Super Mario Land is Nintendo’s first attempt to port over their popular mascot onto a handheld machine, in case, their brand new (at the time of release) Game Boy, known for its low price and long battery life, and limited colour palette of four (4) different shades of green and yellow. This is the first game in the eponymous trilogy, which spawned two better-known and more fondly-remembered successors: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, the latter of which featured Mario’s rival Wario as the main playable character, who would later go on to have his own series in future Wario Land games. I got a copy of this game alongside the Game Boy’s launch title, the ever-popular and often-imitated-but-not-quite-rivalled Tetris along with a Crazy Castle clone reskinned to feature Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
The premise of these games follows a standard formula for the Mario franchise: the eponymous plumber (sometimes accompanied by his brother Luigi) must set out to rescue a damsel in distress (usually Princess Peach, or as she was known in the West at the time, Princess Toadstool) from the clutches of Bowser (known at the time as King Koopa outside of Japan). This one changes things up a bit by having Mario go solo and rescue Princess Daisy, who would later become Luigi’s romantic interest, from a tyrannical alien simply known as Tatanga, who has enslaved the kingdom of Sarasaland.
When the game boots up, this is what you get: a simple title screen with a single option to start the game. This is a short game and can be completed in approximately three-quarters of an hour, maybe half an hour if you can achieve a perfect run.
Due to the Game Boy’s limited monochrome palette and small screen size owing to its handheld nature, the game mechanics which made the original Super Mario Brothers game so popular had to be revised and condensed in order to fit into the console’s small cartridge size of just 31KB (later in the Game Boy’s life, bank-switching techniques would be employed to overcome the memory size limitation of the games in order to allow larger and more expansive titles to be released on the platform).
This game is divided into four (4) worlds composed of three (3) levels each, and each world has a unique theme to it, along with both recurring enemies common throughout the game and enemies unique to those worlds. The manual refers to these worlds as “Kingdoms” and is named as such:
The main differences between Super Mario Land on the Game Boy compared to its bigger brother on the NES/Famicom are mostly cosmetic, but there are some mechanical changes made as well in order to better accommodate Nintendo’s flagship handheld console.
The 1-up mushroom (green in all other Mario games) granting the player an extra life is now a heart.
The fire flower now fires what the game refers to as Superballs instead of conventional fireballs (presumably because fireballs would have been too difficult to distinguish or animate on such an early Game Boy title like this one), which look and act like cannonballs.
The last level of each world now has a unique boss fight instead of recycling the same Koopa/Bowser enemy type for each battle (the final stage has two boss fights back-to-back).
The player can now choose from two (2) exits at the end of the first and second stages in all four worlds: an upper exit and a lower exit. Taking the upper exit will grant the player access to a hidden bonus game where they have the chance to win extra lives (up to 3) or a powerup in the form of a fire flower. If the player wins the fire flower while they already have it equipped, then they get nothing.
The third and final stage of the second and fourth worlds (Muda and Easton respectively) feature Mario travelling in a vehicle as the map scrolls automatically - these autoscrolling stages were apparently planned to appear in the original Super Mario Brothers game but were cut out due to the technical limitations of the Famicom and the developers’ challenge in implementing them properly.
Being an early Game Boy game, possibly a launch title, the presentation for this game is extremely sparse - all the player gets is a basic title screen with a single choice: to start the game. Completing the game allows the player to replay the game on a harder difficulty, and completing it again unlocks a stage selection option. However, this is ultimately futile, as these achievements are lost when the power is turned off. The game’s aesthetics and mechanics look and feel very rudimentary, even for a Game Boy game, and the lack of extra content is disappointing.
This is a Game Boy game, so the colours are going to be a little bit on the absent side, while the detail in the graphics is quite simplistic, as if the developers were attempting to replicate the NES and Famicom titles onto much more limited hardware. One change I do like from the conventional powerups is that the 1-up is now a heart, as it is easier for the players to guess what it does, although I do not like how the invincibility powerup (a 5-pointed star also known as a pentagram) disappears through the floor if the player fails to grab it in time, while in all other games it simply bounces along until acquired or until it falls into a pitfall. I also like the new Superball design unique to this game, and some of the architecture is quite appealing, too.
This game features an original soundtrack (as do its two sequels), and the music that is here is actually quite catchy and memorable, and, truth be told, I prefer it over the more iconic score from its bigger brother. Each composition sounds like it would fit right at home with its associated world and level design, generating a basic sense of atmosphere, while the sound effects are simplified versions of the famous sounds found in the original Super Mario Brothers game (save for the sound effect played when picking up a coin, 100 of which are needed for an extra life, which seems like it was ported straight across without any compression).
The controls are smooth and responsive - perhaps a little bit too responsive, as Mario seems to be slightly more sensitive to traction and gravity in this game. Both traits would later be inherited by Luigi in all future games, starting with the Japanese release of Super Mario Brothers 2 (released in the West under the title Super Mario Brothers: The Lost Levels as part of the Super Mario All-Stars collection for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System or Super Famicom in Japan). I like the addition of fully automatic fire during the autoscrolling stages at the climax of each world, as full-auto gunfire assists the player greatly in destroying the numerous obstacles blocking their path and is extremely helpful during the boss fights.
The game actually has a consistent and clear incrementation of difficulty, much to its credit - it gets harder as the player progresses through the four worlds, introducing new tricks and traps with each new level and if the player is savvy enough, then they can access hidden areas in some stages. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Mario game without pipes that lead into underground chambers full of money, and the game retains those in spades. The countdown timer in this game is actually slightly faster when compared against its bigger brother, but at least the maps for each level are short enough in that they can be traversed with ample time (most stages can be cleared in 2, maybe 3 minutes maximum).
Super Mario Land, while not a classic game for the Game Boy in the same vein as its successors or even titles like The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening or Metroid 2: Return of Samus*,* is an interesting historical curiosity because it showed that a Mario game on a handheld console could work, a concept which the two sequels fleshed out with a greater scope in storytelling and integrating new gameplay elements such as nonlinear levels and secret stages accessible only after completing a certain chapter, requiring that the player revisit already previously completed areas in order to obtain a perfect score. Not a bad start for Mario on the Game Boy, and a decent introduction to platforming on the handheld console as well as a good enough “first game” that isn’t Tetris.
Final Score: 3 1/2 out of 5.