Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Traveling through the uncanny valley to Super Mario Land

at 6:10 PM
WOW Super Mario Land is weird. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, the least legitimate-feeling legitimate Mario title I've ever played. Mario Paint and Mario's Time Machine feel more in league with the rest of the franchise. I've played (I... think?) every other Mario platformer ever made (haven't picked up 3D Land or New SMB Wii U yet, but will); Land just happened to be the last classic I got around to. So turns out it goes a little like this:

What the hell is this? Do I even need to add a comment? Thing is, I've played Super Mario Land 2, and it is NOT this. Land 2 has got its own idiosyncrasies, but was clearly shaped from the mold of Super Mario World. Now I know why it's the only Game Boy Mario anyone mentions. Really, Super Mario Land 2 is not a sequel to Super Mario Land. Silly me for making that assumption. I realize Land was released in 1989 when the series was still pretty hot of the presses, but it's still post-Super Mario Bros. 3 - you can't say the series conventions hadn't been set in stone. 

Set in stone like those ramblin' Moai men chasin' down a grayscale rendition of the original SMB Mario sprite. Am I witnessing Mario vacationing in Gradius? That might help to explain the bombshell that is the UFO parked at the beginning of 2-1 - has Mario always been traveling by UFO? I don't remember that from the other games; then again, nothing precluded it. Except, you know, this whole thing called sanity. And don't come at me with "you could see the UFO in the background of various earlier stages, so obviously Mario stole it / was abducted", because that doesn't exactly ground the scenario. Ohhhh, Mario stole the UFO and flew it to Gradius. K. Still, this is just general silliness acceptable in a series as inherently fantastical as Mario, even if it does feel a little more Super Show than Super Mario Bros. Even the submarine and airplane scrolling shooter levels feel acceptably experimental, if a bit hackneyed (throwing shmup levels into a platformer was about as unique at the time as throwing a turret segment into an FPS today).

Anyway, Mario has been transplanted into foreign settings before - Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) was based on a completely different game! But - and I don't think this can be ascribed to the fact that I first played 2 when I was 5 - Shy Guys and Beezos and Crowfoots don't feel all that different from Goombas, Koopers, and Bazingos. It can't be the foreign elements of Super Mario Land that make it so strange; no, in fact, it's the familiar elements. Everything in the game is almost recognizable, but rendered with some unnecessary twist that makes it outright bizarre. It's a classic song played in the wrong key. And on recorder. 

The first half of the game's familiarity comes from its, ahem, "real-world" settings. Mario starts at the pyramids and makes his way through Bonefish Grill, the above-depicted Easter Island, and, of course, Japan - cringe/laugh-inducingly introduced with the Asian Theme Song. It's not that Mario hasn't dropped by a pyramid before, but here they're littered with traditional Egyptian iconography and he fights sphinxes. It's clearly meant to be Egypt, not just a fantasy Mushroom/Turtle world based on nondescript imagery like castles and pipes. Completely distanced from reality, the sillier trappings of the Super Mario Bros.' Mushroom Kingdom whiz by without a hiccup like any children's cartoon. But when Mario is stomping a winged Moai into a pancake, then that pancake waits a second before flipping off the screen with an alien whir, I feel like I'm watching Superjail or something.

The more unsettling half-familiarity comes from the traditional Mario elements. Many note that this is the first Mario game not to have relied on Shigeru Miyamoto's input, being produced instead by the legendary Gunpei Yokoi. Yokoi is grounded in the routine: as always, Mario spends Super Mario Land busting blocks, collecting 1UPs, shooting flower-powered projectiles, and bopping Koopas on the head. Yet these activities are each rendered with a bizarre twist: as never before or again, the blocks are half Mario's width, 1UPs are represented by hearts, fireballs bounce around at 45 degree angles like billiard balls, and stomping Koopas TRANSFORMS THEM INTO BOMBS! A more subtle but genuinely awkward change is the removal of the "powering up/down" gameplay freeze that occurs when Mario grabs a mushroom or takes damage in every other series entry.

Okay, so the first change I can understand. The developers wanted a large, identifiable Mario sprite, but they also didn't want to lose screen real-estate, so they scaled down everything but Mario. This mitigates the cramped feeling of other Game Boy transfers like Mega Man: Dr. Wily's Revenge and Metroid 2, but leaves Mario feeling like Gulliver on a visit to Lilliput. Even weirder is the choice to stick with the ultra-flat original Super Mario Bros. sprite, which, at twice the size and half the detail, doesn't mesh with his environment at all. Far more detailed (and humanoid) Mario sprites had already been introduced by Super Mario Bros. 2 & 3, so it's a bit of a mystery why they weren't chosen. The rest of the changes are just nonsense. They're Yokoi saying "let's make this game different" while changing the most trivial things possible. The Bomb-Koopas come across the weirdest, though I imagine they were driven by a reluctance or inability to reproduce the complex Shell Physics engine of the previous games.

The thing is, the game isn't bad by any means. None of this actually plays to its disadvantage beyond an initial culture shock, and in fact the game's only outright flaws are sloppy physics, poorly implemented checkpoints, and the extremely low difficulty and short length. So I can - and do - fully recommend it to any Mario fan, just to experience the weirdest trip Mario ever took. But get it for free like I did. No - I didn't emulate it, you asshole! I would never do that! YOU FUCKING ASSHOLE! How dare you?! I got it as a prize for being a Gold Member of Club Nintendo. Nerd.


  1. I always assumed that the Bombshell Koopas/Nokobons were introduced to avoid physics happening, like you said. From there, you don't have to go far to conclude that fireballs are superballs for the same reason; they don't have gravity, they just fly off in 90 degree angles.

    I don't think I ever understood when superballs bounce off of coins and when they don't, but it's been a while.

    Also, I'm wondering if you noticed the high jump. As Big Mario, crouch, then jump and press forward. He'll have a different jumping sprite to represent the high jump.

    1. Programming restrictions or not, does phrasing it as "Mario without physics" *really* make it a saner game? If you're technically incapable of bouncing fireballs and pinballing Koopa shells, DON'T HAVE FIRE FLOWERS AND KOOPAS! It totally fucks with players expectations to go halfway like that. It woulda been less disorienting just to make Bob-ombs the new main enemy. "There's no need to reinvent the Koopa" (that's what they say in Mushroom Kingdom instead of our reinvent/wheel idiom. Why IN the Mushroom Kingdom would they be inventing Koopas though? Doesn't make a lot of sense).

      It kinda reminds me of that period during the '90s when every scifi or action movie had to have some dumbass CGI. If you don't have the budget for a real space helicopter, cut the goddamn space helicopter out of the screenplay! Putting in a PS1-graphics representation does no one any good.

      Yes I *am* talking about Escape from LA. Come on John, have some dignity.