Celebrating the Bizarre Super Mario Land 30 Years Later

Super Mario Land just celebrated its 30th anniversary. The title launched for the Game Boy in Japan on April 21, 1989, with August and September releases following in North American and European territories, respectively. It doesn’t look like much these days, but the monochromatic platformer was quite groundbreaking in 1989 — it provided Game Boy adopters with a full-fledged Mario game. While somewhat clunky by today’s standards, it had enough polish to make it a worthwhile buy. Add some really creative level design and charming weirdness, and you’ve got what’s easily one of the most unique Mario titles ever.

Uncharted Territory

When Nintendo released the Game Boy, it needed a system seller — a game that would boost initial sales and lock its audience in. Super Mario Land was that game. Developed by Nintendo R&D1, this was the first game in the Mario series that didn’t include the input of Shigeru Miyamoto. Instead, Gunpei Yokoi, who was one of the key people involved in bringing the Game Boy to light, took on the role of producer for Super Mario Land. By his side as director was Satoru Okada. The two had previously worked on Kid Icarus and Metroid, among other projects.Now, though, the two were, as per Nintendo’s slogan, “Playing with Power.” Taking the reigns with the next entry in the company’s biggest franchise on a new console was a tall task, but the two individuals along with the rest of the R&D1 development team were ready to take that leap. And what a leap it was!

Just as the Game Boy was uncharted territory at the time, Super Mario Land itself explored uncharted territory, too. Set in Sarasaland rather than the Mushroom Kingdom, the game had the mustachioed plumber rescuing a new princess by the name of Daisy. Peach, or Princess Toadstool, was absent this time around, but our fireball-tossing hero, noble as he is, set out to rescue her. Speaking of which, Mario didn’t actually throw fireballs in Super Mario Land. Weird, right? In this game, he threw Superballs, bouncing balls that could hurt enemies and snag coins in hard to reach areas.

The Superballs weren’t the only oddity in this bizarro Mario game. You couldn’t pick up or kick Koopa shells, either. If you stomped on a Koopa, you had about one second to get out of the way of the shell’s impending explosion. Goombas took on a more rotund shape and were called Goombos in this faraway land. Lastly, 1-Ups were in the shape of hearts rather than mushrooms, a move that was probably put into effect so players wouldn’t confuse the 1-Ups with the Super Mushrooms on account of the Game Boy’s gray screen.Sarasaland was a weird place, for sure, but this wasn’t the first time Nintendo experimented with Mario. The re-skinned Doki Doki Panic, or Super Mario Bros. 2 for Western audiences, probably wins the Weirdest Mario Game Award. That said, if we’re talking about a Mario game that was built from the ground up as a Mario game, well, Super Mario Land is definitely more deserving of that honor.

Unlike the pluck-and-toss action of Super Mario Bros. 2, the gameplay in Super Mario Land was a lot closer to the series proper. Platforming was challenging, with land-bound enemies keeping you on your toes and flying creatures patrolling the skies, making jumps across pits extremely tricky. Pipes led to underground areas with an obscene amount of coins so you could stockpile and collect extra lives. This was a Mario game through and through, all condensed into a small, handheld package.

The main gameplay deviation that Super Mario Land offered was in the form of two shoot ’em up levels. In these, Mario took control of either a submarine or an airplane with enemies coming in droves from the right-hand side. These levels auto-scrolled, which meant you had to play hard to get to the end unscathed. As weird as the inclusion of these levels was, they worked well, and they added a nice change to the pacing between the traditional platforming stages.

The compact design of the Game Boy meant limitations were inevitable. Initially, there was no way to know just how far developers could push the hardware. As such, Super Mario Land was extremely short. With just 12 stages in total — four worlds housed three levels apiece — you could finish the game in under an hour. Having played a single level of Super Mario Land several years ago, I snagged the 3DS Virtual Console version this past weekend in commemoration of its anniversary and played through it in about 45 minutes… and then again in 40 minutesThat’s the thing about Super Mario Land: The game may not have been very long, but it was addictive, fun, and replayable as heck. And while it did lack that high level of Nintendo refinement that titles such as Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and New Super Mario Bros. are known for, it wasn’t lacking one bit in terms of fun factor. Call me crazy — hell, call me blasphemous — but I had more fun with Super Mario Land than I did with Super Mario World.

Not a Household Name… Yet

In 1989, Mario was hardly the icon he is today. As such, Nintendo was able to experiment and take liberties in the way that it did with this title. While Super Mario Bros. 2 was a completely different experience altogether, Super Mario Land was bonkers within the realm of what would ultimately become the tried and tested Mario formula. The series was still in its infancy, so people didn’t really know what to expect. Crazy themes and altered power-ups notwithstanding, however, Super Mario Land was close to that original blueprint that had been introduced years prior.

The important thing for folks picking up the Game Boy, was the presence of a new Mario title — a wholly original, not-available-on-anything-else Mario game for players to sink their teeth into. This game wasn’t even on the NES! For a lot of people, Super Mario Land and Tetris were the go-to essentials both at launch and years after the Game Boy had arrived.

Super Mario Land made a major impact on the gaming landscape. Before the Game Boy, no one expected to play a Mario game of this caliber on a handheld device. I would liken the shock and awe of Super Mario Land on Game Boy to that of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories on the PSP: Here you had this game, this glorious experience that you should only be able to play on a box in front of your TV, defying logic itself (at least, in our minds) by allowing you to take it with you wherever you went. Madness!To make sense of just how big of an impact Super Mario Land made when it debuted, let’s turn to some numbers. The game sold more than 18 million copies — that’s more than Super Mario Bros. 3‘s 17 million+ sales. The latter is my favorite game of all time, but it doesn’t upset me that Super Mario Land outperformed it. Because it just makes sense. Right place, right time for Super Mario Land? Maybe. But it wasn’t just luck that propelled the game to that upper echelon — it was its quality, too.

While not perfect, Super Mario Land was still on the receiving end of mass critical acclaim. Both EGM and Computer and Video Games, two major print publications, bestowed huge helpings of praise on the game. It was impossible to ignore the game’s short length, and the art was nowhere near as colorful as the console Mario titles that had come before it, but Super Mario Land was still really entertaining and worth revisiting over and over.

Not Just a One-Off

Following the success of Super Mario Land, Nintendo decided to keep the series going. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins dropped in 1992, just two years after the Japanese release of Super Mario World. With a better grasp of what the Game Boy hardware could do, Nintendo R&D1 pushed the system to its limits in terms of both graphics and scale. Though still monochromatic, Super Mario Land 2 resembled Super Mario World, with detailed sprites, a large overworld map, and a save system.Most interesting of all was the nonlinear style of Super Mario Land 2. You could access the game’s six worlds in any order, adding a creative, open-ended layer to the game. It was exciting. It was new. And it took Mario to a whole new level. I dare say Super Mario Land 2 was more diverse than even Super Mario World.

Gunpei Yokoi reprised his role of producer for Super Mario Land 2. This time around, Takehiko Hosokawa and Hiroji Kiyotake were brought on as directors. Kiyotake, having previously created Samus Aran of Metroid fame and Foreman Spike from Wrecking Crew, is notorious for creating Wario, who made his debut in Super Mario Land 2. At the time, Wario was more than just the bumbling anti-hero we know him as today. No, in Super Mario Land 2 he was a straight-up villain.

While Mario was off saving Sarasaland and Princess Daisy, Wario took control of Mario’s castle — yes, humble, heroic Mario has a castle. Super Mario Land 2 follows Mario’s adventures as he attempts to reclaim his castle from the clutches of the vile Wario. I still remember being shaken to my very core as a kid when I first watched that Super Mario Land 2 commercial.Mario on Game Boy would take a brief break, but in 1994, Super Mario Land returned, in a sense. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 didn’t star the famed mustache-sporting plumber, but rather his foil from the previous game. After having been kicked out of Mario’s castle, Wario went out to seek more riches in his very own game.

Acting as both sequel and spin-off, Super Mario Land 3 featured completely revamped gameplay. Wario could equip different hats that allowed him to dash into enemies and breakable blocks, perform a ground pound, propel himself forward while airborne, and even breathe fire. It was a vast departure from what had already been established in the Mario series, but it was a risk that Nintendo could afford to take considering just how much success the Game Boy had already achieved by 1994.

And it paid off. Super Mario Land 2 may have introduced the mischievous Wario, but Super Mario Land 3 launched the character to unexpected heights of popularity. The Game Boy received two more Wario Land games, there was a Virtual Boy entry that was actually pretty good, and more sequels would follow with Wario Land 4 on Game Boy Advance, World World on GameCube, Wario: Master of Disguise on DS, and Wario Land: Shake It on Wii. Wario became such an icon that he eventually got his own sub-series of micro-game collections, the infamous WarioWare series.Following the release of Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 in 1994, the Mario Land series would be quietly retired. It would see a quasi-return 17 years later in 2011 with the release of Super Mario 3D Land for the 3DS. While not exactly a Mario Land title as we’d come to know them, 3D Land followed the series’ innovation and weirdness by providing a new type of Mario experience. The game mixed side-scrolling, top-down, and isometric gameplay, and it utilized the 3DS tech to create stereoscopic visuals that popped out of the screen.

Like the Mario Land games before it, Super Mario 3D Land was all about gameplay evolution and mechanical diversity. More so than that, it was about giving 3DS adopters their very own Mario game, much like Super Mario Land gave Game Boy owners a unique Mario experience.

The Forgotten Legacy of an Underrated Gem

Super Mario Land is 30 years old. There will always be folks who appreciate the game, and there will be just as many who sweep it under the rug and simply choose to ignore it. Some may argue that Super Mario Land just wasn’t that great, while others will fight to the death in the game’s favor. One thing is certain, though: no one could’ve guessed just how successful Super Mario Land was going to be, and no one could’ve imagined the impact it would have on the Mario series, and the Game Boy’s success as a whole.

Super Mario Land proved that risks could pay off for Nintendo. The game paved the way for multiple sequels. It took Mario to strange lands unlike anything we’d seen before or would ever see again. And it’s basically responsible for the rise of Wario.

But even if you ignore its far reaching impact, and simply look at Super Mario Land on Game Boy as a standalone title… it’s still a damn fine game, and one that deserves more recognition.