasaland, has been taken captive, and Mario takes it upon himself to rescue her from the evil alien. He must traverse all 4 realms, defeat Tatanga’s minions, and bring peace to the land once again. Either Mario is a sucker, or he’s just the nicest guy in the universe, because he continues to save princesses and people over and over again.
Thankfully, Mario has a couple tools at his disposal to help him along the way. Along for the ride is the usual super mushroom & invincibility star, as well as 1-Ups that come in the form of hearts now, instead of mushrooms, most likely due to the lack of color to distinguish them from the super mushrooms. Also, there are flowers in this game, but they’re not “Fire Flowers”. Instead, they give Mario the ability to throw bouncing “superball” power-ups. Interestingly, these superballs will bounce off any surface at a 45 degree angle, and will keep bouncing for a short time until they leave the screen, or wear out. A new element here also is that superballs can collect coins, a gameplay mechanic you’ll likely use more than once in the game. Be aware that only 2 of the superballs can appear on the screen at any given time, so if you jump the gun and fire off 2, and neither hit the enemy you’re targeting, you’ll have to wait to throw more, and possibly dispatch the foe using the standard stomp method. Also, if you reach the end of the level and can get to the upper door, you’ll participate in a mini game where you can score extra lives, or a superball flower power-up.
Sarasaland has a bevy of new antagonists. Goombas (Chibibo) and Piranha plants (Pakkun) have apparently populated Sarasaland under new aliases, but Koopa Troopa’s (Nokobon) now explode shortly after stomping them. There are goofy robots, running Easter Island heads, jumping fish carcasses, strange flying insect hybrids that throw arrows at you, jumping stone statues with wings. The denizens of Sarasaland are bizarre, indeed. Somewhat surprisingly, there are more enemy types in this Game Boy adventure than there are in either the original Super Mario Bros. or its sequel.
If you’ve played the original Super Mario Bros. game, you’ll be right at home here with the gameplay. Mario can jump with the A button, walk, run (holding down the B button), throw superballs with the B button, and duck by pressing down on the D-pad. Jumping up to a block as Super Mario will break bricks and get coins and other items from question blocks. Mario’s movements are quite similar to those of his first side scroll outing, though gone is the inertia that takes place when you let up on the D-pad while moving left or right. Mario stops almost dead in his tracks when you let go. Some folks will find this refreshing, because they disliked the inertia. Others, like myself, found it a tad jarring, though it doesn’t take long to get used to.
Graphically, the game was fairly impressive for an early game, and certainly the most visually impressive and appealing launch title. Despite his diminutive stature on screen, Mario is instantly recognizable as the protagonist. Nintendo chose wisely to use a very minimalist approach to the backgrounds, with a few trees, pyramids, and various other elements in the background, but not overdo it. It’s quite reminiscent of the first NES title, though perhaps a bit more detailed to make up for the lack of color. Locales are interesting and varied, as the 4 “worlds” within Sarasaland all have a relatively distinctive look, and some variation within each from one stage to the next. For example, in the first world, the Birabuto Kingdom, you start out in an overworld, much like the original Super Mario Bros., but progress into an area inside a pyramid-like structure later in the world. In world 2, the Muda Kingdom, you start again in an overworld scenario, but end up in a submarine underwater in a later stage. Each stage is well laid out, and the graphical detail is enough to make it interesting, but not overdone so as to make it hard to see what’s going on. Animations are well done, despite being quite sparse. I never noticed as a kid, but most enemies have only 2 or 3 total frames of animation. Despite that limitation, it still looks and feels like a Mario platformer.
The sound design in the game is also of equal quality. The music is super catchy, thanks to composer Hirokazu Tanaka. His score for the game is indelibly stuck in my head, and I’ve used the Stage 1-1 music as a ringtone, both on my various mobile phones, as well as my office phone, multiple times in the last 10 years. The songs all have that Mario-esque vibe to them, though they’re a bit more expansive. By that, I mean that some of the songs have a specific, thematic bent to them. There’s a read Egyptian feel to the music from the Easton Kingdom, and a traditional Oriental feel to the music in the Chai Kingdom. All the music in the game is interesting, and repeated plays will guarantee that one or more tracks will be on repeat in your subconscious. Sound effects are also well done, with recognizable sounds for jumping, the transition from regular to Super Mario, grabbing the flower, the coin sound, the block hit & break sounds, etc. New sounds are also done well, with some interesting effects to simulate voice when pelting bosses with superballs, or some of the enemy deaths. It makes good use of the Game Boy sound hardware for such an early title, and you can tell that the sound design was as much a work of love as the rest of the game.
The biggest drawback of the game is its relatively short length. I say that, still being a huge fan of the game, but looking at it objectively, it is awful short. That’s especially true, considering the game’s relatively meager difficulty. As a kid, it didn’t take me more than a couple weeks to go from just starting to play to actually beating the game. Despite that, it’s still a lot of fun to play, because Mario is adventuring through an entire new set of worlds that are interesting to traverse and look at. The difference in inertia for Mario, as mentioned before, is a small issue, but worth mentioning. Looking back at the entire library of Game Boy titles, most point to the sequel, Super Mario Bros. 2: 6 Golden Coins as the superior game, and from a strictly technical aspect, they’re probably right. However, this game remains my favorite of the 2 because of the sheer fun factor, the variation in the levels, enemies, bosses, the great music, and the fact that the game moves along with no slowdown. This is a bona fide classic, and a must have for any Game Boy collector or aficionado’s library. Essential.