If you beat Super Mario World, and I mean really beat it, you are rewarded with a palette-swapped version of the game world. Colors are inverted, and certain sprites are changed in strange ways. Koopa Troopas, for instance, transform into walking Mario heads. The effect is entirely superficial but nonetheless striking. Had you not spent dozens of hours beating every single level, you might not recognize this world as the Mushroom Kingdom. You’re still playing a Mario game, but not really. When I unlocked this strangely colored Mario World as a kid, I felt vaguely weirded out – a feeling, I’m sure, that was intentional.
Fast forward 20 years after Mario World, and I find myself feeling the same way about Mario’s first Game Boy adventures: Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2. But now, that unsettling feeling is surely a mistake. I find all of the familiar trappings – the overalls, the jumping, the goombas, so many little things I recognize. But at the same time, these don’t feel like Mario games, even though they obviously are. Everything is wrong: sometimes superficially, sometimes subtly, and sometimes fundamentally. This isn’t Mario. This isn’t even Luigi.
Right away, the movement feels wrong. Mario’s slippery, satisfying inertia has been integral to his appeal since the original arcade classic Mario Bros. Tim Rogers describes it well: “Mario was supposed to feel like a person wearing roller skates with tighter-than-usual wheels.” In Super Mario Land, Mario turns on a dime. He feels jerky and insubstantial. Super Mario Land 2 is little better. But perhaps this is unfair, as Mario has starred in many games where he moves differently than we expect. He has in fact starred in games which weren’t even Mario games to begin with. And who’s to say that Mario wouldn’t be improved by revamped controls? (Michel Ancel certainly thinks so.)
Perhaps something could be said of the Game Boy-era black and white graphics. After all, the Mario Lands are almost sole exceptions to a series defined by a colorful palette of Overalls Blue and Warp Pipe Green and Goomba Brown. Visually, it’s impossible to tell that you’ve picked up a Fire Flower in Super Mario Land (technically, a “Superball Flower”); and in Super Mario Land 2, Mario’s super-cool white overalls are replaced with a far less cool feather. But not even this seems important. I found Super Mario Land’s chunky pixel art quite charming, if anything.
No, the problem with the Mario Lands is not a summary of specific issues. The problem lies at a more basic level, as if the games were created by someone who just didn’t “get” Mario, someone who had to have it explained like a joke gone over their head. To me, nothing reveals this so much as the creeping, disconcerting presence of the real world.
Mario has always existed in a fantasy land of Nintendo’s creation. There are rarely direct references to the world we know, and the Mushroom Kingdom bears only a faint resemblance to Earth. (Though Super Mario Land takes place in “Sarasa Land,” and Mario Land 2 in, uh, Mario Land.) Super Mario Land edges uncomfortably close to reality with clear allusions: the opening desert world includes pyramids, sphinxes, and hieroglyphics. Another world clearly references the Moai of Easter Island. Many of the game’s monsters are drawn directly from real world or mythological sources, such as the Suu (spider) or the Pionpi (hopping vampire). Mario even takes advantage of modern machinery, operating an airplane and submarine in Gradius-esque shoot-em-up levels which feel unfaithful to the Mario experience (even if they’re kind of fun).
The first Mario Land, while unusually referential for a Mario game, is short, with only 12 stages; and the graphics, while cute, are too lo-fi and undeveloped to establish any strong visual design. It would be hard to argue this game alone represents some utter betrayal of the Mario series. We might even forgive the first Mario Land for being tonally inconsistent. Released in 1989, Mario Land had only a few previous games to draw from – some of which have since grown obscure (the original Mario Bros.) and others which would only later be recognized as seminal (Super Mario Bros. 3, released merely five months prior). And, it must be said, Shigeru Miyamoto had no documented role in the development of either Mario Land or its sequel.
Super Mario Land 2, however, is more thoroughly and (I can only assume) deliberately mundane. Given that the game was released in 1992, at a point well past Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, the game’s designers must have made a conscious choice to explore the familiar “Mario Land” instead of the more exotic Mushroom Kingdom. The effect on the player is just that. The playful fantasy of the Mario series is lost.
Miyamoto has told variations on the cave story a few times over the years, in order to emphasize the extent to which he was surrounded by nature, as a child, and also to claim his youthful explorations as a source of his aptitude and enthusiasm for inventing and designing video games. The cave has become a misty but indispensable part of his legend, to Miyamoto what the cherry tree was to George Washington, or what LSD is to Steve Jobs.
But early on, Miyamoto must have made the decision to divorce the Mushroom Kingdom from planet Earth. The Mario games are not merely fantastic, but pure fantasy; not Hogwarts, but Middle-earth. Chain Chomps may evoke the same sense of childhood dread as a snapping dog, but it would miss the point to call Chain Chomps a mere metaphor – a point, it seems, lost on the designers of the Mario Lands. Despite high sales, Mario disappeared from handheld consoles for 14 years (from 2D platformers entirely, in fact, excluding Yoshi’s Island). The Mario Land franchise would not be revived for 19 years until Super Mario 3D Land.
The single most enduring element of the Mario Land series is Wario, the villain of Mario Land 2. The bizarro reflection of Mario spun off into his own extensive series of games which have almost nothing to do with traditional Mario titles. Wario is defined by his bulk, his brute strength, and his greed. In Super Mario Land 2, he puts the people of Mario Land under a spell because he is jealous of Mario’s popularity. This premise, paper-thin as it is, is a fitting introduction to the character. Wario seems a natural evolution of the Mario Lands – a false image from a different creator, a character in cap and overalls who resembles Mario in every way except the ways that matter.