Super Mario Maker is currently the new hotness on the WiiU, and, like Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros 4 WiiU, it looks like a game that is going to hold the public’s interest well after contemporary releases have faded from memory. Transformers Devastation or Dragon Quest Heroes are both fun and all, but it’s kind of hard to beat the possibility of infinite Mario courses. It’s funny, even that “infinite courses” concept could go a couple different ways: while a Super Mario Bros “rogue-like” that just randomly loaded levels from SMB, SMB3, SMBW, and NSMB would be good on its own, here we have an unlimited number of stages created by an innumerable amount of people, all with different experiences and motives. It really is eclectic, endless Mario, and that’s a dream-realized for anyone that has been playing video games since ‘85.
But even if Super Mario Maker only contained the requisite eight worlds with four stages, it would still be worthy of attention. Why? Because Super Mario Maker takes all the normal, comfortable aspects of Mario gameplay, and remixes it into something new and, frankly, exciting. Lakitu isn’t limited to spinies anymore, no, now that cloud-based cancer can rain down goombas, fireballs, or even hammer bros… which seems physically dubious. Bill Blasters can shoot mushrooms, and Circling Boo Buddies may erupt from question blocks. As was unequivocally proven during the 2015 Nintendo World Championships, Super Mario Maker’s greatest skill is subverting the expectations of a franchise nearly old enough to run for president, and creating something fresh from all the familiar pieces.
So it’s kind of amazing that Super Mario Land accomplished the same trick back in ’89.
Super Mario Land was a lot of firsts. It was the first Super Mario game on a portable system (I said “Super”, shut-up). It was the first Mario game to pit the plumber against a non-lizard adversary. And, most importantly, it was the first Super Mario game without Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario’s metaphorical father, at the helm. As the story goes, Miyamoto had absolutely nothing to do with this game, so (goddamn legend) Gunpei Yokoi and Satoru Okada took the reins. These were the guys behind Metroid, so it’s really no surprise the game turned out well, but there’s some debate on whether or not it turned out… Mario.
Super Mario Land has a lot of decidedly un-Mario elements. Perhaps most famously (because it’s right there on the box), is the underwater level that doesn’t feature swimming, but a one-man submarine useful for gunning down various kinds of a calamari. Similarly, the final stage forgoes the usual castle gauntlet for a sky-high ride through the clouds to confront a menacing alien of unknown origin. And then we’ve got the parade of “unknown” monsters, like moai heads (with wings!), hopping jiangshi, giant spiders, and a dive-bombing bird named… chicken. Couple all this with a collection of bosses that are at once generic (giant seahorse? That’s it?) and strangely detailed (Tatanga, the princess capturing creature from space, really seems like he should have more backstory), and you’ve got the recipe for a really odd game in a franchise that already sees its hero downing mushrooms and gobbling glowing plants.
But as good as general weirdness can be, the best part of Super Mario Land is the perversions to the standard Mario formula. I don’t envy Yokoi and Okada, as they had the seemingly sisyphean task of not only designing, but more importantly, coding a Mario game without the man that had defined not only the franchise itself, but an entire genre. Mario moves a certain way. Mario jumps a certain way. Hell, from Super Mario Bros 2 (Lost Levels version) on, Mario even has a very certain way of catapulting off a defeated enemy. I cannot imagine having to simulate that perfect “Mario” feel (and look at how many other platformers tried and failed) while balancing completely new hardware. So Y&O (alright, R&D, as in Nintendo R&D1) gave up from the get-go: they knew they couldn’t produce exact Super Mario Bros. on the Gameboy, so they did the next best thing: made a sort of Mario parody.
The first thing anyone notices in Super Mario Land is that Mario is moving a little “different”. If everything was “normal” and Mario still moved weird, it would be natural for the player to assume something is wrong with the game itself, or that the game was made “wrong”. It’s an exclusively North American notion that Mario wasn’t “established” at this point in his life, in his native Japan, home of the people actually making this game, Super Mario had seen three adventures, and they were all very precise and similar in their controls. A change in that movement would have to be excused by… something? Right? The answer comes very quickly: after a few rote goomba encounters and a couple of minor pitfalls, the player encounters two wholly new items:
- Assuming the goombas were no issue, Mario obtains a fire flower, and the player likely assumes it’ll be the same incendiary shrubbery as in the previous games. It’s not. It grants Mario a bouncy wrecking ball that hops all over the stage. This item will show its true teeth in later stages that actually contain ceilings, but for now, it’s a brand new toy.
- And here’s the thing everybody remembers: stomping on that koopa troopa, expecting it to hide in its shell and be punted across the field like a good little turtle, but then, nope, it explodes, likely damaging a very surprised Mario in the process.
Yes, Super Mario Land knows it’s “wrong”, but it embraces that wrongness and uses it to great effect throughout the game. The first world ends with a bridge over lava occupied by a fire-belching monster, but Bowser is soaking in a green jacuzzi somewhere while Mario battles a sphinx. Piranha Plants pop out of pipes, but so do Bill Blasters. Time and time again, just when you think you’ve settled into knowing exactly what’s coming next, (because, come on, it’s just a Mario game, right?) you’re thrust into another bizarre situation, whether it be navigating a block maze or piloting a plane. Or both.
And therein lies the genius: this, the game that followed Super Mario Bros. 3, could have been a simple, compromised rehash of Super Mario Bros. (1), but no, though a clever mix of the normal and abnormal, Super Mario Land is very much its own animal… perhaps a chimera would be most appropriate. Maybe a sphinx? Whatever the beast, it’s one that was ideal for its platform, perfect for long car rides, and a worthy diversion on the road to Super Mario World.
So come on, Nintendo, where’s my Super Mario Land collection in Super Mario Maker?
FGC #51 Super Mario Land
- System: Nintendo Gameboy, though also available on the Nintendo 3DS.
- Number of Players: Just one. Luigi decided to stay home for the first time. Wouldn’t be the last.
- Hi I’m Daisy: This game also marks the premiere of Princess Daisy, and her only time in the “victim” spotlight. It’s funny, but I bet the only reason Nintendo remembered she was a separate-from-Peach entity in later games was due to the text involved in her unique “another castle” speech.
- And then she turned into a spider: Arachnophobes beware, and do not date women from Sarasaland.
- Tatanga Troubles: And Tatanga reappeared in Super Mario Land 2, and then never again. Seriously, Nintendo, listen to me, he’d be an ideal monster to face from a floating Koopa Clown Car. And how was he not in Super Mario Galaxy!? I like to imagine Tatanga and Wart are going on amazing adventures through all of dreams and space.
- Did you know? Super Mario Land was originally intended as the pack-in for the Gameboy, but it was shifted away in favor of Tetris, a little known game that basically conquered the globe for a couple decades or so. It’s funny to think how that event may have changed history, as it proved early and definitively that Nintendo didn’t absolutely need a Mario game to launch a system. Without one hard working Russian, we may have had Super Mario 128, but no Wii Sports. Also, we’d all be speaking German for some reason.
- Would I play again? Sure, why not? Oh, right, as I mentioned in a previous post, there’s like ten other Mario games I’d probably play first. But I can also play this game to completion, all levels, in about forty minutes, so it’d be kind of ideal for an ego booster that isn’t just Super Mario Bros. (1) again. Super Mario Land gets a “definite probably” rating.
What’s Next? Random ROB has chosen… to defer to the calendar on this one. We’re basically looking at a holiday coming up, and those only come around so often, so tune in on Wednesday for a very special look at a very special game. At least one of those “special”’s is sarcastic. Please look forward to it!