The Game: As intrepid plumber (and explorer) Mario, players have to jump through new environments and enemies to help Mario rescue Daisy. Egyptian pyramids guarded by fire-breathing Sphinxes, seaside platforms invaded by space aliens, and the usual Goombas and Koopas await Mario as he tries to reach the end of each level. As always, there are mushrooms, stars and fire flowers to help Mario power up, and helpful hidden chambers full of coins. (Nintendo, 1989)
Memories: One of the original Game Boy launch titles, Super Mario Land was almost the game that was included with the Game Boy itself. And why not? Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 were certified smash hits with the same kind of household-name recognition that had once been the sole domain of Pac-Man.
But in a moment of brilliant clarity, Nintendo‘s upper brass realized that anything Mario-related was primarily viewed as a boys’ game, whereas another recent Nintendo acquisition, the puzzle game Tetris, had no characters or storyline to alienate a lucrative audience that had eluded many a video game manufacturer down through the years: females. Tetris became the pack-in title, and Super Mario Land was one of the first games that new Game Boy owners could purchase for the new handheld. The decision may have been seen as a blow for the new Mario game, but it secured the Game Boy’s future as one of the longest-running platforms in video game history.
Super Mario Land was not developed by Shigeru Miyamoto, but was instead overseen by his co-worker and mentor, Gunpei Yokoi (who would later create one of Nintendo’s least successful endeavours, Virtual Boy). As such, it has a wildly different feel to it while retaining the same jump-on-or-into play mechanic as Super Mario Bros.
The graphics are rudimentary in places, with familiar enemies such as Goombas barely resembling their counterparts on the NES; the environments are richly detailed, and Mario stands up to scrutiny, but it’s almost as if the game’s developers were nervous about the Game Boy’s limited screen size. And yet the enemies who are new to this game are detailed to a greater degree, including alien robots who can separate into two pieces, both equally deadly.
Super Mario Land isn’t a scaled-down, watered-down Super Mario Bros., but a new game with new challenges using the same basic skill set. If it had been a clone of the game that launched a million Nintendo Entertainment Systems, it – and the Game Boy – might have been less successful. Fortunately, the promise of a new, unique Mario game that couldn’t be played any other way was enough to make Super Mario Land one of the Game Boy’s bestselling early titles. While future iterations of the Game Boy would eventually get around to bringing the console experience to tiny screens everywhere, the success of Super Mario Land made it certain that Nintendo’s signature character would be doing something completely different in the handheld arena.