For a nearly 30 year old Gameboy game, Super Mario Land remains remarkably playable. It is a fine game made within the constraints of the time and situation of its creation. Judged solely on the merits of how fun it is to play in 2017, it is unfortunately lacking.
Super Mario Land is one of only two actually worthwhile Gameboy launch titles, along with Tetris. It hit shortly before Super Mario Bros 3 and played and looked mostly like the first Super Mario Bros. Much like the other game that looks and plays the most like Super Mario Bros, The Lost Levels, Super Mario Land is a distinct step back from that seminal game in just about every way.
Being a step back in the graphics department is understandable; it is on less powerful hardware that comes with its own bad screen. Unfortunately, it is also a step back in the controls and length. Super Mario Land plays surprisingly sloppily. The edges of platforms are inconsistent, jumps are kind of twitchy and everything just feels a little off. It isn’t enough to really ruin the game, but it never feels quite right. It is still a good sight better than most GameBoy platform games, mostly because the stripped down graphics actually play to the systems strengths. It is easy to see where you are going, no blind jumps because the screen doesn’t cover enough real estate for you to see where you’re jumping.
The short length is probably the biggest problem with the game. SMB had 32 levels, SML has 12. And they are not particularly long or difficult levels. The game can be beaten start to finish in about 45 minutes. The game consists of four worlds of three stages each. Even with just 12 stages, 2 of them are not normal stages but scrolling shooter stages. Honestly, with the floaty controls and shooter levels, it is no surprise to learn that this game was not developed by Mario creator Miyamoto’s team but by the crew responsible for Metroid and Kid Icarus. It feels more like a Kid Icarus follow up than a Mario one.
I would call out the world of Super Mario Land as being weird, but that is a moving goalpost with the Mario series, especially in the third entry America had seen, with each one being quite different than the last. Still, Mario 1 laid out the basics and Mario 2 added a ton of recurring enemies and characters as well as establishing character differences that have stuck since, very little of Mario Land has been follow up on. Princess Daisy is a mainstay of the various ancillary sports titles, but little else from this game’s Egypt and Ancient China episodes have been seen again. At this point, the setting feels very un-Mario-like. It doesn’t help that familiar elements are a little different as well. There is no fire flower in this game, instead of fire balls Mario tosses bouncing super balls. Instead of kicking turtle shells, they explode. They are traditional Mario elements that don’t work the same way they do in any other Mario game.
Super Mario Land is available on 3DS for less than $5 and that feels about right. It is still mostly enjoyable to play these days, but it is impossible to forget that this is a GameBoy game.