How a fresh take on a classic formula resulted an aesthetically unforgettable game.
If you're the type who watches a lot of sporting events, you've undoubtedly heard commentators speak about the underappreciated "intangibles"--those all-important but largely unnoticed contributing factors that you'll never see listed on a game's statistical documentation. Their impact on the game is left unmentioned because it's difficult to give substantive value to those elements that don't fit into the neatly defined categories (number of shots taken, runs allowed, passes completed) and box scores that have been traditionally accepted as the complete story of Team A's victory over Team B.
It's the same thing with video games: A long time ago, a group of like-minded magazine writers got together and decided that a game's worth only stretches as far as the cumulative total of its graphics, sound, controls and gameplay, and games have been scored strictly by that standard ever since. That's certainly how I thought it should be; for about the first two-thirds of my life, I was a firm believer in the accuracy of numerical-ratings systems. It's only as I've gotten older and gained more respect for the medium that I've become wary of adhering to the systematic appraisal of video games, since I've found that mechanically judging the merits of games, as I've done so often in my Castlevania reviews, has only worked to rob me of the ability to tell you how I really feel about them and what they mean to me, which is something so immeasurably important that I had to start an entire blog about it. Lucky you.
I'm telling you this now because it's most relevant when I'm talking about Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, which is a game for which I have a strong appreciation even though I don't consider it anything close to a masterwork. Super Mario Land 2, for all of the intangible victories it achieved, is a title I associate with some of my best gaming memories, but you probably wouldn't have known that had I instead settled for simply assigning it numbers.
Really, it came out of nowhere. No foreshadowing. No teases. No nothing. As I browsed through the issue, I was caught off guard and pretty much shocked when its name unceremoniously appeared in the Pak Watch section as a "Bright Idea." Now, the preview was nothing more than a blurb with two accompanying images, yet what little they'd presented me combined to paint an incredible picture: Super Mario Land 2 wasn't going to be your average iterative sequel; oh, no--it was going to see a huge boost in presentation that promised to put it on the level of the 16-bit Super Mario World! "Can the Game Boy really do that?!" I wondered.
But those two images didn't appear to be a deception: The game indeed looked uncannily similar to Super Mario World, which I thought was amazing considering how bad Super Mario Land looked in comparison to its most proximate inspiration (Super Mario Bros.).
Super Mario Land 2 was the talk of the neighborhood for months, and friend and schoolmate alike couldn't wait to see more of it. It was one of those games that compelled us to run to our mailboxes every afternoon in hope that Nintendo Power would be there waiting for us with information on Super Mario Land 2, ready to provide even a tantalizingly minor detail, as if no other game mattered. I was as excited as anyone to learn more, but all I really desired was confirmation that it could meet the graphical standard as boasted about in that preview.
If I had any doubts, Volume 42 finally arrived and cleared them away, illustrating in satisfying detail the game's scaled-up character sprites, its large Super Mario World-like map, and graphical design that was convincingly close to what I'd seen in Mario's 16-bit adventure. "How is this possible?" I wondered, still exhibiting that same habit of underestimating the little gray wonder-brick. It also explained the game's plot, spotlighting the new arch-villain Wario--an evil Mario doppelganger who was intent on making the plumber's life hell. It was revealed that Wario had seized Mario's castle while he was off rescuing Daisy in Sarasaland and had otherwise created all kinds of mischief, including the casting of a mind-control spell over Mario Land's citizens.
There was apparently some kind of jealousy-based backstory between the two (though, I don't remember where I gleaned this information), which I found a little off-putting; I never liked it when a character's history had to be revised to accommodate a story element conveniently created for one particular episode. Wario at first struck me as an unimaginative villain, a threadbare recoloring of Mario that existed only because someone thought it was clever that you could flip the letter M upside-down to make a W. Though, I had to admit that I was kind of won over by Wario after seeing him in that classic Super Mario Land 2 commercial ("Obey Wario! Destroy Mario!"), where his zany personality and cartoonish mannerisms shined through to render a genuinely interesting antagonist.
For one thing, that commercial was another example of the off-the-charts hype Nintendo had become great at manufacturing when it came to the company's Mario brand. Seeing it only served as more reinforcement for my belief that Super Mario Land 2 was a no-brainer purchase. After all--I wasn't about to disobey our pal in yellow. No--I needed this game.
At the time, I, like most kids, was on a Mario high. It had been close to three years since the release of the unforgettable Super Mario Bros. 3, but its flame hadn't withered one bit, and it continued to dominate the psyches of the neighborhood kids who were still fervently returning to Mario's magnum opus and reliving what never ceased being a magical experience. Also, the marvelous showpiece Super Mario World arrived in our homes alongside the SNES and demonstrated for us what gaming's greatest icon could be when afforded the power of next-generation hardware. Even then, there were constant arguments as to which was better, the only agreement being that they were both outstanding games featuring Mario in his top form. Me? I absolutely adored both games and constructed all of my video-game-themed art projects (like my previously discussed Superbooks) around the two.
For that three-year period, Mario owned a big part of my soul. So if you were to show me a game that looked just like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, I'd consider it the most viable thing on the planet. Super Mario Land 2 definitely fit that criterion, so it earned itself top billing on my Christmas list for 1992 (the game's actual release was in late November, but I never minded waiting an extra month if it meant saving $40. Because I'm cheap. Deal with it).
Now, I unfortunately don't remember any specific details about my first beginning-to-end experience with Super Mario Land 2, but I do recall what were my immediate impressions of its graphical and technical achievements: For one, I couldn't get over how closely it resembled its console counterparts not just in look but also in the way it played; particularly, the idea of being able to pull off Super Mario World's "advanced" block-breaking spin-jump in a Game Boy game seemed unreal, as if the product of some newly learned programming sorcery (mind you, I still perceived the Game Boy to be a less-powerful NES). "This kind of stuff isn't supposed to be possible in a portable game!" was an accurate summation of my thoughts.
Though, there also existed this strange disconnect for which I couldn't find words; that is, while Super Mario Land 2's presentation reminded me a lot of Mario's graphically evolved console adventures (with a few obvious concessions like more-limited background detail, sprite limitations, and the color deficiency that required the donning of feather to denote Mario's possession of a Fire Flower), something about its personality felt wholly disparate to me, its emotional resonance unique amongst not just the console titles but also the previous Super Mario Land. I couldn't put my finger on why that was: "Is it the monochrome color-scheme? The weird imagery (pickle-shaped foliage, angry-faced mountains)? The tone of the music? A combination of these elements?" It would be more than a decade before I could come up with a satisfactory explanation.
But it was most striking to me that Super Mario Land 2 didn't even feel spirtually connected to its direct prequel, Super Mario Land, which also had aesthetic peculiarities but otherwise stuck closely to the classic formula. No--Super Mario Land 2 wanted to be its own beast: It had no points system, mowing down Goombas with Koopa Trooper shells more a space-clearing exercise. You accumulated coins not to earn extra lives directly but to instead gamble at a slot-machine minigame. You had an enemy meter that tallied your victims and doled out Invincibility Stars whenever it reached 100. The rebounding superballs were gone, replaced by the more-traditional bouncing fireballs. And even the Star's Can-Can theme was done away with in favor of one that was more crescendoing in nature.
Also, the game's premise, while interesting, seemed strangely anti-Mario: He suddenly has his own castle on his own private island as decorated with his own lifelike monuments? When did Mario, thought to be a selfless, humble hero, adopt such a huge ego? Who built the Mario Zone and those commemorative statues? Is any of this canon? This was the kind of stuff worth wondering about back then, and I liked trying to piece together how Mario went from living in a Brooklyn apartment building to operating from a quaint little mushroom house (as per The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!) to being the king of his own castle. This was a time when the Mario universe still had an air of mystery to it, and I'd often dream up potential links between games and provide them written form in my Superbooks. Of course, we know now that there is no real continuity--each game representing an isolated space in time--but that doesn't change anything in retrospect. No--I don't regret spending all of that time imagining how it all fit together.
These feelings of separation colored every aspect of the game, Super Mario Land 2 sometimes feeling more like a glimpse into an alternate dimension where familiarity only felt mundane. Take the enemies, for instance: Even established foes like Goombas, Koopa Troopers and Boos, while they looked the part, had certain physical characteristics that made them feel somehow alien to a world that was proximate for those in which they originated. The same was true for returning Super Mario Land foes like the exploding Nokobon, whose fleeting appearance seemed more about creating a loose connection to the previous game than providing an interesting foe. I was overjoyed that they brought back Tatanga, Super Mario Land's main villain, but even his appearance felt more like an artist's weird interpretation than a big return.
Or maybe it was that recurring series enemies simply seemed out of place among Mario Land's unique inhabitants, which included goatfish, giant ants, vampires, sentient umbrellas, wooden soldiers, boxing sharks, ninja cyclopes, and hockey-masked goons made to recall images of Jason Voorhees. Hell--walking mushrooms, man-eating plants, and flying fish were downright normal in comparison.
Save for the unique tunes heard on the menu, map, and ending screens, Super Mario Land 2 only had one real theme, remixed again and again to fit the tone of whichever area Mario was visiting. If he was out in the beaming overworld, it started out with a bang, boisteriously welcoming him to a new stage and never relenting its mission to invigorate. If he was in a fantastical setting, it was minimalist yet ambient, a hot beat and a few strings of notes leaving more than enough space for imagination. If it was a haunted house or a graveyard, it was unsettling and rattly. On the moon? Wistful and whimsical. By the sea? Aquatic. I found this approach to music fascinating because I'd never been exposed to a game whose entire soundtrack was composed using variations of a single piece. I'm sure some people might have seen it as lazy recycling, but I thought it was a great lesson in the versatility of music and the game's most defining element.
More than the console-like graphics, the whacky premise, and the oddball characters, it was this wondrous theme that stood out to me and most resonated during the two decades in following. In fact, I don't know that any other song has ever worked to so strongly shape both a Mario game and my memories of it. I consider the it to be the game's biggest differentiator and the main source of my emotional attachment to it. I'll never forget how that song goes, in any of its fine forms.
Of course, there was also a little matter of the actual gameplay, which wasn't secondary no matter how far I stray from talking about it. Really, I was blown away by how Super Mario Land 2 played and the sheer quality of it. I thought it controlled well and convincingly replicated the style of Super Mario World despite the more-limited input. It had that big open-world map (surrounded by animated water, which was one of my favorite atmospheric touches in games) that I could explore at my leisure, invited to take on the game's challenges in any order I saw fit, which was quite the departure from the previous games' linearity. There were six attractively designed "zones," each with its own unique visual theme, which I thought went a lot farther than World's rather rather-indistinguishable maps. Everything about how it played communicated to me that it was helping to push the portable to the next level, much the same way those notable second-phase NES games, with their amazing graphics and larger scopes, elevated that console to new heights. It was basically the Game Boy's Super Mario Bros. 3, and it, too, was delivering on its promise.
If any of Super Mario Land 2's flaws had become evident, it was only after I'd played it exhaustively over the first year. It had some issues, yeah, but I wouldn't even call them "shortcomings" as much as I would, appropriately, "oddities": There were, for instance, too many stages that I would describe as "unchallenging exercises," bereft of any real obstacles and largely empty. This was true for just about all of the secret stages, which in addition were overly long, too simple in design, and existed only the purpose of accruing coins. There was also this lone scrolling stage on the map's left side that didn't seem to unlock anything in particular, and none of us could ever figure out why it was there (it apparently counts toward your completion rate, if nothing else).
I sometimes got the sense that the development team was throwing ideas at the wall without any regard for conventionality or common sense--that they'd thrown the rulebook out the window and were doing whatever the hell they wanted, game design be damned. Now, my realizing as much was a factor in my dwindling opinion of Super Mario Land 2--which I could no longer consider on par with Super Mario Bros. 3, at least in terms of gameplay--but in a weird way its creators' total disregard for the rules was another aspect that helped set the game apart. Well, at least in my mind, since I tend to see the positives in everything.
The closest thing to a real game-breaker was the prevalence of the new Bunny Mario power-up, earned by procuring carrots; it functioned much like Racoon/Tankooki Suit when used to float downward, only with ten-times the effectiveness. There were an abundance of instances where it allowed me to basically float over entire stages without ever having to interact with the enemies or the stage itself, as if not many of them were designed with Mario's newest ability in mind. I of course liked the Bunny Mario power-up for how it operated and had a lot of fun putting it to use, but there came a point when I made up my mind to completely spurn it so that I could have an excuse to fully explore the stages and at least create the illusion of difficulty.
Oh, there were some difficult portions (like the scrolling moon stage with its maze of electrified stars, and the submerged hidden route in that one Turtle Zone stage), but the majority of it was a cakewalk. The bosses, too, were pathetically easy, all of them of the jump-on-'em-three-times variety but without suitable recovery time, which allowed for the player to string together three successive hits and finish them off before they could even initiate their offense. The only real challenge was the final stage, Wario's castle, which saw a ridiculous difficulty spike out of nowhere; it was long, deviously designed, and mostly about high-precision jumps--the type of challenges that would routinely cost me twenty-plus lives. If it wasn't constantly done in by my shaky attempts to board those tiny propeller platforms, then my final breath came at the hands ("mustaches"?) of those annoying late-stage minibosses--three sets of Wario-faced rebounding balls faced in considerably cramped rooms; even when I performed well against them, they were always sure to at least relieve me of my cherished power-up.
Regardless of its undeniable "oddities," Super Mario Land 2 had a way supplying me a feel-good gaming experience whenever I needed it, lending a sense of cheer to any monotonous care ride and imbuing the day in following with positive vibes. It became a reliable "road game" and one of the greatest companions a kid could ever have. In fact, for the majority of my Game Boy-playing life, it was the go-to road game, there for me during any of those 150-mile-long trips to the usual New Jersey and Long Island destinations. Whether I finished it before or after reaching exit 100, it was always customary to soak in its ending theme (though it wasn't nearly as touching at the original's) for an additional five-ten minutes or at least until we reached the next toll booth (I didn't want the cashier to hear what I was playing!).
While it was a mainstay with me for the next 4 years, Super Mario Land 2 slowly disappeared from my life for the expected reasons: (1) I was playing less and less of the Game Boy as its release-schedule began to wind down, and (2) the N64 arrived on the scene and started demanding all of my attention. Also, Super Mario Land 2, while still an object of fascination to me, didn't have the staying power of others in its class; I can't articulate why this was, but I just didn't feel like playing through it anymore (less traveling with my parents might have had something to do with it). Outside of some early experimentation with Game Boy emulators, I didn't see it again until downloading it on the 3DS Virtual Console three years ago when I was on a buying frenzy. And yet, though it was tangibly absent from my life for over 16 years, I never once forgot how it made me feel or how I so obsessed over its aesthetic idiosyncrasies.
I'd since figured out why Super Mario Land 2 felt so different, and the answer was right there in the credits, to which the younger me never paid too close attention unless I was trying to pronounce the names and demonstrate my "convincing" Japanese accent. It turned out that the Super Mario Land games were created by Gunpei Yokoi and friends (the famed R&D1 development team), who were also the driving force behind the Metroid series, through which they'd proven themselves to be masters of creating functionally unique worlds that had the quality of being able to connect with you on an emotional level. With that knowledge, I no longer had to wonder why Super Mario Land 2 resonated so strongly with me.
To this day, scattered images of Super Mario Land 2 still occupy my brain. I associate it not only with its wonderful music but also other memorably distinctive touches, like those specimen-containing bottles in the Pumpkin Zone. The Mario Zone, whose innards featured a clock tower, a giant playroom, and an area made entirely from Legos (well, Nintendo's knockoff N&B blocks, to which Super Mario Land 2's creators pay tribute here). The insides of a toothy whale with its many hanging uvulas and sticky digestive fluids. The conquering Wario seen marching about the castle's rooftop, unaffected by your presence. And the Space Zone secret stage whose unlocking entails a change on the map itself--a smiling moon that now looks up angrily at the stage-representing comet that crashed into its head; then it proceeds to look all sad when you clear the stage, perhaps realizing that the wound is permanent. Poor guy.
Now, I don't know that I'm ever going to go back and play Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins more than a handful of times, but I can say with absolute certainty that its sights and sounds will forever remain embedded in my memory. To me, it will be forever married to those classic Game Boy aesthetics while standing as one of the greatest examples of the divergent contributions of the much-missed Gunpei Yokoi. For however much my opinion on the game has changed over the years, I still think it's worth playing for those reasons alone.
And savor it well, I say. I mean, I doubt we're ever again going see anything like it come from Miyamoto and his crew, who if they're listening could stand to learn one important lesson: Sometimes turning the world upside-down is a good thing.