Retro Review: Super Mario Land

Super Mario Land is an interesting entry in the Game Boy library. Like many early Game Boy games, it has relatively simple graphics. But unlike many games that came after it, including the rest of the Mario Land series, it uses very tiny sprites. Other games used NES-sized sprites, resulting in a smaller play area, but Super Mario Land’s play area is essentially the same size as the home console Mario games.

The result of using such tiny sprites is that this game just feels weird. In many cases you’re better off avoiding enemies if you can, due to the precision needed to jump on top of them. The play control Mario is so known for is not nearly as crisp here as on the NES, causing the game to feel almost like a cheap knock-off. Even the B-button run is dangerous to use very often since your normal speed is already so fast. And the super balls, which replace fire balls, are just strange.

Controls and graphics aside, Super Mario Land is a pretty decent platformer. It’s short, but its 12 levels are actually a lot by Game Boy standards of the time. It even features two shoot ’em up-style levels and a few stage themes we rarely see in Mario games. The levels do suffer a bit from obviously repeated sections, no doubt implemented to save on memory.

Super Mario Land may be the least Mario-feeling game in the series, with everything feeling just a little bit off. The tiny sprites make it unattractive and somewhat difficult to play, but it’s still enjoyable enough after you get used to the controls. And it did introduce us to Mario sports mainstay Daisy, so it has historical significance. So there’s that!

Review Score: C+

Retro Review: Super Mario Bros. 2

As pretty much everyone knows by now, the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 started out as an entirely different game in Japan. Nonetheless, it has become a classic entry in the Mario series, adding many elements to the canon including Shyguys and the skillset of the four playable characters. And while it is a major departure from the first Super Mario Bros., it is a very good game in its own right.

The only major play mechanic in SMB2 that has any basis in its predecessor is that you can jump on enemies. However, instead of defeating them, you can simply ride on top of them, or pick them up and throw them at one another. The most jarring change between games are that there are no blocks to distribute items or coins; instead, all items are pulled from the ground like vegetables (and many of the items are vegetables).

SMB2 has relatively few levels, only 20 spread over 7 worlds (compared to SMB1’s 32 levels over 8 worlds). Warps are available, but they are fairly well-hidden and don’t take you very far. If you’re going to complete this game, you will actually have to play most of it. Like many games of its time, you get two continues before a final game over.

One of the defining features of the game is the ability to choose from four different characters. This is not just an aesthetic choice, as each character has specific strengths and weaknesses. Luigi, for instance, is very slow to pick things up, but he jumps incredibly high and can often skip large parts of levels as a result. The princess famously can float, which can be very helpful when trying to make a precision landing. SMB2’s play control is a little looser than its predecessor, and landing on a single block can be problematic, so this is quite helpful.

The game gets excellent mileage out of its core mechanics of carrying items and riding enemies. You’ll find yourself building stacks of blocks to jump off of, jumping between flying birds acting as platforms, and being chased while carrying keys from screen to screen. Most stages end with a recurring boss who spits eggs that you need to jump on (while in motion), grab, and throw back at them. It surprises me that we haven’t seen more of this sort of thing.  The world bosses in particular can be a lot of fun, offering a number of variations on basic combat.

Also of note is the use of “subspace.” You will find potions that create doors (for some reason) that lead to a mirror image of the world. This has two purposes: it’s how you increase your life bar in each stage, and it gives you chances for 1UPs after completing the stage. The game is actually pretty stingy with 1UPs, with no points or collectables, so this is your primary method of getting more lives. Unfortunately, how many you gain is based on the whims of a slot machine. Still, the subspace mechanic is interesting because you’ll want to try to figure out where the life increasing mushroom is hidden, but you need to balance that with finding coins for extra life chances.

Not all of SMB2’s mechanics are as well-considered as these, unfortunately. There are a number of incidental powerups that tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. For instance, once you defeat a certain number of enemies, a heart will float up on a random part of the screen. This heart restores life, but quite frequently it will appear somewhere you can’t reach, such as within a wall. Invincibility stars have a similar issue, though they appear more predictably. These flaws are minor but can be frustrating when you’re down to your last hit or last life.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for Super Mario Bros. 2 is that even though it’s wildly different from every other game in the Super Mario series, it feels like it belongs. At its core, this is still a solid platforming game. It has some wild mechanics but it’s challenging and a whole lot of fun.

Review Score: B+

Retro Review: Super Mario Bros.

Super Mario Bros. is a true classic, the prototypical game of the entire platforming genre. Even today, it still feels great to play, which is a testament to just how well it was made.

The core of Super Mario Bros. lies in its play control.  Mario is extremely agile, able to make precision jumps that openly defy real-world physics. You can bend a jump around blocks above you, change momentum in mid-air, and more. You can even use jumps to affect your running momentum. It’s somewhat hard to comment on play control that feels so good, until you play other platformers of the time (or even today!) and notice that they aren’t quite right.

In many ways, this game seems to be a contradicton. The 32 levels don’t really have that much variety: the only level type that plays much differently from the others is underwater, and there are only two stages of that type. Still, it makes good use of its limited palette of level types (day, night, underground, castle) to keep things from getting too repetitive, and even adds in a few very unique stages such as the puzzle-based castles. At the same time, some of the later stages are the same as earlier stages but with smaller platforms and maybe off-screen Bullet Bills firing.

Perhaps the most famous feature of Super Mario Bros. are the warp zones. In a way they are also the most problematic part of the game. Most are so easy to access that it almost feels silly not to use them, leaving worlds 5-7 woefully underplayed.  Completing all 32 stages in order, especially without using the continue cheat, is quite the challenge, though. Even by NES standards your lives/continues situation is pretty unforgiving, though unlike in many of SMB’s contemporaries, 1UPs are not that hard to come by.

Indeed, the game balance of Super Mario Bros. is almost as finely-tuned as the play control. Aside from the old Koopa Troopa-on-a-staircase trick, if you’re in it for the long haul you’re going to want to search out every hidden area and every coin you can just for the extra lives. There are enough to get you by without building up to ridiculous amounts, but some tricky jumps and Hammer Bros. in the later levels can go through your stock if you’re not careful.

Super Mario Bros. isn’t the greatest game ever, but especially for its time, it is a masterpiece. There’s a reason this was the pack-in game for the NES. The game can be a bit repetitive, but it’s not overly long, and it lacks any significant flaws. It holds up as a solid platformer, even by today’s standards.

Review Score: A−