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‘Super Mario Land’: The Game That Legitimized the Game Boy

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By 1989, Nintendo had very carefully crafted an image for themselves within the retail stratosphere. The Nintendo Entertainment System wasn’t a toy — it was a video game console. It wasn’t a fad gift, but an accessory that could become a legitimate part of the household; an NES could be as intimate as a TV. And so, it was only a matter of time before Nintendo set their sights for the handheld market. Gaming may still have been in its technological youth, but Nintendo knew to strike while the iron was hot. The Game Boy, an under-powered piece of hardware that could never compare to the NES, would ensure Nintendomination continued for years to come. But it wouldn’t do it alone; the Game Boy needed legitimizing. It needed Mario. 

Although Gunpei Yokoi envisioned the Game Boy as a successor to the Game & Watch, Nintendo didn’t want to treat the handheld system like a toy. The Game Boy needed to have a proper catalogue à la the NES — complete, cohesive video games that went beyond the Game & Watch’s often trivial gameplay scenarios. Super Mario Bros. had established itself as a powerhouse brand internationally by 1989; Japan had three full Mario games on the Famicom, and westerners had two distinct, well-designed platformers to chew on. Nintendo simply needed to develop a Super Mario Bros. title for the Game Boy. 

Logic would seemingly dictate that the Game Boy’s launch title would resemble the original Super Mario Bros. as much as possible; after all, Nintendo wanted the Game Boy to sell the idea that handheld gaming wasn’t any less valid an expression of the medium. A recognizable Super Mario game would realistically move units and maintain the company’s reputation. With series creator Shigeru Miyamoto actively preparing Super Mario World for the Super Famicom’s launch, it would naturally be the safest decision as well. However, this was a time in the company’s history where Nintendo seldom played it safe. 

Super Mario Land would end up being more than just recognizable — it would be its own beast entirely. Mario would be the only familiar icon taken from the series, as Peach, Luigi, Bowser, Toads, and the Mushroom Kingdom wouldn’t so much as warrant a reference. Even enemies were slightly altered so that Super Mario Land wouldn’t fall into the same gameplay loop as Super Mario Bros. Something as simple as shells blowing up instead of moving across the screen manages to affect the pace at which Super Mario Land is played. 

Visually, Super Mario Land couldn’t exactly mimic the franchise aesthetic. Where NES games were entirely in color, Game Boy games were relegated to black and white, so even if Nintendo wanted it to, Super Mario Land wouldn’t be able to accurately emulate even the first Super Mario Bros. Instead, Land plays to its strengths. Keeping with its unique identity, the game’s levels take influence from real world cultures. World 1 is based Egypt, World 2 is based on the lost continent of Mu, World 3 is based on Easter Island, and World 4 is based on Ancient. 

Perhaps more importantly, all four worlds place emphasis on mythology and the supernatural. Multiple Sphinx appear near the end of World 1, channeling their depiction in Oedipus Rex; World 2 has Mario entering the stage via a UFO; Moai statues attack Mario in World 3; and World 4 features Jiangshi — Chinese vampires — as enemies, while also ending with Mario fighting against an alien. Super Mario Land grounds itself in some semblance of reality, then twists it further than the other Super Mario Bros. games ever did. Super Mario Land knows it’s a weird game, and seems to revel in it. 

By 2-3, it’s made quite clear that Super Mario Land is not trying to emulate the original Super Mario Bros. formula. As Mario pilots a submarine in a shoot-’em-up stage, Super Mario Land drops all pretense. The Game Boy wasn’t the mini-NES; it was the Game Boy, and it had its own distinct style, Mario included. That said, while the shoot-’em-up elements certainly helped solidify Super Mario Land’s style, it was also the biggest risk Nintendo took with the game. Redefining Mario’s image is one thing, but his gameplay? 

The shoot-’em-up stages more or less serve as Land’s water stage equivalent, albeit with a key distinction. Where water stages were meant to be pace breakers, the shoot-’em-up sections are just as involved as traditional platforming stages. Since both also double as boss stages, the difficulty curve can’t afford to dip downwards to make up for the new gimmick. On paper, this is a disaster waiting to happen; in execution, 2-3 and 4-3 stand out as some of the best levels in the game. 

Land may try to stray the course when it comes to presentation, but the level design is right on par in terms of quality with the previous Super Mario Bros. games, if not better than both renditions of Super Mario Bros. 2. The developers clearly didn’t see the shorter play time as a weakness. Super Mario Land is only home to 12 levels, but they’re all tightly designed around Mario’s new control scheme. In the shift to the Game Boy, Mario’s mobility had been limited. 

No longer could he jump as fluidly; he comes to hard stops, and has an almost sharp slide to his traction when landing. However, though controlling Mario was going to be fundamentally different between consoles, it didn’t need to be a problem. Rather than simply accepting Mario’s stiffer movement and hoping for the best, Nintendo R&D1 understood the need to alter the series’ level design conventions towards Super Mario Land’s gameplay strengths. Platforms in Land are closer together than they’ve ever been, but they’re structured as such out of necessity. 

More importantly, the closer platforms allow stages to move at a brisker, more dynamic pace. Even with the Game Boy’s small screen, the tight platforms keep everything important visible on screen at all times. Mario is constantly running and jumping, often needing to hop ever so slightly to navigate stages properly and quickly. Multiple stages also make use of in-level branching paths — a relative rarity for the series at the time. This not only keeps the replay value high, but gives stages an added level of depth that some fans might not have expected from a handheld title at the time. 

Of course, being an early Game Boy game, Super Mario Land is victim to the limitations of early Game Boy development, particularly when it comes to length. Even with its new game plus hard mode, Super Mario Land is a very short game, and needlessly so at that; it would have benefited from one or two more worlds. By the time the game is over, it feels as though the experience has just begun. 

Which in a way it has. Super Mario Land’s length is going to be a disappointment the first time around, but it’s a game that demands replayability and mastery. Levels aren’t particularly long, and the shoot-’em-up stages actually do help the game from becoming repetitive. It’s an easy game to pick up, play a few stages, and then put down. All the while, players are familiarizing themselves with the game, gradually getting better. It’s very arcade-like in a sense, and that’s ultimately what the Game Boy was going for with its launch titles. 

Game Boy games weren’t meant to be played just once and then be put down. The Game Boy was a system that players should want to come back to. Super Mario Land’s short length ensures that players will want to come back, if only to get a little bit of Mario in. Super Mario Land would be immediately outclassed by its direct sequel, but it’s still a Mario game worth playing today, and an important piece of the series’ legacy. It was the first Mario title developed without Shigeru Miyamoto’s involvement, and took the series in an incredibly unique direction. Where Nintendo could have played it safe with the Game Boy’s launch, Super Mario Land stands out as a testament to the benefits of taking an established property in an unconventional directional. 

It’s also important in and of itself that Super Mario Land wasn’t developed by the series’ creator. This was the first chance for the Mario formula to be looked at with truly fresh eyes. Nintendo R&D1 could have attempted for an exact recreation, and given how successfully they pulled off Super Mario Land, it might just have worked, but it would have resulted in a blander game. The Game Boy didn’t need an NES Mario — it needed a Game Boy Mario. It’s not ideal that Super Mario Land is so stiff and short, but it’s not a weakness of the game either. 

Not only would Super Mario Land 2 improve upon its predecessor, but it would better conform itself to the series’ mechanical norms. While this was absolutely the right direction to go in, it doesn’t invalidate Super Mario Land or make it lesser. Super Mario Land had more at stake — it was a game built on new, limited hardware — but it was just the launch title the Game Boy needed on April 21, 1989.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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1 Comment

  1. The Truth

    August 20, 2019 at 10:54 am

    I remember when gameboy launched with tetris included with the gameboy. Some of us bought Super Mario Land, I still remember to this day, I could not find a single person that liked it. I tried to trade it for another gameboy game with tons of peoplr, but nobody wanted it, they all knew how terrible Super Mario Land was. So to the author of this article, put down that crack pipe, it’s making you dellusional.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

“[Earthnight is] an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Death Stranding’

What makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year is how it has managed to divide gamers and critics alike.

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Death Stranding

2019 has been a banner year for gaming. With some excellent original properties making their debuts and a ton of great sequels, there’s been something for everyone and a lot of it. Still, with all of these amazing games to play, only one of them stands out as the most important game of 2019, and that’s Death Stranding.

Now, please note, I said “most important” and not “best”. Death Stranding is far from a perfect game. As my own review pointed out, Death Stranding has a lot of problems, and some of them are so egregious that they could be described as anti-fun. However, what makes the game stand out from its peers is the sheer scale and awe-inspiring hubris of its creation.

For the first (and possibly last) time, Hideo Kojima has been given a total carte blanche of creative freedom and financial resources to make whatever game he wanted. With Sony footing the bill, Death Stranding is maybe the most Kojima game ever made. Unfortunately, like some prog rockers and experimental filmmakers, Kojima could have well done with some reigning in this time around.

Death Stranding

Still, what makes Death Stranding stand out so much from the competition is that it really is almost nothing like anything you’ve ever played. The game is basically a delivery sim where you must cross an apocalyptic wasteland of America and battle a bunch of ghosts along the way. What caused America to fall, and where these ghosts came from, is still relatively unclear even after all of the overwrought explanations that punctuate the end of the game.

Of course, Death Stranding isn’t so much concerned with why and how these events came to be as it is with the experience of living in, and dealing with, them. This is the one game you’ll play this year that will balance out self-serious moral and religious philosophy with chucking literal piss bombs at ghosts and chugging Monster energy drinks.

Yes, Death Stranding has all of the classic Kojima staples. From egregious product placement to a never-ending stream of increasingly tragic backstories, all the hits are here.

Death Stranding

However, what makes Death Stranding the most important game of the year isn’t so much its utter weirdness as a AAA title but how it has divided gamers and critics alike. While some have slathered it with never-ending praise and perfect scores, others have labeled it “a very lumpy game” or “damaged goods“.

Few games, especially in the AAA space, are able to elicit such divergent responses from their audience. Fewer still are peppered with major actors like Norman Reedus and Lea Seydoux in painstakingly rendered motion capture. For these reasons and more, Death Stranding will be debated in critical circles for years to come, and if that’s not the mark of a game that stands out, then nothing is.

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