Pocket Power: Super Mario Land

Though today you can stuff stereoscopic 3D and console-quality graphics into your backpack, that once seemed inconceivable. Handhelds have evolved quickly, but we shouldn’t forget the games that made them great in the first place. Though these games lack raw processing muscle, they have a power all their own.

Anyone remember the original Nintendo Game Boy? It was a hefty chunk of plastic, with a small screen relative to overall size of the console. Its entire game library was in glorious monochrome and it was powered by batteries that would rarely not survive a long car ride on a family vacation. It was possible to purchase a bulky rechargeable battery pack, but that clunky peripheral was inconvenient if the console was to be played on the go as intended and required a significant amount of time to charge if you wanted any decent amount of playtime out of the thing. These limitations aside, there were plenty of fun games on the Game Boy, and this is the device that got the ball rolling that eventually led to the impressive Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita.

There are many popular franchises that are exclusive to Nintendo, but none is more synonymous with the brand than the mustachioed portly plumber known as Mario. Super Mario Land marks the springy legged plumber’s debut on the Game Boy in a game similar to the Super Mario Bros. series. Due to hardware limitations, this title is much shorter than the Mario games on the NES, having only twelve levels divided into four worlds with three levels apiece. In many ways this title bears many similarities to the NES titles but there are enough differences to make this seem like an oddball Mario title.

Most of Super Mario Land is typical platforming that we except from Mario with some classic enemies like goombas and koopa troopas. Mario gets big when he eats a mushroom and is granted projectiles when he gets a flower. He completes a level and thinks he rescued Princess Daisy, only to be disappointed, with the iconic line of the princess being in another castle never once being stated. He collects coins, he jumps down pipes, and he gets invincibility if he catches a star, though the choice of music in this game hints that Mario should start cancan dancing with the high kicking. Sadly this name is nothing more than a tease and we do not get to experience a dancing Mario with a long frilly dress.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Mario’s creator, was not involved with Super Mario Land and his absence is noticeable. This is not meant as a knock against the game since Super Mario Land was a very impressive portable title for its time, it just means that this is different than the other Mario games. For one Mario is not in the Mushroom Kingdom but in Sarasaland, and Princess Toadstool aka Princess Peach is absent. Instead we are introduced to what I presume to be is Mario’s side piece, Princess Daisy. Mario apparently has some Ron Jeremy-esque appeal to the ladies since he seems to be good at hooking up with princesses. Unfortunately, his princesses have a propensity to get kidnapped by villains. It seems that Mario would be wise to just find a nice girl who doesn’t have a royal family background and settle down instead of playing the field in different kingdoms but maybe he gets off on the whole damsel in distress nonsense. Maybe Mario has some messiah complex based on some deep insecurity, and chooses victimized women for that reason. I think I went a little off track here, let’s get back to Super Mario Land and we can explore the etymology of Mario’s kinks in future article 50 Shades of Mario.

Unlike the previous Mario game, the Koopa Kingdom is not the source of Mario’s problems. Wart doesn’t count since what us Americans were told is Super Mario Bros. 2 was really Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic reskinned as a Mario game. The real Super Mario Bros. 2 was like Super Mario Bros except much harder, and can be played as The Lost Levels in Super Mario All-Stars. The main villain here is some alien looking dude in a spaceship named Tatanga. The final showdown with Tatanga is different from all boss fights in Mario’s previous games. The last level features Mario in a fighter plane and the final showdown is a dog fight between Mario’s plane and Tantanga’s spaceship which is of course larger, more armored, and packs much more firepower. An earlier level features similar gameplay where Mario is in a submarine and can shoot his aquatic foes. These two levels are autoscrolling shooters where Mario can travel the whole screen and plays like another Game Boy title I have fond memories of, R-Type.  These levels were an unexpected addition to this game but they are actually quite fun and bring some variety to the table.

The music direction in Super Mario Land is somewhat of a departure from prior Mario games. Some levels feature upbeat chip compositions that don’t seem out of place with what we have come to expect with previous Mario games where some other levels are more like what us westerners have come to associate as traditional Egyptian or east Asian musical themes. Moai aka those giant stone heads on Easter Island are featured background items in some stages along with pyramids and sphinxes, making Super Mario Landenvironment appear to have more in common with our world than the Mushroom Kingdom.

Super Mario Land does feel kind of strange due to Miyamoto’s absence, but once we get past the new villain and new world, the majority of the game is classic Super Mario gameplay. It might not be as grand in scope as its contemporary Super Mario Bros. 3, but it does deliver in regards to being a fun Mario game. The small number of levels and monochromatic color scheme do show their age and people who started playing handhelds with the Game Boy Advance or later portable likely won’t be impressed, but in 1989 this was the pinnacle of platforming on a handheld device. This title, along with some other Game Boy gems, showed the gaming world that portable platforms are a viable way to game and paved the way to the super powerful handhelds we are spoiled with today.

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