Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Super Mario Land - One for the Road
How Mario's miniaturized adventure helped sell me on the Game Boy and made it a permanent fixture in my life.

I was a kid with very narrow tastes. I only watched sitcoms and action-adventure series liked The A-Team, Airwolf and V. I'd always order the same thing at any diner we visited (a bowl of soup with either a bacon burger or chicken in the basket). I wasn't keen on trying out any game unless it was from the usual three genres (action, platforming or puzzle). I knew what I liked and was content to subsist on such forever. One of the best examples of my willingly oblivious behavior in practice was my relationship with Nintendo Power, whose 116-page-plus pages I'd skim through only with the intent of locating games and subjects in which I had a predisposed interest, which usually meant missing or ignoring 75% of the magazine's actual content.

I have to continuously bill my past self as oblivious, because if not I'd had no other explanation for how I originally spurned so many great games and even prized treasures like the Game Boy, of which I was barely aware despite it being plastered all over the magazine for more than a year! I didn't acknowledge the Game Boy, I didn't read about it, and I certainly knew that I had I had no interest in it. As far as I was concerned, from what little I'd gleaned about it, there was no place in my home for some battery-powered, black-and-white-displaying, dumbed-down NES. "Hmph," I'd say at the very image of the Game Boy before quickly flipping over to a Double Dragon preview or Classified Information.

So I was a bit nonplussed when on Christmas of 1990 I woke up to find a Game Boy under our tree. I mean, I was sure I never asked for one, so why did my parents buy it for me? I wondered, then, how they were even aware of its existence (of course, it was still the hot toy at the time, and holiday-focused parents are always up on such trends). You could conclude from evidence that the expression I ultimately settled upon was "I didn't want this!", but it was instead more along the lines of a hesitant "I'm not sure about this one, guys." Yet I wasn't at all mad or angry. In fact, my feelings rapidly evolved: As the process of opening the box and removing the system from its wrapping unfolded, my cynicism started to fade as I was instead overcome with a sense of excitement; no sooner was I holding the system in my hands that I was struck with the revelation of just how cool this "console-in-your-pocket" concept truly was.

What made the whole event more exciting was the number of games I was generously given access to. There was the humble pack-in Tetris, The Amazing Spider-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan, and a little titled called Super Mario Land.


After all the gift-unwrapping had been done and my parents retired upstairs to prepare for the day-long activities ahead, I decided to test drive the Game Boy right there in our living room, which had a mirrored wall, blue carpeting, and a similarly azure-colored corner couch that wrapped around and decorated its left side (I have great nostalgia for my childhood abode and the unique atmosphere each room created). I had a little trouble seeing the screen, since the living room was the house's only light-less room and relied on its large shaded window for refracted radiance during the daytime hours, but I was able to squirm about and find positions that offered the desired clarity.

Of course, I immediately gravitated toward Super Mario Land, which was the most familiar property, yet I was little confused by the contents of its box art, which had Mario fleeing from a whole bunch of strange-looking creatures including a sphinx, a robed demon, a winged rock, and a space ship piloted by what looked like a cat; also, likenesses of Mario, too, could be seen elsewhere piloting both a plane and a submarine. "This is still about breaking blocks with your head and shooting things with fireballs, right?" I silently questioned. The box art, alone, created this weird vibe separate from the one I most associated with the console games, as if something was amiss.

My initial sampling of Super Mario Land took a quick shift from comforting to jarring. It was obviously styled after the original Super Mario Bros., aiming to duplicate its basic look and capture its sense of simplicity, but every other aesthetic worked aggressively to create a contrasting tone. You could still squash what looked like Goombas and go down certain pipes, but fireballs were now rebounding off surfaces indefinitely while Koopa Trooper stand-ins were exploding post-stomp! There were Bullet Bill-like projectiles flying through the air, but they were instead being propelled by cannons that were emerging from pipes. There were giant flies and spear-carrying bees. The classic Starman music was missing completely, replaced with what--the Can-Can tune from those Shoprite commercials?

This was just weird

From gauging the first few screens I'd imagined that I was playing a stripped-down version of Super Mario Bros. but with a few eccentricities, but Super Mario Land was turning out to have its own personality and little regard for standard conventions despite its deceptively similar visual presentation. Rather than the inquisitive-sounding, classic bonus-room theme, these underground areas had a more loopy-sounding ditty. The rebounding fireballs were somehow able to collect coins! There were hidden elevator platforms, and not beanstalks, that carried you up to stages' ceiling structures. Though the setup and rules for the oncoming boss confrontation were thematically similar, it wasn't actually Bowser greeting me at the end of World 1--it was instead that large sphinx seen on the box cover! In fact, there wasn't any hint that Bowser would even appear at all. You can't swerve me like that!

Other perceptible changes were hit-and-miss: The controls at first seemed to function identically to the console games', but the most troubling platform sequences--mainly any of those that featured moving platforms--revealed them to be invariably stiff, with Mario's momentum halting the very instant I stopped pressing forward on the d-pad. Sprite-detection was difficult to figure, with Mario often taking damage for seeming non-contact; other times I seemed to pass through enemies unscathed. It felt rough around the edges compared to its well-polished progenitor.

Conversely, though it looked to share Super Mario Bros.' philosophy in terms of visual minimalism with sparsely decorated, one-color backgrounds, its backdrops were populated by all sorts of etchings and little depictions (like mountains, totem poles, bamboo, and hieroglyphic-like patterns) that were much more interesting than the former's clouds, bushes and fences. The final stage of World 2 took place underwater, but I wasn't bobbing my way around Cheep-Cheeps and foliage; no--I was in control of a submarine, just like the box art suggested! The existence of these shooting-based stages revealed Super Mario Land's intention to spurn the series' standard means of level progression and more so the obligatory boss iteration; it offered in its place unique, engaging boss battles alternating between those on land (like the tangle with that sphinx) and others ship-based (I had to use my submarine's fire to take out a projectile-spewing seahorse). 

There was also much more in the way of music, with each thoughtfully composed piece able to evoke a specific emotion from me, which I wasn't sure was intentional.

"Seriously--what's going on here? Why does this feel so different?"

I looked at the manual to try to make sense out of all of this, but the weirdness appeared to have spread to all other parts of the package. Reading through it, all I could do was wonder about things: "What's this Sarasaland, and is it even connected to the Mushroom Kingdom?" "Who's 'Daisy'?" "Why do all of the enemies, including those who are already famously labeled, have such odd names?" "Why have popular enemies like Lakitu and Buzzy Beetle been replaced by robots, spiders and dead fish?" "Did the same people even make this?" I didn't understand how these changes came about or the true nature of its creation, but I was now far more intrigued in Super Mario Land than I thought possible for a game that could have been easy for me to dismiss as a redux of something I had already played five years prior.

Super Mario Land was indeed the star of the show that day, and after capping off my first session of play with the Game Boy, I left not only strangely enamored with the game but also with the system that gave it life.

I played Super Mario Land to completion in the days ahead and came away from it with contemplatively impassioned feelings similar to those that enveloped me when I first finished Super Mario Bros., even despite Land feeling abbreviated in comparison (which was forgivable, being that the length felt right for a handheld game). I can't say that the final boss, Tatanga, was as memorable a foe as luminaries such as Bowser and Wart, nor was his battle as difficult to endure as suggested, but his was a welcome appearance in a game that demanded something as unexpected as a sky battle against a cat flying a spaceship. I couldn't have been happier with it.

From then on, I took my Game Boy and my small collection of games with me everywhere I went. There were certain caveats attached to owning a Game Boy--questions like "How am I going to carry around both the system and the games?" and "How am I going to play it in the car during the nighttime hours, since this thing isn't backlit?" So for my birthday that year, my parents bought me a host of peripherals--a combo pack that included a magnifier and a light projector, and a square, black carrying case that was advertised to hold eight games and a few accessories (by the end, I managed to stuff in about, oh, 23 games plus a link cable). For much of that early period, though, I didn't need to find space for Super Mario Land, which was otherwise glued to the system's backside.

Super Mario Land became a go-to road game, always played to completion whenever we were on a long trip, whether it was to see friends in Long Island or to visit family in New Jersey. Anytime we'd go on vacation to Atlantic City, it was always my mission to try to finish it before we reached the Exit 100 rest-stop, where we'd all meet up for lunch as supplied by the building's fast-food vendor of choice--Kenny Rogers Roasters, which at the time dominated all of those rest-stop chains.

The more I played Super Mario Land, the more I began to appreciate its divergent qualities. The piloting stages, though a startling deviation from the standard formula, were sewn in nicely and well-executed. I was never a big fan of shooters, but the Mario brand of flight-based combat was simple to grasp, enjoyable, and a nice contrast to the bullet-hell frustration of the genre's biggest offenders. I liked how the upbeat musical accompaniment gave way into the harrowing boss theme, which caused a haltingly worried shift to the action; it was another example of how Super Mario Land's exotic-sounding music separated it from its console counterparts.

I always loved World 2's initial stage theme, which I felt was the game's best piece; it always evoked within me a conflicted feeling of whimsical merriment tempered by a hint of sadness, as if Mario being here represented some special moment in time that required a combination of reminiscing and wonderment even as the action elapsed. Whenever I think about Super Mario Land, it's this particular theme that always starts playing in my head. I say this not to undercut any of its other musical pieces, most of which I also adore; I can never forget the chilling Easton Kingdom--the game's recurring cave theme--or the strikingly curious, maddeningly catchy Chai Kingdom, whose Asian flavor expertly defines everything going on in World 4 and somehow encapsulates the entire Super Mario Land experience.

I can also never forget its highly evocative, unforgettable credits theme--a simple yet powerful tune so satisfyingly punctuating that it was worth playing through Super Mario Land just to hear it. Even after the rocket ship would leave the screen and "The End" would flash, I'd usually let the credits theme play for an additional ten-plus minutes (or at least until we reached the next toll both, whose attendant I self-consciously didn't want to hear what I was doing) and lose myself in thought, letting the inspiring yet melancholy music augment the images of whatever it was I was currently thinking about. Considering the type of contrasting and conflicting emotions it extracted from me, I wasn't surprised to learn that Super Mario Land shared its composer with Metroid, whose soundtrack did much the same.

Despite originally terming its naming conventions as peculiar, I was actually glad that they chose not to fully localize the game. Not altering the Japanese names for places and enemies lent the game a "foreign" feel that further set it apart from the orthodox series titles; those were, in reality, still Goombas and Koopa Troopers I was stomping, but a simple name discrepancy made me wonder if perhaps they were oddball specimens or maybe distant cousins of these well-known foes. Strongly remembered enemies like the irrepressible Pionpi, a fearsome nemesis that hopped along the Chai Kindgom with its arms extended and could only be killed using superballs (naturally Super Mario Land's alternate designation for fireballs), further proliferated the game's foreign-feeling vibe.

Super Mario Land's atypical enemies and exotic settings made me wonder about the world beyond the game and introduced me to the idea of Japan's cultural obsession with the likes of Jiang Shis and Easter Island. World 3's backgrounds, for instance, were filled with depictions of Maui heads (which for lack of knowledge I'd call "George Washington heads"), and I wouldn't have cared to know about what they truly were had they not appeared in this game. Creating wonder about the great beyond certainly seemed to be a goal for its creators, who also infused a clear alien theme; while I gave it some thought, I could never come up with a plausible explanation as to what the deal was with those strange laddered UFOs hovering above the starting points in World 2--at least not until Jeremy Parish posited that they were Mario's mode of travel between stages. We'll never know for sure.

I managed to suck a consistent level of enjoyment out of Super Mario Land for about half a decade, first via our many road trips and then through the use of the Super Game Boy, whose chief appeal to me was being able to play games like Super Mario Land on my TV. I didn't plan to move on from it; rather, my SNES was soon phased out, eventually placed in my closet in deference to the steam-gathering N64, and my Game Boy died because I accidentally left the batteries in and they corroded, destroying the system's circuits. It's sad to say that I was cut off from Super Mario Land for years until the dawn of emulation, which just wasn't the same; I'd since become partial to portables and only yearned to recapture an experience as close to possible as the original.

I got my wish when it was released on the 3DS Virtual Console back in 2011. I downloaded it the day it was released but still felt bad about doing so, since I have a strong aversion to buying games I already own--even if I can't play them--and I thought maybe it wouldn't hold up to my memories. However, while I was certainly wary of its flaws, I enjoyed it all the same still and had a nice evening revisiting Sarasaland, which I hadn't dashed across in almost nine years; as it had in the past, it did its job to transport me to a weird, whacky world whose charm reminded me of my relished memories of the system and those classic Game Boy aesthetics that I'd under-credited as having played a part of Super Mario Land's genetic makeup.

I'm glad I got the chance to replicate the ol' routine when in the summer of 2012 I took my 3DS on the road with me to visit my dad's house. I gave Super Mario Land a run-through during sundown while in the "dining" area of his huge backyard, which is surrounded by woodland and the soft, soothing sounds of nature. To play it somewhere other than home--in a far-off location separated by hundreds of miles of road--felt oh-so right, and I look forward to doing it again sometime in the future.

When I first played it back in 1990, I knew Super Mario Land as simply a "Nintendo" property, as if every game released by the company came from one monolithic group of guys with funny names like "Miyahon" and "Ten Ten." I didn't know that there were separate development groups or that some fellow named "Yokoi" was actively making indelible imprints on me. All I knew was that Super Mario Land was a "Mario" game that held true to the series' roots but somehow felt a world apart. From that end, Gunpei Yokoi, creator of the Game Boy, and his staff of outlaws accomplished what was their knack: To deviate from the norm and create new worlds whose unconventional, thought-provoking themes served to establish long-lasting emotional connections.

The old days may be long over, but the magic of their products still lingers.

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