Pocket-sized Plumber

Super Mario Land

The NES was a phenomenon. Although there were other systems released in the same era -- the Atari 7800, the Sega Master System -- the NES (and the Famicom) blew all of them out of the water. It was a global hit that launched Nintendo as the name in gaming for an entire video game era. Nintendo, sitting on the dominant want home console system wanted to do the same thing for portable gaming, and their Game Boy essentially took over every kid's pocket for over a decade. Hell, it too defeated all comers, destroying efforts from TurboGraphix, Atari, Sega (twice), WonderSwan, NeoGeo, and it's own successor (the ill-fated Virtual Boy). The Game Boy was portable gaming for years.

Super Mario Land

Nintendo, naturally, put a lot of support behind the little portable system, throwing all its big franchises at it (and getting all the 3rd parties on board eventually as well). While Tetris (which became its own phenomenon) might have been the system seller for the Game Boy, Nintendo did put translations of many of its hits onto the little hand-held. One of those games was Super Mario Land, a sidequel to the main series that translated all the big screen adventures to this littler brethren, with impressive results all things considered.

Released in Japan one year after Super Mario Bros. 3, but one year before that game's release in the U.S., Super Mario Land feels like a direct sequel to the original NES Super Mario Bros.. This is due mostly to the set level structure -- three levels per world, a boss at the end of each that you can defeat my touching the hammer at the end -- as well as the chunky, very retro feeling graphics. It's the purest sequel to the original game that doesn't directly feel like an expansion pack (looking at you, The Lost Levels).

Playing like the original NES Super Mario isn't a knock against this first Game Boy effort; far from it, in fact, as this game plays really well. It's a nice, solid translation of the core mechanics of the NES title while still finding a way to work in its own little twists in the process. In comparison to the other two NES games, Super Mario Bros. 2 USA and Super Mario Bros. 3, the game does feel a tad dated, but when it came out, especially for American audiences, this was every bit the Mario game we were craving.

Set in Sarasaland, Super Mario Land finds our titular plumber going off an adventure that will feel fairly familiar. Princess Daisy (just called "Daisy" here) has been kidnapped and Mario has to venture through four worlds of three levels each to find her and save her from the clutches of monsters. Naturally, Mario will run, jump, and fire off flower pellets in his quest to save his lady fair and save the lands. It's all very standard and similar in that respect.

Where the game defines itself is in how it twists the basic mechanics of the original NES game. For starters, most of the enemies in the game are different. Aside from the standard goombas, every other enemy is new (or at least a new twist). You'll jump on koopas only to discover that their shells are bombs that will explode on you if you stick around. Dead fish jump out of the water, Moai heads bounce at you, and creepy spiders populate deep dungeons. It all builds to make this version of Mario feel unique enough while still clinging to familiar concepts.

Just to change things up a little further, two of the boss stages are shooters instead of platformers. Mario, for whatever reason, gets first a sub (in Level 2-3) and a biplane (in level 4-3) and blasts his way through swarms of enemies all for a chance to take on the boss at the end. It's a weird mechanic to add in, something that feels unique in the Mario series, but it does help to change up the dynamics of the game and keep things relatively fresh.

Even the length of the game doesn't really feel like a detriment. Yes, at 12 stages this seems like the shortest Mario game yet, but context is important. This game, like all the NES titles, didn't have a save feature so you were expected to start and finish the game in one sitting (potentially on a car ride or sitting in a room while you waited for your parents). In that regard, 12 stages feels just right as it comes out to about 45 minutes or so of game play, just long enough to feel substantial but no so long that the game is impossible to kill in a single sitting.

Plus, while the game only has 12 stages, they're all fairly lengthy affairs. They feel longer than the stages in the original NES game (and substantially longer than anything in SMB3), easily half-again as long in most cases, meaning that while the stage count is short, the overall length of the game is really quite long. Just the right, substantial amount of game considering the system its on.

Really, this game does everything it needed to. It crafted a solid, and new, Mario experience for a new console, making sure the game featured the same level of care, that "Nintendo Quality", that made it feel like more than just a simple port (or a crappy kaizo hack). It has new challenges, new enemies, and a new lady to save, all while still feeling like a proper Mario game in every way that matters. Unlike some other ports to the Game Boy by other game makers (that would slap a popular title's name on any weird puzzle game coming to the little hand-held.), this is portable gaming done right.

What's weird, though, is that while Big N has seen fit to revisit all the NES titles over time, this Game Boy iteration (and its eventual sequel) haven't really seen updates or revisions over the years. Yes, Super Mario Land was republished in its original form on the Virtual Console, but that's not the same as the SNES or Game Boy Advance updates the NES titles received. This little game did its job really well and then, for whatever reason, has remained largely forgotten by its parent company. Some day Nintendo really should come back to this game (a title, it should be noted, that outsold Super Mario Bros. 3) and give it the kind of love it deserves.