Hello, dear readers, and welcome to the debut installment of Gamers on the Go, an archive of handheld games, both new and old. I started GOTG as a podcast series in mid-2012, and am pleased to be expanding that coverage to a regular column for Games Are Evil.
Gamers on the Go is all about finding a new appreciation for the portable games of the past and proving that today’s handheld scene is far from dead (like some doomsayers might have you believe).
In the same fashion I began my show, I’ll begin my column exploring the oddball Super Mario Land for the Game Boy.
Super Mario Land is a traditional Mario 2D side-scrolling platformer, but in a lot of ways, it’s not a Mario game at all. It’s more like a cover version of one of your favorite songs: Very reminiscent of the thing you fell in love with, but a new group has put their own unique spin on it.
You won’t find Bowser, nor Peach for that matter. In fact, the whole Mushroom Kingdom is nowhere to be found. No fireballs, Goombas, Koopa Troopas, or Toad informing you that “our princess is in another castle” either.
That might look like a Goomba, but according to the Virtual Console port of the game, Nintendo classifies them as “Goombos”: A sub-species of the well-known enemy.
Instead, you’ll find a smattering of slightly altered facsimiles. Your archenemy is Tatanga, a small, purple alien that (with the exception of a brief appearance in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins and a single comic in the oft-forgotten Game Boy mini-series from the Nintendo Comics System) all but vanishes from the Mario universe. Princess Daisy takes the role of damsel in distress and Sarasaland, with its odd African and Eastern-inspired culture serves as the backdrop for your adventure.
You’ll travel not only by foot, but by plane and submarine too in Mario’s first ever vehicle sequences (that are surprisingly well done for simple side-scrolling shooter vignettes).
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…well actually, it is that second one.
Even the design team is made up of proxies. Producer duties went to Nintendo’s other mad genius at the time, Gunpei Yokoi (who, as the father of the Game Boy, will assuredly be brought up in many future columns) and Hirokazu “Hip” Tanaka composed the soundtrack instead of the more familiar Koji Kondo (though I challenge you to not get the Land 1-1 theme stuck in your head just as much as the Bros. one.
It’d be easy to classify Super Mario Land as a “B Team” game made by a “B Team” crew for a “B Team” console, but what makes Super Mario Land, the Game Boy, and the idea of handheld gaming itself so special is that it’s not a second stringer, it’s just another perspective: a parallel.
With the exception of maybe a few choice titles on the PlayStation Vita, handheld devices have never been able to perfectly recreate the latest console experience, and attempting that has ultimately been a fool’s errand. When portable games are at their best, they are either built with their device in mind (Pokemon, Lumines, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP), or they find a way to capitalize on the essence of a console game’s experience (Mario Tennis, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker).
(a space where I’ll hit you with extra trivia that didn’t make it into the main article):
- Nintendo was going to provide Super Mario Land as a pack-in game with the purchase of any Game Boy, but Henk Rogers, the man who secured the exclusive rights to Tetris, convinced Nintendo that the Russian puzzler would have a more mainstream appeal.
- Super Mario Land is one of two Mario games (the other being Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins) that doesn’t make use of the classic Starman theme. Instead, it uses “Galop Infernal” (also known as the song from the Can-Can) for its invincibility theme.
- In the Easton Kingdom, you’ll find statues similar to the monolithic Moai heads of Easter Island. Did you know the real life statues actually have bodies? Crazy world we live in.
- Canonically (if Mario really does have any sort of canon), during the events of Super Mario Land, Wario is in the process of taking over Mario’s castle, setting up the events of 6 Golden Coins.
- Super Mario Land is one of the least critically acclaimed Mario platformers to date despite still being extremely well revered (about a 78% on GameRankings if you put much stock into that sort of stuff).
- Even with the lower than Mario-standard reviews, Super Mario Land sold ridiculously well (over 18 million copies worldwide making it the fifth highest selling Mario platformer, outselling Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel combined).
- One of the first Virtual Console releases on the 3DS eShop, you can get Super Mario Land right now for $4.
- And unless the Virtual Console version is the one you get, be prepared to finish the game once you start it, as it’s the only Mario game without any sort of save functionality.
I hope you enjoyed this first edition of Gamers on the Go. While I have a big list of games for potential future columns, if there is a specific game you want to know more about or hear my opinions on, please post about it in the comments section.