Super Mario Land is a bizarre little beastie which has followed me through my childhood. It's a different kind of Mario game, but it's different in a very good way. There's something weird about it that makes it addictive. It almost feels random, but in a way that keeps luring you back. Actually, thinking about it now, this game is probably the biggest influence on the modern Wario series. I know the Wario games evolved straight out of Super Mario Land, but I think this game has had a particular influence over the direction of the story and environments of the Wario Land games. In fact, the bizarre nature of this title (and I can only assume its sequel) is probably why Mario was pulled from the spotlight.
This is one short game. As a kid it took me hours of trial and game over to reach just the third world of the game, the Easton Kingdom, where I would inevitably lose every last one of my lives. As a kid, I must have sucked at games. I picked this up today and, after a couple runs easing into the physics and the controls of the GameBoy Advance SP (which I haven't ever used for any length of time before), I destroyed this game. Not, not literally. It's still in beautiful condition. I did, however, blow Tatanga's purple butt out of the heavens in about an hour.
The first thing to mention, really, is that this game is simple. Of course it is, it was a very early title for the Game Boy, a device with even less horsepower than an NES. However, the simplicity of the game does not detract one bit from the quality of it. Think of Super Mario Land like a really good short story in video game form. It's not as detailed as a novel, but that's okay, because it isn't meant to be and it uses the simplicity of its form to its advantage. This game is bare bones Mario to the basics, and even barer. You jump, you run, you shoot superballs. That's about it.
Unfortunately the game doesn't handle physics as well as its predecessors, which is a bit of a bummer because physics was what Mario was known for. That was its whole thing. The Mario franchise was built on physics. Momentum and gravity and traction. Super Mario Land doesn't play like a Mario title in this regard. It's slippery, it's weird, gravity will sometimes increase at random, and you occasionally lose all of your momentum while jumping. This will lead to a few deaths. Sorry to say.
Fortunately the game is pretty forgiving. There are numerous checkpoints throughout stages and spawning at one will remove all enemies from that portion of the level, so you aren't instantly being massacred upon revival.
A little less forgiving is the item placement. Power-ups are sparse, and you can go almost an entire world without ever finding two of them. Not that they aren't there, but that they're on an inaccessible area because of the multi-tiered nature of some stages. These stages are cool because they give you a reason to replay the game and explore a slightly different path. Unfortunately, you really have to know they're coming or you're probably going to miss them. Don't kick yourself though, because you'll probably pop the game back in sooner than later.
On the topic of power-ups there are three: the Super Mushroom, Super Flower, and Starman. The Starman, a classic, will make you temporarily invincible to any and all attack. They're a very good thing to find in this game, because the enemies are far more daunting than in pretty much any other Mario sidescroller. The Super Mushroom will, of course, make you larger upon consumption. The only new power-up is the Super Flower, which is similar to the Fire Flower. Instead of fireballs, however, Mario gains the ability to toss the superball. Superballs are basically bouncy balls. They ricochet off any solid surface, and can be a lot of fun. With good practice you can become a superball sharp shooter and learn how to deflect the ball into enemies who would otherwise be out of reach. To be honest, I'd really like to see this power-up reappear in a future Mario title.
The enemies are cool and generally stylized for each of the for worlds (each world is its own kingdom with its own unique environment, all of which are awesome.) Despite being aesthetically different, the enemies follow the same basic patterns. You've got Goombos and Bombshell Koopas in each world, which are your basic antagonists, and an additional hopping enemy which is stylized for each world and requires two hits to take down. There are also a few unique enemies per world, all of which have pretty simple attack patterns which are easy to grasp.
The most annoying enemy that I encountered was the Bombshell Koopa. Unlike the Koopa Troopas of games past, this Koopa's shell is a bomb. After crushing the turtle to death that bomb will explode. If Mario isn't out of there fast enough, his overalls will be overdones. But that's not the annoying part. The annoying part is that if you don't land directly on the Bombshell Koopa's head, but if you hit his shell by mistake, you take the damage. This freaking sucks. And it will get you more than once. And you will swear. It's okay.
There are four worlds in the game. The first two are designed around a particular element while the second two are based on cultures. The first world is your average introduction world, although the last level is a sweet Egyptian themed pyramid with an amazing musical score. The second world is the water world. Hold on, hold on, I know what you're thinking, but you're wrong—this water world actually doesn't suck. I think it's my favorite world, to be perfectly honest. The above-water stages will remind Mario-savvy gamers of portions in Super Mario Bros. 2 where you had to leap on narrow hills and avoid Trouters. Classic.
The third world is inspired by Easter Island, with multiple stone heads on the backdrop and similarly shaped native enemies. The fourth world is based around China, although it throws a little bit of everything at you, being the final area. Difficulty is on pretty easy up until about the eighth level where it kicks it up a notch. By the fourth world things get hairy, and you're going to start dying a lot. These worlds are each their own kingdom, all components in the larger Sarasaland, which speaks interestingly to the governance in the Mario world. Maybe I'll talk about that tomorrow. These kingdsom are the Birabuto Kingdom, Muda Kingdom, Easton Kingdom, and Chai Kingdom respectively.
Each kingdom is ruled by, of course, a king, who has been hypnotized by Tatanga and must be knocked to their senses. The boss battles are all really cool, and each boss is unique, although they speak fondly of the boss battles from Super Mario Bros. with an "Instant Win" switch located behind the king. After these battles Mario will find himself before a false Daisy, and reluctantly set off to find his princess in another castle.
There are two levels in the game which are different from your typical platforming experience. These levels are set up as scrolling shooters, something which many people find downright irritating as the end-game stage. Unlike most games, however, which just toss you into a schmup as the final boss battle or what have you, there is a balance. Every sixth level is a schmup. This means that, unlike the majority of games which do this, you aren't just being tossed into a different style of play at the very end of the game. You have the half-way point stage, the end of the Muda Kingdom, which introduces this gameplay to you. These levels really shouldn't be too much of an issue for anybody, and it helps that they're a lot of fun.
In general, this game wins by all accounts. Another phenomenal soundtrack from the Nintendo pen, aesthetics which are eerily pleasing, and gameplay which is generally solid although there are a few kinks. It is short, and that could be an issue for some people, but it's not for me. I'm gonna go ahead and rate this one an eight. It comes highly recommended. Keep in mind, though, that I haven't had the opportunity to play the version of this game available on the 3DS Virtual Console. I hear there are some differences. This review was specifically for the GameBoy release. Maybe someday if I have some extra change lying around I'll grab the Virtual Console version and let you guy knows how I feel about that one, but I'm growing a bit leery of Nintendo's online distribution. Modern Nintendo in general, to be honest with all of you.
I digress. Super Mario Land is a fantastic game, and if you can get your hands on it, do so.