The Game Boy was the pale green bastard child of the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was a black hole for batteries, didn't play in color, and was almost as large as Andre the Giant's right knee. But hey, it was portable, which was a huge deal at the time. You'll buy it for that, right? You know you will. And what better way to say "You're going to buy this crap whether it's any good or not" than with a game like Super Mario Land?
Mario had the name, the selling power, and was the unquestioned king of video games at the time. The first two Super Mario Bros. games were already out in America, and Japan had The Lost Levels and even Super Mario Bros. 3 to play. The guy's name was as good as gold. By putting his mug on a Game Boy launch title, it wouldn't matter if the game sucked or the whole console sucked - both would sell. It's a prudent marketing strategy, really. And while it's not exactly fair to say Super Mario Land sucks, it would certainly be a stretch to call it good.
If you've ever taken trigonometry or calculus, and the screen at left seems eerily familiar, it might be because someone in your class was playing it on his or her graphing calculator. That's right, a TI-83 could in essence run Super Mario Land. Clearly part of that is the fact that, like any console, it takes several games to figure out how to get the most out of it. But I feel like they had to have been able to do better than this, right? And what's with that enemy? There's a piranha plant which is well and good, but what is up with that prancing colonist? The worst part is that he doesn't even die when you jump on him. It just stuns him, and he keeps following you. Creeper.
The game's story is pretty incomprehensible. Mario is out to save Princess Daisy, who doesn't seem to have any relation whatsoever to Peach, from her captors. But her captor isn't Bowser; I'm not really sure it's anyone. The enemies all seem totally unrelated, as do the worlds. And half the boss fights are just total clones of the Super Mario Bros. Bowser fights, including the "bridge release" switch or whatever it's supposed to be. So why not just make it Bowser? Why this Sphinx thing? What's the Egypt motif actually accomplishing here?
There's also a whole world dedicated to aliens for some reason, and another one on Easter Island. They even replace the flying Koopa Troopas with - I kid you not - winged Easter Island heads. Why? Speaking of Koopas, when you jump on one in this game, they detonate. Yeah, like a bomb. I don't know why either. I have no answers for you.
The game is mercifully brief, at least. Whereas Super Mario Bros. had 8 worlds with 4 levels each (32 levels total), Super Mario Land has 4 worlds with 3 levels each (12 levels total). Throughout most of them there plays a catchy little ditty that you may have heard in the context of a 4 strength/4 stam leather belt, but that's probably the high water mark of the positives of this game. The control, which was so tight and responsive in Super Mario Bros., is now dreadful by comparison. Midair control is pretty lacking, and many times Mario will glitch off platforms when jumping to them, falling into pits and the like.
The game does commendably try to shake things up a bit by including two vehicle levels. The first of these uses a submersible pod that fires torpedoes at everything in your way, and the second is an airplane that works in exactly the same way. These levels are interesting and more fun to play than the standard ones, and have special bosses that you fight within the vehicle. This game almost works better as a sidescrolling vehicle shooter than it does as a Mario game, which is pretty sad when you think about it.
Some of the gameplay mechanics are unusual as well. For instance, often times if you run or jump straight into an enemy (rather than on top of it), the enemy will still take a hit and die, though you'll take damage. It's not really one or the other anymore. Bullet Bill launchers can now emerge from pipes, and the bullets themselves cannot be jumped on or killed. Mario's fireballs now also act like boomerangs, and can collect coins for him. One change I liked: if you're jumping when you get a super mushroom (the ones that make you big), your momentum doesn't stop. In Super Mario Bros., getting a powerup in midair was a virtual death sentence, which wasn't too fair.
At least the princess this time around actually appears to have been worth saving. Not only does she thank you unconditionally, but she also runs straight over to you and gives you a little heart affection. Taking notes here, Peach? The hilarious thing is that, as Nintendo would later reveal, Princess Daisy is actually the girlfriend of Luigi. Mario's younger brother. It's unclear whether that happened after Mario had had enough of her, or whether he was just taking advantage of his brother's absence. But this is arguably the first instance of Luigi-prejudice...a theme we will see slowly develop over time throughout Mario's game library.
But back on point. Super Mario Land is a quick game, which is wholly a good thing. It looks ugly, plays ugly, and doesn't feel too Mario-like, which is obviously unacceptable for a flagship Mario game to launch a console. But it succeeds a bit in the vehicle stages, the music is too catchy to ignore, and you're never too frustrated as you play, which can be a rarity amongst Mario games. Overall, it's pretty much a completely average game.
Bottom Line: 10/20