Super Mario Land: One More Thing

One thing puzzled me about Super Mario Land a bit at first: its length. The Gameboy was designed as ideally a platform for casual play, something to occupy your attention while you waited for the school bus. Its killer app was, after all, Tetris. But at half an hour or more per play session, SML doesn’t really fit that model. On the other hand, with a half hour or so of play in the entire game (and no save feature!), it doesn’t fit the model of a “core” game either. What sort of experience were they aiming for, anyway?

When it came to me, the answer was obvious. A half-hour of maximum total gameplay in a single session fits comfortably within the expected parameters of a coin-op arcade game. In 1989, coin-op was still the dominant form, and it would have been taken for granted that console titles are imitations of coin-op games, even when they weren’t direct adaptations. This also makes sense of the “Continue” mechanic, which simulates inserting another quarter.

Today’s designers of games on the level and scale of Super Mario Land are writing them in Flash and releasing them for free on the web. I suspect that today’s core games are influencing these works in ways that will eventually seem as odd as the coin-op influence in early console games, but only time will give us the perspective to know how.

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