Super Mario Land
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Based on: Strange yet uncannily faithful new twists on an old familiar favorite.
Mario still has a certain cachet as Nintendo's main mascot, but in the days before Super Mario Sunshine, Pokémon, and the cult that currently surrounds The Legend of Zelda?, he was Nintendo's sure thing: the guy they put on the cover when they wanted to break out the big guns. So when the Game Boy hit in 1989, you'd better believe that a Mario game was ready and waiting.
This time, though, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto wasn't at the helm. Instead, the reins for what would become Super Mario Land were handed to someone no less talented: Gumpei Yokoi, the head of R&D1, the Nintendo division responsible for developing titles like Metroid, Kid Icarus, and the Game Boy itself. Yokoi's team plucked Mario from the familiar confines of the Mushroom Kingdom and gave him a new foe. Enter Tatanga, the "mysterious spaceman."
Mario Land's unusual new antagonist looks like he would have been right at home in Super Mario Galaxy, starfighter and all, assuming he had stuck around long enough. But Mario downed him in a ferocious dogfight before he could have any lasting impact on the franchise's mythos, making one final appearance as a boss in Super Mario Land 2 before quietly fading into the mists of obscurity. These days, he barely rates a mention in Super Smash Bros.? (where everyone gets name-dropped), let alone an appearance in a core Mario title.
As a result, it's easy to look back on Super Mario Land with eyebrow firmly arched, believing that the franchise's Game Boy debut was a curious blip on the radar and little more. After all, where else besides Super Mario Bros. 2''' does Mario battle anyone but Bowser? And even then, that's only true in the U.S. version of Mario 2; in Japan, Bowser was the ineffable bastard behind Mario's second Mushroom Kingdom excursion as well. From the perspective of the time, though, you could see it as a sort of trend. With the Koopa King defeated, it only made sense that Mario would go on to battle aliens and command a submarine.
And yet for all these uncharacteristic quirks, anybody who's ever played Super Mario Land finds the whole thing to be awfully familiar. Not only does it look like a scaled-down version of Super Mario Bros., it employs of a number of familiar series mechanics—albeit with heavy modifications. For instance, Super Mario Land expanded on the original's "flag bonus," with the flagpole being replaced by two doors from which Mario can choose. Taking the bottom door simply meant the end of the level, but finding a way into the harder-to-reach upper door meant a chance to acquire additional lives in a quick bonus game.
The bosses were also quite familiar, as each was a variation on Bowser's fire-breathing defense of the original lava bridge. The difference, of course, was that the bosses didn't fall into the lava when Mario reached the key but rather exploded, which undoubtedly made a hell of a mess. And to add insult to injury, the princess was still in another castle, though this time around the royal doppelgangers transformed into terrible beasts when approached.
The iconic fire flower makes its triumphant return after being absent in Super Mario Bros. 2, but it comes with some rather fundamental changes to the trademark projectile. While the original would explode harmlessly if they hit a wall, here they have the power to bounce off obstacles and, more importantly, collect coins.
The biggest changes ended up being in the auto-scrolling levels, which actually made for a rather entertaining change of pace from the trademark platforming. Annoying as it was to get trapped behind a wall, it was still fun to see Mario battling his foes with missile and torpedoes—definitely not something you see him doing on a regular basis, even now.
Despite these changes, Super Mario Land played more like a true sequel to the original game than did the Doki Doki Panic remix that Americans saw as Super Mario Bros. 2. This was almost certainly a very conscious decision on Nintendo's part, since a Mario Land that closely resembled the original could be touted as "an authentic Super Mario Bros. experience on the go." Yokoi's proteges put their own unique stamp on Mario Land, but it wasn't until Super Mario Land 2 that the R&D1 division really began to stretch out creatively—in the process laying the groundwork for the Wario Land games.
Some might call Super Mario Land a pale copy of the original, a portable title that lifts a great deal from the source material, but adds very little to the overall legacy of the franchise. And while that may be true to a degree, it's hardly a bad game. It never quite rises to the level of the original Super Mario Bros. or its better sequels, but the platforming fundamentals remain intact with enough tweaks keep things interesting. All of that, and it's accompanied by a killer soundtrack, too.
Sure, it's no Super Mario Bros. 3, but as a debut title on a new system without Papa Miyamoto at the helm, Mario's first Game Boy adventure could have hardly been better.