Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Mario franchise is that Nintendo refuses to evolve the formula beyond what made it so captivating in 1985 with the release of Super Mario Bros. And while I largely agree with that criticism, there are also obvious benefits to sticking with what you know. It has been Nintendo’s calling card from the beginning, even as they continue to innovate within the console space which, most recently, has led to outlandish success.
With that in mind, Super Mario Land is a testament to what can happen when you try to alter the formula of what works. While it’s still a Mario game at its core, complete with goomba smooshing, coin collecting, and brick punching, it also finds Mario tangling with a weird alien rather than the iconic Bowser, flying around in space in bullet hell-esque sequences, and perhaps most damningly, not adhering to his standard mechanics. While Super Mario Land is still a good game, some of these key deviations, coupled with the game’s brevity, leave it significantly underwhelming in the world’s most famous plumber’s lexicon.
I’ll start with the positives. While Super Mario Land looks like it could run on a calculator, it was a legitimate marvel for its time capable of delivering a bite-sized Mario experience on Nintendo’s first handheld device at launch. This, coupled with the original Game Boy’s runaway success, makes Super Mario Land surprisingly one of Nintendo’s best-selling games ever. With over 18 million copies sold, Super Mario Land is currently Nintendo’s 24th best-selling game ever, putting it ahead of incredibly popular titles like Mario Kart 8, Pokemon Yellow, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Super Mario Galaxy, and perhaps most surprisingly, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And for what it is, Super Mario Land is a surprisingly rewarding experience. The difficulty ramps up on a satisfying curve, the music is incredibly endearing, and I enjoyed the game’s two bullet-hell sequences that take the place of the annoying underwater levels of Mario’s older (and newer) 2D adventures. But for die-hard Mario fans, there are several key differences that make Super Mario Land a near sacrilegious atrocity.
Chief among these aberrations are Super Mario Land’s altered mechanics. Mario falls way, way faster in Super Mario Land than he ever has before or since and the shell-sporting koopas now explode upon death creating some likely unintentional one-off difficulty spikes. In addition, Mario’s fire flower balls now bounce off surfaces not unlike bouncy balls rather than fire balls and new balls can only be fired once the previously fired one has left the screen. As a whole, the game simply lacks the bouncy charm that made Mario famous. This didn’t bother me that much, but others may find it crippling.
My biggest problem with Super Mario Land is its length. While I’m all for short games, Super Mario Land can be completed in a matter of minutes, making it without a doubt the shortest main series Mario title. While the difficulty (and lack of save features) make beating the game somewhat difficult, I’ve only beaten a handful of Mario games and I only saw the game over screen twice before beating the final boss. It’s difficult for a game of this scope to leave a lasting impact, especially considering the other games in this series.
Overall, while Super Mario Land is far from a bad game, it’s equally far from the top of the Super Mario heap. Quite often, it’s considered the black sheep of the Mario franchise and it’s not hard to see why. Though it is a fun diversion, Super Mario Land is probably the last Mario game you should play.