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.

Super Mario Land: Final Thoughts

Rescuing Princess Daisy required just one more solid thumbwrecking play session. I managed to get most of the way through World 4 in the same game that I encountered it for the first time, but needed two continues to pass the two-stage end boss. “Continues” in this game are earned with points, and, when used, restart you at the beginning of your current level with three lives. Since I couldn’t beat the final boss with more than ten lives left on the initial sally, I was rather surprised at pulling through in the continues. But ideally each death teaches you a little more about what to avoid.

World 4 has one of the best bonus rooms ever. It’s a screen that fits the usual parameters of the Super Mario Brothers-style bonus room, but is otherwise completely filled with coins. This isn’t really all that impressive as a reward — it takes 100 coins to earn an extra life, and if you could collect all those coins, they’d be worth two lives and some change. You can get more than that from the bonus game between levels. But the bonus game isn’t nearly as delightful as suddenly finding yourself completely surrounded by coins.

It strikes me that part of the genius behind the early platform games was using motion to create an impression of a continuous, fluid world in spite of the system’s graphical limitations, compensating for low spatial resolution by taking advantage of the high resolution in time. A still image of Mario looks blocky and pixellated, but his trajectory looks like a smooth, graceful parabolic arc. Sonic the Hedgehog would later employ the same principle in a different way, emphasizing both speed and speed differences.

Super Mario Land

So, what do you play when you’re on the road? Handheld games, of course. The Nintendo Gameboy, and the Gameboy Advance that I later bought to replace it, are the only handheld consoles I’ve ever owned, as well as the only Nintendo consoles. I bought my Gameboy mainly to play The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, considered by some not just to be the best game for that platform, but one of the finest games written for any platform at the time. But if you’re going to buy a Nintendo console, you’re almost required to get at least one Mario title for it. In fact, I think Super Mario Land may have been bundled with the Gameboy I bought.

The fact that I didn’t finish it when I first played it back in the 90’s is mainly due to its complete lack of any way to save your progress. Not even level codes are provided. It compensates for this somewhat by being short. The game consists of four “worlds”, each consisting of three levels with a boss fight at the end of the third (although, interestingly, the bosses allow the player the option of slipping past them instead of fighting them). After a little practice, I find it takes me about 8 minutes to get through the first world, so a skilled player can probably play through the entire game in under half an hour. To someone struggling to get though world 3 for the first time, the first two worlds form a sort of warm-up, where the challenge isn’t to survive but rather to pick up as many extra lives as you can in preparation for the hard part. A lot of games these days have a sort of “survive, then perfect” pattern, where you can go back to earlier levels and try to improve your performance in order to earn special rewards, such as unlockables. Viewed from this perspective, the main difference here is that it’s not a choice. You have to go back to world 1 every so often, when you run out of lives.

The gameplay is based closely on that of Super Mario Brothers for the NES, but with various innovations, such as new monsters, a really distinct boss at the end of each world, and at least one level that’s a scrolling shoot-’em-up rather than a platformer. Still, despite this, it mostly feels like a smaller, simpler version of SMB. Indeed, in some ways it seems like a SMB knockoff, with all of the names changed but the premise kept intact. Princess Daisy, SML‘s damsel in distress, is functionally equivalent to Princess Toadstool/Peach. Only by reading the manual do I know that SML‘s chibibos are not goombas. I wasn’t familiar enough with the Mario mythos to notice this back in the day — possibly it wasn’t as entrenched back then.

I’m under the impression that a lot of early Gameboy titles were reduced versions of NES titles, which is strange, since, as far as I can tell, the Gameboy was actually a more powerful machine than the NES in every respect other than graphics (and possibly sound). But the reduction in graphics is very significant: lower resolution, four-shade greyscale instead of color, and, worst of all, the slow response time of LCD technology circa 1989. It was a rare Gameboy game that actually looked better than the NES game on which it was based — Link’s Awakening being one example. SML has the handicap of continually scrolling, which shows that LCD display at its worst. It’s somewhat better on a GBA than it was on the original Gameboy, but I still find myself occasionally missing crucial jumps because I can’t see what I’m doing well enough.