The void is a beautiful thing. The more I engage in the humdrum regularities of life’s to-ing, fro-ing and woeing as I tarry inexorably into the complex realms of adulthood, the stronger the allure of a few moments of vacuous bliss transpires to become. It’s not a bad thing; I’m still a complicated person. I’m a multi-tiered blood-cake of fears, joys and intolerances, and I’d imagine you are too. Unless you’re reading this as an absolutely new born baby, in which case, kudos.
But there’s a value to be had in simplicity, and for my platformer-mechanised thumbs, none hit the mark quite like Super Mario Land.
It’s difficult to imagine the game’s release, just because it depicted a still rather adolescent Mario. The ‘Mario IP’ wasn’t really set in stone yet, allowing Nintendo to try on a few different hats (relevant reference intended) before settling with the now-prolific, peppy plumber. He even pursues Princess Daisy here, rather than his regular beloved, Peach.
In that way, you could play Super Mario Land without it really feeling like a Mario game, and as such, the adventure feels as fresh to me now as it did upon my first encounter with its mustachioed protagonist.
This was one of the only Mario games not produced by Shigeru Miyamoto. That title instead rested with his mentor, Gunpei Yokoi. Manager of Nintendo’s oldest developer – R&D 1 – and daddy of the D-Pad, a possible reason for Super Mario Land’s enduring freshness was Yokoi’s technological perspective. He approached Mario Land’s production aiming to use dying technology in a creative way, and perhaps as a result, there’s still an incredible youth to Mario’s monochromatic exploits today.
Of course, simple platforming and sidescrolling formed the game’s core. But with inspiration drawn from arcade shooter Gradius, Super Mario Land implemented different styles in the form of two scrolling shooter levels, switching up the difficulty to mark crucial narrative moments. Mario also left his weighty fireballs at home, instead able to propel powerballs that could bounce off of scenery to attack enemies and collect coins (if you angled yourself correctly).
More than a mere gimmick, Yokoi introduced an elegance to level progression that had never been seen before, allowing an alternation between platforming and puzzling so fluid it made speedrunning delicious. On top of that, racking up extra lives by collecting coins eased the tension caused by the inability to save-game.
Super Mario Bros. had you stomping about repetitive Mushroom Kingdoms, needling the same cheery blue sky and vibrant pipework time and again. And that was okay; I never played Super Mario Bros. for the ground-breaking visuals. But if Bros.’s world was Vanilla, Super Mario Land’s was Neapolitan.
In terms of visual capacity, NES trumped Game Boy, but even considering the portable’s algae-coloured limitations, Super Mario Land offered greater variety, flair and humour than Bros. had, often through world design alone. Mario sprinted through ancient Egypt, China, even Atlantis; taking on pharaoh Lions, aquatic overlords and sentient Moai statues. An undersea robotic invasion even joined the opposing roster. A far cry from the Goomba/Koopa ubiquity.
Although for me, Mario had always been about hopping about coin-gathering like a capitalistic rabbit (Rabbid, even), Super Mario Land’s many realms made it an adventure. The odyssey was incredibly potent within the game’s ancient depictions, and as such, they communicated a powerful sense of plot without thrusting a narrative in the player’s face.
When I finally reached Daisy (that is, the Daisy that doesn’t experience some Kafka-esque transmogrification), it didn’t just feel like a victory because the levels were challenging. It was a victory because I’d travelled all these mystical lands of odd beasts to reach her. Old romanticism doesn’t always die hard.
Super Mario Land stood as a lesson in minimalism when the Game Boy first launched, and it still stands as one today, even if its mother console has retreated into antiquity. This simplistic platforming odyssey integrated mystical locations with a charming sense of humour, communicating a wibbly-wobbly narrative whose meaning could be shaped by the player. It broke conventions, and it’s one of the weirdest, boldest and most beguiling Mario games because of it.
If there’s anything I wish I hadn’t received from Super Mario Land, however, it’s my inescapable paranoia that women I like will irreversibly turn into locust beasts. Of course, before I realise that that isn’t a feasible thing that can happen.
That’s not a feasible thing that can happen, is it?