Review by Tom Clark
Easy like a Sunday Morning....
When the first Super Mario Land appeared alongside Nintendo's Game Boy, it was quite successful, due in large to it being a really rather good platformer. As such, it can't have surprised anyone when Ninty announced a sequel called, in a shock move, Super Mario Land 2. What probably would have surprised all the portable gamers out there - had they known at the time - was that this game is still to this day the last original Mario platform game to come out on a Nintendo handheld system - everything since has either been a port, or has starred a certain other fat and hairy dungaree-wearer.... One who makes his debut here, conveniently.
You'd think that Mario would be allowed some time off after saving Sarasaland from the evil alien horde, led by the villainous Tatanga, in the first Super Mario Land. All the poor chap wants to do now is go home, put his feet up, relax a little bit - maybe take a nice long candlelit bubble-bath. But alas - that bottle of Mr. Matey must wait, as a hero's work is never done. Mario returns home to his castle (yeah, Mario has a castle now, by the way....), only to find out that a shady lookalike named Wario has, well, stolen it (the castle, not the bubble bath). Now in order to reclaim his humble abode, Mario must hunt down the six golden coins that will open the castle door, and confront the sinister Wario.....
As with the previous Super Mario Land title, this game boasts a plot that feels very different to the usual Mario fare. Luigi, Toad and Bowser are all absent again, and when Wario began his sinister squatting scheme he didn't even bother to steal the Princess at the same time as he took Mario's crib (she must have been in another castle....). It would have been awfully easy for Nintendo to simply build on the foundations that they had built in the previous title here - Tatanga could easily have just gone postal in Sarasaland again (after all, Bowser often returned to his simple 'kidnap the Princess and watch the ensuing mayhem' ''plan''....), so it's really refreshing to see that the developers managed to pull a plot out that is different enough to it's predecessor in order to give Super Mario Land 2 it's own identity, while still retaining that 'sequel' feel - for all intents and purposes the plot here is a direct continuation of that in the previous game, despite having so little in common with it (a Tatanga doppelgänger appears as a boss in the game, but other than that Mario himself is the only returning character).
The plot in this game is mostly overshadowed nowadays by the new character introduced within it, however. Wario has gone on to become as much a part of Mario lore as Toad, Luigi and co., and since in his subsequent appearances he has usually been a playable character, it's easy to forget that he starts off as an out and out villain - indeed, images of his figure wandering the battlements of the castle, silhouetted by lightning on a rain-soaked night imply that Nintendo actually intended to make him out to appear out and out scary. They don't really fulfil this intention, to be honest, but while Wario can't compete with the likes of the ghostly babies from Silent Hill in the creepyness stakes, he is still quite notably different to the mean-spirited by ultimately loveable chap seen in later games, and he proves a worthwhile adversary here.
It's not just in terms of plot that this game differs from the first Super Mario Land, though - the gameplay has undergone a minor overhaul, too. Taking it's cue from the brain-burstingly fantastic Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES, the various 'Worlds' on display here are now viewed from an overhead map screen, through which you progress. However, unlike other Mario games before it, you can choose to visit these six worlds in whatever order you wish (once you've cleared a simple introductory stage). At the end of each world is a boss, naturally, and defeating each boss grants you access to one of the titular Golden Coins (an interesting question - Wario has locked himself in the castle, and spread the six Golden Coins throughout the land. And yet you need the Coins to open the castle door. How the Holy Harry Potter did he get in there in order to lock himself in after he scattered the Coins?? Not that I spend my time wondering about such little plot holes.... honest....). With all six coins gathered, you return to your castle to evict the person who's been eating your porridge, breaking your seats and quite probably sleeping in your bed.
The worlds that you'll visit are much more diverse than in the previous effort, too. There is a water based world, and a plant based world, the inclusion of which completes the legal requirements that need to be met by all platform games nowadays, but then there are the more bizarre locations - Mario gets shrunk to tiny proportions to investigate a pleasant-looking cottage (where he gets into a muddle with the ant population, amongst others), he explores a downright Halloween-y area, complete with pumpkin fields and a witch's house, he battles the three little pigs inside a giant mechanical statue of himself (no, really), and he even ventures into outer space! It's this variety that makes Super Mario Land 2 such a joy to play: many of the locations have never been revisited since by our plumber chum, which really gives this game a fresh feel, even today.
The novel locations aren't just for aesthetic purposes, either - the diverse surroundings are integral to the very design of the levels. The Space levels, for example, feature lowered gravity, which makes jumping a long and slow process. Of the two levels set in the stars, one requires you to use this enhanced jumping in a more traditional platform stage, while the other requires you to control your zero-g movements with total precision as you navigate a scrolling, obstacle-filled course. Meanwhile, the shrunken levels see you clambering over books and other such seemingly small items, before pitting you face to furry face with an angry mouse (who is now, of course, bigger than you are). It's this type of attention to detail that truly makes Super Mario Land 2 stand out amongst it's platform peers - the level design is just superb.
Not only that, but there's enough to keep you occupied between the levels now. As with the previous entry, you exit the stages through various doors. Somewhere above the exit door is a bell. Bopping this bell grants you access to various mini-games, where you endeavour to earn yourself various power-ups, from the not-to-useful, such as fire-flowers, which grant the ability to shoot fireballs, or carrots (which are new to this game, and grant you temporary flight in a similar vein to the racoon leaves in Mario 3 on the NES), to the more worthwhile power-ups such as five (!) extra lives. These mini-games are quite simplistic, taking the form of crane games like the ones you still find in cheap seafront arcades today (the games where you guide the crane in a bid to pick up a crap soft toy), or a rather random game where you must stop various moving electrical sparks and such at the right time to allow a clear path to the power-ups. But these games aren't the only diversion on offer here - there's a cave accessible from the world map from which you can elect to spend a certain amount of your coinage in order to win a mystery item (the more you spend, the better your gift), for example, or there's always the hidden stages to find. These stages are accessed by locating other doors in the main levels, and tend to contain all manner of goodies. What's more, many of them are truly difficult to locate. This adds a lot of replay to the levels (which can be re-entered at any time), as you try to make sure you really have been everywhere that you can go. Unfortunately, this hunt for extra areas is one of the only things about this game that will cause you any effort whatsoever. Because now we come to the huge flaw with Super Mario Land 2 - it's easier than a doped up and drunken hooker who's in the mood.
Due mostly, I expect, to the fact that you can visit the stages in whatever order you wish, this game simply does not have a learning curve. Every one of the six stages is a breeze to play through, unfortunately. Power-ups are in plentiful supply, and there are far too many extra lives dotted around the place. And what's worse, the power-ups stay in the same place every time you re-enter the stage, so that even if you are running low, you can just go to a stage that you have already cleared and play it over and over until you a well and truly stocked up again. And if this wasn't enough, Nintendo have the audacity to actually include an 'Easy' mode, just in case you can't cope with the regular setting! Admittedly, once you reach the Castle itself, and head for your final showdown with Wario things toughen up considerably - it's obvious that this will be your last level, so Nintendo don't have to worry about what order you're playing the levels in any more. Unfortunately, this feels like too little too late, and you can't help but wonder whether Nintendo would have been better off including a 'hard' mode, as opposed to the laughably irrelevant 'easy' one... It's a real shame, as it genuinely does drag down what could otherwise have been one of the best platform games ever to emerge from Nintendo Towers.
Graphically, too, this game is a revelation compared to it's predecessor. In the few years before this game and the first the boffins at Nintendo clearly found out how to maximise the potential of the little grey brick that we all know and, indeed, love, and it really does show. The all round tiny feel has been replaced by a more satisfying 'chunky' look - all the sprites are big and bold, and simply ooze character from the little monochrome screen. Every enemy that you face - from the standard and iconic Goombas to the boss figures that wait for you at the end of each world - has been given huge attention to detail: you can see the mean-looking fangs of the sharks that swim through the sunken submarine; you can see the distress on the face of the giant bird every time you sit your fat arse down on his head - it's all been lovingly created, and the difference between this game and the last (which was by no means bad looking in itself) is simply astounding. The levels, too, look fantastic - the spooky zone looks suitably dark and daunting, the underwater levels appear quite close and claustrophobic, and the shrunken levels boast a great number of lovely little details that remind you that you really are smaller than an ant now. The only real let down is the fact that the Space levels both have the same bland and dark background. It's understandable, I suppose, given the setting, but after the fine visuals seen in some of the other levels you can't help but think that a little more effort could have gone in.
Musically, though, this game suffers a little in comparison with the previous Mario game. Although on a technical level the music has advanced quite nicely since the little fella paid your Game Boy a visit, the tunes just aren't as memorable this time round. They're still good, some are even great - such as the Castle level: a very tense and dramatic tune, that really sets the scene and makes you realise that you are nearing the end of your quest - it's just that there's not as many tunes here that you find yourself humming months after your last time playing the game (and those that you do aren't as instantly placeable as those in the first Mario game). A pity really, as drawing first class music from the tiny little speaker on offer is something of a Nintendo trademark.
Ultimately, this is still a very good game. It has plenty of variety - one stage will see you floating around in side a giant bubble, one may see you catching a ride off of a friendly owl, while another will see you venturing in to a belly of a giant whale - and the level design is utterly fantastic. It's just such a pity that it has been marred by such a lack of difficulty. The inclusion of a harder difficulty setting really would have made this a strong contender for best platform game on the Game Boy, but as it is we are left with a very good, but very easy game. Perhaps one day Mario himself will come back to the Game Boy screens with an all-new platform adventure (we can only hope - the last two Wario games have failed to live up to their forerunners), but until that day, this game serves as a more than adequate farewell.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
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