It may seem a bit strange today, given that it seems to have left no long-lasting impact on the Super Mario series as a whole, but 1989’s Super Mario Land remains one of the best-selling titles in the entire series. In fact, up until the Wii re-popularized Nintendo games, Super Mario Land was the third best-selling Mario game, behind only Super Mario World and the original Super Mario Bros. Though the high sales become a bit more understandable when one remembers that this was not only Mario’s first handheld entry, but also a launch title for the Game Boy. Releasing a Mario game to launch the Game Boy was a no-brainer, and with the handheld’s seldom-approached success, it only makes sense that Super Mario Land would rack up sales numbers. And for the time, Super Mario Land was a nice introduction for the series into the handheld market, though time has revealed that Mario compromised a lot in the transition to the Game Boy’s launch.
Super Mario Land, at first glance, seems to have all the trappings of Mario titles of the time. Mario still runs and jumps across different kingdoms, collects power-ups, and rescues a princess from a villain. But it won’t take long into playing to realize that things are just a little…off.
While mushrooms still make Mario bigger (thus giving him an additional hit point), flowers grant Mario with a bouncing ball, as opposed to the more accurate fireballs of Mario norm. Perhaps more bizarrely, while stars still grant Mario temporary invincibility, the usual Mario invincibility theme (AKA the most hypnotic 18 notes in gaming history) is replaced with a rendition of the Can-Can. It turns out that the princess involved isn’t Peach (or Toadstool, as she was known in the west at the time), but Princess Daisy. And the baddie isn’t Bowser, but a much more generic spaceman villain called Tatanga.
Those are something of excusable changes, considering Super Mario Land was created by a different team than the rest of the Mario titles of the time (it was the first Mario game without direct involvement from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto). But there are other changes that are a little less forgivable.
The most noticeable is Mario’s control, which feels far more slippery and chaotic than his NES and SNES adventures. It’s not outright bad to control, but considering Mario more or less wrote the book on making fluid platform jumping, anything less than the series’ standard really sticks out. Worse still, Super Mario Land plays some dirty tricks that work against the intuition this very series created! Notably, Koopa Troopa shells explode about a second after a Koopa has been defeated. Perhaps in a home console title, where there could be a visible distinction between your standard Koopa shell and an exploding one, this might not be so bad. But with the limitations of the Game Boy, it just looks like a Koopa Troopa. And with how the series has ingrained the idea of kicking Koopa Shells into our minds, it all just comes off as a cheap stunt.
Being a Game Boy launch title, suffice to say Super Mario Land isn’t a pretty game to look at (though at the very least, the ability to play it on a 3DS – with a backlight and whatnot – means that today you can experience the game in any lighting without having to strain your eyes). Thankfully, the music is actually pretty good. Certainly not among the best Mario soundtracks, but all things considered, it’s catchy and fun.
Of course, if there’s any great limitation to Super Mario Land, it’s that it is one short game. Okay, so it shouldn’t be assumed that a Game Boy launch title would be particularly long, but Super Mario Land can be beat in a half hour…if that. At the time, Super Mario Land had the benefit of being the Mario on the go. But now, with so many other options – whether one of the meatier, contemporary Mario handheld games, or a portable re-release of one of the console classics – you don’t exactly have a lot of incentive to play Super Mario Land in their stead.
Super Mario Land is not a bad game, but retrospective has exposed it as the weakest Mario platformer. For its time, Mario on the go was an accomplishment in its own right. But despite nothing being particularly bad about it, Super Mario Land doesn’t feature any elements that weren’t considerably bettered by Mario games before and since, leaving it feeling like Mario’s most mediocre moment to contemporary eyes.
Then again, the fact that Super Mario Land unleashed Princess Daisy onto the series may just constitute an unforgivable sin.