Super Mario Land was the big release for Game Boy’s launch – the can’t-fail hit designed to move systems by the million right as the world was caught in Mario Mania’s peak thrall – and that makes it a fascinating game on several levels.
Thank the maker
For starters, unlike Game Boy’s other launch titles, there’s no ambiguity about who was behind this particular project. When you complete the game, you’re treated to a full staff roll. Because we’re talking about the olden days of six-man game development teams, it’s not exactly a huge list of people – Super Mario Land has more “special thanks” credits than core dev credits. But you can see immediately that unlike the other launch games, Intelligent Systems had nothing to do with Mario. Strangely, though, neither did Shigeru Miyamoto’s EAD team, the folks behind the Mario games for NES.
If you scope the game’s credits via MobyGames, you’ll find that not a single person who had worked on EAD’s Mario titles contributed to Super Mario Land. Not only that, but several Mario Land team members had no game credits prior to Super Mario Land… though that doesn’t necessarily mean they were complete newcomers to the business. More likely they had worked anonymously on games that either lacked public-facing credits or else had served in a support role on other internal projects.
This has led some people to think of Super Mario Land as an impostor, some bootleg fake masquerading as a “real” Mario game, but no; nothing could be further from the truth. Look more closely at some of the game’s key staff and it becomes clear that they were Mario veterans, even if they didn’t contribute to Super Mario Bros. and its sequels. Specifically:
That’s a sizable portion of the Super Mario Land team with a claim to having taken part in the Mario legacy before Super Mario Bros. set the tone and direction for the franchise.
Remember that in Nintendo’s arcade days, there were no software development divisions; everything was simply Research & Development 1. Nintendo’s EAD (Entertainment Analysis & Development) group – specifically created for key creative leads Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka – came into being in 1983, around the time of the Famicom’s launch in Japan. EAD would create several of the medium’s definitive works like The Legend of Zelda and, of course, Super Mario Bros. Before Mario went Super, though, R&D1 continued to create and contribute to Famicom and arcade games featuring the character despite the EAD and Miyamoto having split off.
In that sense, Super Mario Land represented several Mario veterans returning to a franchise to which they had a personal stake, but whose nature had changed radically in the five years since their last contribution to the series. That’s OK, though; R&D1 had defined itself quite nicely in the interim as well, becoming the home of Nintendo’s more experimental designers. If EAD and Miyamoto were all about polish and impeccable design, R&D1 was about throwing any and everything to the wall and creating surprising, if not always entirely refined, results.
Super Mario Land embodies that difference in temperament. It’s definitely not the work of the people who made Super Mario Bros. 3. The physics aren’t quite right, the enemies and settings are unlike those of any other Mario game, and it incorporates mechanics that appear nowhere else in the Mario games. Two of the game’s 12 stages play out as side-scrolling shooters, for crying out loud. By while it may not have the ring of pure authenticity, it really is a masterful little game.
Unlike the other Game Boy launch titles, Super Mario Land requires no excuses. This is not a game that was only sort-of fun for a limited window of time a quarter-century ago. It plays well today, even if it does come in a bit on the short and easy side of things. While Baseball and Alleyway stood out strictly by virtue of existing – wow, handheld video games! – Super Mario Land can give a good percentage of NES platformers from 1985-1989 a run for their money. Is it as vast, polished, and brilliant as Super Mario Bros. 3? Well, no. But then again, what in 1989 was? Super Mario Land disappoints only when you hold it side-by-side with what may be the single greatest 8-bit game ever made; by that standard, every game of the era was a letdown. If Super Mario Land is a poor game, you might as well burn the whole thing to the ground.
Speaking of Super Mario Bros. 3, another curiosity of Super Mario Land‘s timing (borne of the vagaries of international releases in the 8-bit era) comes from the very different place it took in Mario’s Japanese chronology versus in the U.S.
In Japan, Super Mario Land simply followed on the heels of the NES Mario trilogy: Super Mario Bros. debuted in 1985, its sequel (known in the U.S. as The Lost Levels) in 1986, and Super Mario Bros. 3 arrived late in 1988. To Japanese fans, Mario’s evolution had been a straightforward one, with play mechanics descended directly from Super Mario Bros.
In America, however, the timeline split after Super Mario Bros. arrived in 1985 as part of the test market launch for the shiny new NES. Our Super Mario Bros. 2 was a sprite hack of an game totally unrelated to Mario (Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic), and launched late in 1988 – about half a year before Super Mario Land arrived in the U.S. alongside the Game Boy. Meanwhile, Super Mario Bros. 3 wouldn’t arrive in the West until 1990, nearly a year after Super Mario Land. We didn’t even get Fred Savage’s 90-minute Super Mario Bros. 3 preview/commercial The Wizard until half a year after Game Boy debuted. So the American Mario experience was a chimerical and unpredictable one, with the direct linear style of Super Mario Bros. giving way to the surreal free-running of the impostor Super Mario Bros. 2.
What makes Super Mario Land so interesting is that it worked as a logical extension of both heritages. Maybe it felt slightly odd for Japanese gamers, and technically represented a step or two backward from Super Mario Bros. 3, but it definitely worked as a continuation of the linear, athletic Mario tradition seen in the Famicom trilogy. In America, though, Mario was all about changing the rules from one game to another, and Super Mario Land did that, too. It wound the clock back to take on a more linear feel akin to Super Mario Bros., yes, but all the rules were different. Enemies behaved differently, as did weapons. And the Egyptian/Easter Island feel of Sarasaland didn’t feel so out of keeping with Super Mario Bros. 2 and its Arabian Nights motif. Despite how differently Mario’s history unfolded in America and Japan, Super Mario Land slotted into mid-1989 quite neatly.
The legitimate heir
Over and above all other considerations, Super Mario Land feels like a full-on Mario game. At 12 stages long, it’s admittedly shorter than any other entry in the series – only the American Super Mario Bros. 2 compares, at 20 stages… though those stages were larger and beefier and Super Mario Land‘s. In terms of content, design, and feel, however, it feels totally legit. Dozens of Mario imitators burst into being in the wake of the phenomenal success of Super Mario Bros., and most of them felt like shoddy, off-brand bootlegs. Despite some minor physics and control quibbles, though, this was no slapdash effort. The fact that it worked so well on the tiny, limited Game Boy made its authenticity even more impressive.
Structurally, Super Mario Land mimics the general feel of the NES games in a more compact form, presenting you with four worlds to conquer, each containing three levels apiece. Every world offers a different theme – Egyptian, tropical, Easter Island, and China – and there’s a curious alien motif running through the adventure. Mario evidently travels by UFO to get from world to world, and the final boss, Tatanga, attacks by means of his own space ship.
Unlike “real” Mario games, Mario Land takes place in the kingdom of Sarasaland, whose ruler Princess Daisy has been kidnapped. And, yeah, every time you beat one of the first three bosses, it turns out you’ve rescued a creature masquerading as Daisy with dark magic. It plays an awful lot like the original Super Mario Bros. in a lot of ways, in other words.
But then you start paying attention to the little details. The fire flower has been replaced with a completely different kind of flower that gives you the ability to throw a bouncing “Super Ball” that rebounds around the screen for several seconds rather than simply skipping along the ground straight ahead of you. Koopa Troopas are replaced by Nokobons, turtles who respond to being stepped on by exploding. Bullet Bill blasters behave like Piranha Plants, emerging from pipes to take shots at you when you least expect it. 1UP Mushrooms have vanished entirely, replaced with little hearts that serve the same purpose. And at the end of each stage, you can take an alternate exit to reach in a bonus mini game that can net you as many as three lives.
And then there are the new enemies. The bad guys in Super Mario Land demonstrate much variety – thematic variety at that – than in standard Mario titles. Thuggish Moai heads run toward you in the Easter Island-themed levels; indestructible kyonshi hop after you in the China-like regions. There are giant hairy spiders that feel more like they should be in a Castlevania game than Mario… but then there the Fighter Flies, critters from Mario Bros. that never made their way into Miyamoto’s Mario universe.
Inexplicably, Nintendo of America didn’t bother localizing enemy names for the U.S. Even standard, familiar Mario foes keep their Japanese names here – Piranha Plants, for example, are listed as “Pakkun Flower” in the manual. Not even the variants on old favorites get Americanized monikers. You’d think they could have come up with interesting puns for Chibibos (midget Goombas) and Nokobons (exploding Koopa Troopas), but no. Instead of making the production seem cut-rate, though, these localization choices (or non-choices) just make Sarasaland feel all the more bizarre.
Thankfully, Mario Land doesn’t cut corners where it counts; not only are controls surprisingly on-point given the scaled-down production, the levels display smart design as well. You’ll find hidden blocks in the places where your Mario instincts tell you they should be. Power-ups in later levels often force you to make classic risk-reward choices, potentially placing you in immediate danger if you chase after them recklessly. The routes to the bonus games at the end of each stage become increasingly tricky to navigate. Enemies appear in challenging but never unfair locations.
But of course, that’s to be expected. Even if this wasn’t a Miyamoto/EAD production, it was hardly amateur hour. Mario Land is the work of veteran game designers, and while Okada and his team may have brought their own distinct temperament to this game (which would eventually mutate through sequels and spin-offs into the marvelously bizarre WarioWare, Inc. and Rhythm Heaven), they also brought experience and expertise to the table. Mario Land represents a different take on Mario, to be sure, yet it’s absolutely a valid take – and an entertaining one.
Perhaps no feature of the game better represents Mario Land‘s willingness to do and be its own thing than the mechanical shift in stages 2-3 and 4-3. For those levels, the game turns into a side-scrolling shooter as Mario takes to a submarine and then an airplane. Though these levels aren’t exactly hardcore bullet hell (in fact they’re quite simple and limited), they’re a fun change of pace that hearkens back to Mario’s early days in the arcade, when he was a malleable everyman rather than a mascot dropping by to sell unrelated games with desultory cameos. The final battle even takes the form of a shootout with two consecutive bosses rather than forcing you to take on Tatanga with platforming alone. And that, I think, is the key to Super Mario Land‘s success; yes, it feels dated compared to the wonders of Super Mario Bros. 3, but it’s not primitive. Rather, it’s primal. It calls back to Mario’s origins, offering a holistic take on the character in a compact handheld form.
And despite being handheld, coming on the heels of primitive LCD games and launching alongside barely enjoyable blips of entertainment like Alleyway and Baseball, it feels fully realized. Colorize the game and scale up the graphics and it would have been one of the best NES platformers of the system’s middle life. Quality shines through regardless of tech, and Super Mario Land has quality to spare. Again, it’s only in comparison to the NES Mario games and its own direct sequels that it feels relatively lackluster. But in 1989? This was the Sistine Chapel of handheld games, and it set a high bar of quality that few games would come close to matching throughout Game Boy’s first year of existence.
Japanese title: Super Mario Land • スーパーマリオランド
Developer: Nintendo R&D1
Release date: 4.21.1989 [JP] | 8.1989* [US] | 9.28.1990 [EU]
Genre: Action (platformer)
Super Game Boy: Enhanced color palette (built into Super Game Boy)
Previous in series: Super Mario Bros. 3 [NES, 1988 [JP] 1990 [US]]
Next in series: Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins 
Similar titles: Kirby’s Dream Land [HAL/Nintendo, 1992], Donkey Kong [Nintendo, 1994], Donkey Kong Land [Rare/Nintendo, 1995]
*Specific launch date unavailable; available online newspaper archives from 1989 do not contain a specific news story marking the debut of Game Boy, and articles on the system variously cite its U.S. debut as anything from “summer” to “September.”
Super Mario Land packaging [U.S.]
Super Mario Land box front [U.S.]
Super Mario Land box back [U.S.]
Super Mario Land packaging contents [U.S.]
Super Mario Land cartridge [U.S.]
Super Mario Land manual [U.S.]
Super Mario Land packaging [Japan] — This was the first Mario game ever to feature the original Japanese action diorama cover art on the U.S. packaging.
Super Mario Land box front [Japan]
Super Mario Land package contents [Japan]
Super Mario Land box back [Japan]
Super Mario Land cartridge [Japan]
Super Mario Land manual [Japan]