Of all the titles in Nintendo’s vast library, Super Mario Land for the Game Boy is absolutely the black sheep of the family, breaking traditions in such a way that the game might be mistaken for a fan creation. In all honesty, the game feels like it must have been found in an off-grey, dusty, bootleg cartridge nestled in the back corner of a Goodwill display case, lost and forgotten amongst sunglasses, CDs, and scratched up PS1 discs. When playing, take everything you know about Mario games and throw them out the window. Princess Peach? Nope, Daisy. Bowser as the main villain? Psych, it’s a giant alien. Turtle shells? Guess again, they’re bombs.
Most of the title’s oddities lie in the fact that Super Mario Land was developed without any influence from series creator, Shigeru Miyamoto. In fact, his name is completely omitted from the game credits despite his invention of the titular character. Instead, Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi was designated as the lead producer to work in conjunction with Nintendo R and D to move Nintendo’s number one IP to their legendary handheld device. This change led to a hard-to-describe disconnect between the spirit of Super Mario Land and its predecessors as if some special Miyamoto magic was missing from the creation.
Like other Mario titles, the game’s premise is simple: run, jump, and shoot through a variety of platforming levels to reach the end and save the princess. In that regard, Super Mario Land doesn’t differ too much from the norm. It’s instead, the subtle changes to the movement, sprites, and level design that give the title its counterfeit feeling. In his attempt at a Super Mario universe, Yokoi did away with the familiar end-flags, fireballs, and 1UP mushrooms in favor of power up mini-games, bouncing balls, and life hearts. The Mushroom Kingdom’s unique enemies are now Sarasa Land’s homogeneous video game fish, spiders, and robots. To make things even more strange, Yokoi also introduced Gradius-style side-scrolling shooting levels that feature Mario in an airplane and submarine shooting down birds and octopi as the level scrolls along.
Super Mario Land is both a strangely awesome game and a testament to Nintendo’s evolution as a brand
One truly has to wonder what Nintendo was thinking of separating Mario from its creator and giving an R and D team creative license of one of their most successful franchises. From a development standpoint, it makes sense giving hardware creators a bit of input in the game mechanics of such a large release, but allowing these engineers to have total creative control over a launch title was certainly a very interesting move. It’s almost as though Nintendo lacked an understanding of the power that creative vision has on a game’s overall outcome, prioritizing the hardware success over the long term viability of the games that it plays.
With that in mind, Super Mario Land becomes an important timepiece in Nintendo’s overall development as a brand. With the title, the corporation essentially experimented with how to successfully bring a portable experience to a console title, a practice that is currently a hallmark of their executive strategy with the Nintendo Switch. While there were some minor failures in size and scope, mainly due to hardware constraints, they also learned that overall feeling has a lot to do with maintaining the integrity of their IPs. While this lesson has seemed to have been learned by the company with its recent 3DS and Switch success, some titles like Metroid Prime: Federation Force seem to hint that Nintendo is still interested in tweaking the model by taking IPs in interesting and controversial directions.
Despite the disconnect from its predecessors, Super Mario Land was well received upon its release and went on to sell 18.7 million of copies. It earned great praise for its quick gameplay and memorable soundtrack, although many noted its incredibly short play time. Presumably, Nintendo was experimenting with how much time players of their new system had to sit around and play titles on the go, as hardware limited the possibilities of save states. Regardless, the title has had a massive lasting impact on the outlook of portable games and is still the 3rd best selling Mario handheld title, sitting close behind the great New Super Mario Bros and Mario Kart DS. The Super Mario Land was eventually made a launch title again in 2011 with its re-release on the 3DS virtual console, reaching many new players. Although many called it a subpar port with graphical and frame-rate issues, the title still came across fluidly in all of its quirky and confusing glory.
Ultimately, Super Mario Land is both a strangely awesome game and a testament to Nintendo’s evolution as a brand, occupying a very strange space in the Mario universe. It would be interesting to know Miyamoto’s feelings towards such an odd adventure due to his lack of influence, although it couldn’t be too terrible because some of the game’s introductions (most notably Daisy) have entered the mainstream Mario lore. Either way, Super Mario Land‘s outlandish approach to the Mario universe is memorable and must play adventure, proving that Miyamoto magic is an essential part of the brand.