Friday, March 8, 2013

Video Game Review: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins

Super Mario Land 2 is the equally-odd follow-up to 1989's Super Mario Land, a game which I hold dear to my heart and reviewed not long ago. While the original Super Mario Land was more of an aesthetic departure from the majority of the series, even including a pair of levels which were downright in the wrong genre, its younger brother takes a step back towards the traditional Mario style of visuals and play while also being damn sure to retain the weirdness from its predecessor. Mario will travel through six lands to get back to his castle, including a short trip into outer space and a dizzying climb through a clockwork tower that looks just like him.

The most noticeable change between Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2 is visually. Super Mario Land was built in the very early days of the Game Boy system, and the developers didn't quite have a handle on what the device could do. As such, the game looks very simplistic, much like early NES games. By contrast, Super Mario Land 2 more greatly resembles Super Mario Bros. 3, having defined outlines and shapes for each object and character and devoting more of the screen to characters. The result is a game which is much easier on the eyes and does an exemplary job of portraying beautiful backdrops and scenarios with depth utilizing a limited resource pool.

I'll actually take a moment there to talk about just the environments, because they really look awesome. Despite being limited by the amount of colors and shades which can be used, the environments are all spectacular. Particularly there are a couple of tropical island themed levels which are simply superb, with sparkling water backdrops which I can only describe as "delicious" because they make me thirst for a cool pitcher of liquid life on a sticky summer day. Now, not only do the environments look beautiful but there's a whole bunch of unique ones that really help this game stand out. You've got your typical water world, but in addition to the deep sea swimming stage, you get to navigate through a sinking submarine. You can travel to space and don an astronaut outfit and, more importantly, bounce around in reduced an zero gravity environments, both of which are a blast. Quick extra about Space Zone: one of the stages is a reference to the Balloon Trip mode featured on Balloon Fight, which I got a real kick out of.

Of course there are other bizarre realms, such as the Macro Zone where Mario is tiny and must travel around a giant house. As mentioned before, the Mario Zone, which is a giant Mario wind-up toy (at the end of which lurk the Three Little Pigs for whatever reason.) The stages are all just something different and, especially when compared to the recent string of Mario games which have all been hesitant to try anything new, stand out from the rest of the franchise.

Like the previous Super Mario Land title there are unique bosses for each world. This time, though, a lot more care has been put into characterizing these bosses and making each confrontation as fun as possible. A few of them are pretty difficult at first, but once you get a handle of the attack patterns it becomes a fun game of rhythm and motion. The bosses are also really satisfying to stomp, and I'm not quite sure why. It could be because of how big and animated they are, but jumping on their noggin just makes one overcome with joy.

Gameplay is greatly expanded from the original Super Mario Land and almost as diverse as Super Mario World. Not only can Mario run and jump in traditional manner, but the spin jump move makes a return, allowing Mario to plow through blocks beneath his feet and access hidden areas. Additionally he has two power-up suits. The fireball suit makes a return, although because of the limited colors the Game Boy could display is represented by an Indian-styled feather rising from Mario's cap. While I was disappointed by the fireball suit replacing the superball suit from Super Mario Land, the developers made up for this by including a new set of blocks which can only be destroyed by fireballs. This means more exploration and more reasons to go back to previous levels.

This game also introduces the rabbit suit, which functions a lot like the raccoon suit from Super Mario Bros. 3. Instead of actual flight, however, the rabbit suit allows you a more controlled descent by tapping the jump button. I'm not quite sure on this, but it also seemed like the suit allowed Mario to jump higher, which helped him reach a few otherwise difficult areas. Unfortunately the rabbit suit has one major drawback: you can't spin jump while wearing it. I'm not quite sure why they decided to do that, but it was a major pain in the ass on more than one occasion.

The enemies were all something special, and I found myself facing foes of all sorts from gigantic ants and stag beetles to Jason Voorhees-inspired Goombas. I noticed at least one enemy, a bee, which I recognized as having later appeared in the Wario Land series. That was kind of cool, because I always like to see where things originated and I hadn't really noticed the connections before. I mean, I knew Wario Land was actually Super Mario Land 3 and that the entire Wario franchise spun-off from these two games, but I had always thought the Wario games were a little more different. It just always seemed like there wasn't much overlap with the worlds Wario explored and the worlds Mario travelled, so it was cool for me to see that the connections were a little tighter than I'd had thought.

Game overs are handled a little differently in this game than in most. This is probably a result of the introduction of a save feature. See, save features have kind of made game overs a redundant concept. They've been reduced to an aggravating three seconds of black screen before you boot back in almost exactly where you were before. In the old days it used to be that if you got a game over, that was it. You're back at the start of the game, buddy. This game is over. This is okay when games only take an hour or two to crash through, but as games started requiring more time and effort... well, can you imagine playing Tales of Symphonia for forty hours only to be launched back to the beginning of disc one because you couldn't beat down a boss? Painful, isn't it?

Super Mario Land 2 overcame the issue of saves making it too-easy and the classic concept of a game over making it too difficult by still making a game over a severe punishment. You see, when Mario loses all of his lives he loses any of the golden coins he's collected as well. While there isn't usually a way to challenge boss enemies once they've been defeated, you'll have to do just that after a game over to reclaim your precious coins. And trust me, fighting Tatanga again any time soon is not on my to-do list.

Unfortunately, not everything about this game was good. I can't remember a single song from the soundtrack for the life of me. Unlike Super Mario Land which has a pretty memorable score, Super Mario Land 2 suffers from a few fitting yet bland tracks. It was also a victim of the same physics bugs which plagued the original game, such as the sudden and unpredictable loss of momentum mid-jump and slippery controls leading to less than precise landings. These bugs, while annoying, aren't a huge issue for the majority of the game. In the last stage, however, they're going to lead to your death far more frequently than they ever should.

The last stage of the game, the Wario-occupied Mario's Castle, is an absurdly difficult stage which would have been much better were it not for the physics bugs. Compared to the rest of the game, and even to the final confrontation with Wario, this stage is Hard Mode on crack. However, it is pretty clever with a lot of its traps, and with patience and good timing a player can navigate the narrow halls without too much hassle. It's also pretty cool to see the final castle furnished with Mario-themed decor, proving that the plumber is just as narcissistic as those he regularly battles.

The final confrontation with Wario is a really cool battle. It would have been a lot more fun without having to worry about doing the entire castle over if I had lost, but it was still a really awesome battle. Mario must face off against his callous cousin in a three-phase match. During each phase Wario obtains a new power-up, truly filling the role of the evil doppleganger. In the first round Wario is armed only with a Super Mushroom, which has made him tremendous in size. After this he upgrades to the rabbit suit, and finally a duel of flaming fingers as he grabs hold of a fire flower. Despite being utterly predictable, this is one of the cooler match-ups in Mario history, and not experiencing it is a disservice.

I was at first going to give this game a lower score, because I wasn't too impressed with it during the playthrough. I was never bored, which is a good thing, and the game isn't bad. It just didn't wow me as much as I had expected, especially with two decades of hype behind it. But now that it's all over I can feel myself itching to pick it up again. Hell, I've had to stop writing this very review several times just to satisfy my desire to blast through a level or two. Just to feel what it's like to stomp a boss again, or just land squarely on a platform. With these feeling so overpowering, I can't give this game a lower score. It doesn't deserve it.

Super Mario Land 2 comes highly recommended with a final score of eight out of ten.

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