#43: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
Designed for: Nintendo Game Boy
Developed by: Nintendo R&D 1
Published by: Nintendo
Year Released: 1992
I’m going waaaay back for this one—to my very first game system, actually! Before I got my Game Boy, the only gaming experience I had was on primitive PCs. I had almost no awareness whatsoever of the many-splendored world of Japanese consoles at that point…I had probably seen the NES somewhere, but it was all just “computer games” to me. How little I knew.
So when my parents got me the old-school gray brick Game Boy for…my birthday, maybe?—it was a real paradigm shift. Later on, I’d have a similar experience when my grandfather got me a Sega Genesis for Christmas, and if you’ve read my previous entries in the top 50, you’ve already heard a bit about how much I enjoyed that. But for the time being, it was enough just to be emancipated from boxy computer monitors planted on writing desks with high chairs in front of them.
My memory is pretty fuzzy that far back so it’s hard for me to recall exactly where and when I got most of my Game Boy games, but I’m pretty sure I got the system itself late enough in its life-cycle that I had the pick of some pretty great games right away. I managed to get both Super Mario Lands due either to my parents’ recognition of Mario or my own, which I guess is all we had to go on at that point. We had neither access to nor awareness of things like game reviews at that point, so it was a real crapshoot. We had to do our best. I think I came out alright though! I suffered some pretty subpar licensed games, but Mario’s adventures more than made up for them.
Mario’s dominance was something I was aware of at the time, too. As much as I enjoyed Batman: Return of the Joker, I think I recognized that I liked it mostly because it was Batman, not that it was that great. The two Mario games, on the other hand, were a lot more fun, and I played them constantly. I actually went through them again recently, too, and surprise! They really hold up well. It’s gratifying to know that at least some of the time, my love for these old games isn’t just nostalgia. No, Mario’s Game Boy outings are most certainly classics.
The first Super Mario Land probably juuuust missed my Top 50 list here, and it is definitely a great game in its own right, but Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins is a big step forward and easily tops it. In fact, it’s almost analogous to the difference between Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3 on the NES. Land showed that an enjoyable, well-crafted platformer was doable on a handheld, but Land 2 proved that it could be more than just serviceable.
Although it borrows some graphics and mechanics from its console counterparts (mostly Super Mario World) it’s clear from the get go that Land 2 is a different beast altogether. The game’s story takes place not in the Mushroom Kingdom, or even Sarasaland from Super Mario Land, but instead on “Mario Island” which appears to be the plumber’s base of operations and own personal kingdom. This is something that—to my knowledge—has never been explored before or since, and it gives us a rare bit of insight into Mario’s character. He’s got his own castle and everything in this place, not to mention an enormous, terrifying monument seemingly erected in his honor (more on that later). Interesting stuff—and as a bonus, I really enjoy that the title is being taken seriously to a silly degree. It really is ‘Mario Land’ this time!
The plot of the game is introduced by an equally interesting first-person note from Mario himself in the game’s manual:
While I was away crusading against the mystery alien Tatanga in Sarasa Land, an evil creep took over my castle and put the people of Mario Land under his control with a magic spell. This intruder goes by the name of Wario. He has been jealous of my popularity ever since we were boys, and has tried to steal my castle many times. It seems he has succeeded this time. Wario has scattered the 6 Golden Coins from my castle all over Mario Land. These Golden Coins are guarded by those under Wario’s spell. Without these coins, we can’t get into the castle to deal with Wario. We must collect the 6 coins, attack Wario in the castle, and save everybody!
IT’S TIME TO SET OUT ON OUR MISSION!!
It’s cool that Nintendo tips the hat to the first game here (not the only time—more on that in a bit, too) given that there usually isn’t much of a sense of continuity. That homage paid, though, they waste no time in introducing a very different sort of conflict than we’ve seen from any Mario title before. No princess to save this time, just Mario’s own castle and homeland, and this time we’re battling a true rival of Mario who harbors a personal grudge.
By now, Wario is quite recognizable and has starred in many different spin-off games and series of his own (starting with this particular game’s own sequel, Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3), but it’s cool to see his inception here. He’s introduced simply as what a corrupted Mario might look like—puffed up and exaggerated. He lords over Mario’s people and turns them and the wildlife into his evil minions. Makes you wonder what Mario Land was like before he took over, but strangely we don’t get any kind of sense of what that’s like, even after the game is over.
Fun fact: various sources in various games since have implied that Mario and Wario are cousins, and although the manual blurb doesn’t say that outright, it doesn’t seem too improbable. They’ve known each other from childhood, and they do look a lot alike. Perhaps he was originally conceived as a third Mario brother—the bad seed? I wonder how that would’ve affected poor Luigi’s sibling issues. Could Wario’s bullying be the source of his inferiority complex? I better stop here…this is getting intense…and more than a little fanfic-y. Not ok.
Anyway, another big break from the standard Mario design is the somewhat non-linear nature of the quest. From the start, you’re given the Mega Man-esque option to choose from any of the six main areas, which all have a theme. Within each area is a self-contained world map sporting around three individual levels to tackle with the occasional secret level appearing if you’ve found a hidden exit.
Despite the options available to you on the overworld, following a clockwise path from your starting position actually gives an appropriate difficulty curve, which is nice. And as a bonus, following this route will also give you a nice progression in themes from ‘somewhat normal platformer fare’ to ‘pretty ridiculous’.
There are a couple of stand out areas. “Pumpkin Zone” has a fun Halloween theme and sports some appropriately creepy enemies and areas. Jason masks with feet serve as your standard Koopa-type monster and Goomba ghosts (!) float by menacingly. Sorry I stomped you, little guys! The area map is a giant pumpkin opened up Mighty Max style with a path leading through graveyards to a Witch’s house inside a big skull, where her pilfered Golden Coin is kept. The Witch herself floats around on a broomstick outside, warning you away.
“Space Zone” is another great one. That’s right, Super Mario Galaxy was not, in fact, Mario’s first journey into space! The levels here feature less (or no) gravity and Mario is dons a funny fishbowl space helmet so he can survive in the cold nothingness. In a pleasant surprise, the boss of Space Zone is none other than Tatanga, final boss from the original Super Mario Land. Given his backstory as an alien invading Sarasaland, this is fitting, as well as an awesome shout-out. He’s still in his signature spaceship and his attacks are similar to his previous appearance, but now that he’s been demoted from big baddie, he’s quite a bit easier. Good to see him though.
And oh yeah, Space Zone has some sweet music, too.
Last and definitely weirdest is “Mario Zone”. This chain of levels takes place entirely within the aforementioned giant statue of Mario on the east coast of the island. It’s apparently some kind of automaton toy factory, but looks like an enormous, demented Mario nutcracker. You sneak inside the horrid thing by beating the first level which takes place in his right shoe, and level-by-level, you ascend through the inner workings, defeating sentient toys and navigating deadly buzzsaw traps. Curiously, the level that takes place in between Mario-bot’s legs features a lot of spherical imagery, with bouncing balls to ride and big, bubbly platforms. Coincidence? The final boss of Mario Zone is, even more bizarrely, The Three Little Pigs. Yep. You fight them one by one as they emerge from tiny versions of their respective houses (built of the accurate materials, of course) that hang from the ceiling on chains. Maybe that all means something significant to the Japanese.
Once you’ve cleared all six areas and collected the coins, you sally forth and lay siege to Mario’s own castle, which Wario has perverted to his dark tastes. The castle is all one long, single stage and it’s pretty epic. Tough, too, but the challenge is by no means cheap or impossible.
Once you reach the top and engage Wario in The Final Battle, he utilizes many of the powerups that appear throughout the game. He starts turning all your own abilities against you, reinforcing that whole ‘Dark Mario’ thing. The strategy, of course, is to stomp him silly, and it’s nice to see him continue to follow the standard Mario Brothers rules by shrinking to very non-Super size when whomped on. In the end though, it turns out he’s not that bad of a guy after all. Upon his defeat, he actually offers a tearful (if also a tad spiteful) apology, and even rewards the player with a friendly thumbs up in the end credits!
And so it goes for Wario’s first appearance. His design hasn’t really changed a ton since those days, although you can say the same about most Mario characters, I guess. We haven’t gotten a whole lot of character development for him either, although I’m pretty sure this is both the first and last time he’s ever kind of apologized for being a prick.
The game sports some really great animation, with expressive, cartoony sprites for the many enemies. This is especially true of the bosses, who have some pretty funny looks on their faces every time they take a stomp to the noggin. From time to time, the cartoon art clashes with the stoic, traditional Mario (whose sprite is yanked straight from Super Mario World), but this ends up creating a fun dichotomy between him and the enemies. It’s like good old Mario has been dropped into a stranger, goofier world than he’s used to, and he doesn’t quite jibe with it. This, in turn, works well with establishing Wario’s character as the sort of bizarrio Mario (Bizarrio?) and strengthens the conflict between them.
The music is uniformly excellent as per usual for the great Kazumi Totaka. As in his monumental score for The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Totaka managed to use the hardware limitations of the Game Boy to his advantage by crafting some impressively minimalist tracks. There’s a lot of dead space between the notes and melodies in his work, but this actually strengthens the tracks in a lot of respects, such as in Pumpkin Zone where the effect is fairly eerie. Definitely not something you see a lot of game scores. Each world has a musical theme (which itself is usually a spin on the game’s theme) which he then elaborates on in different ways for each individual level. While a couple of the tracks sound samey, the subtle differences that speak to each level’s setting make them interesting. Also, the credits theme is amazing.
With the tiny resolution of the Game Boy’s screen, it was often quite difficult to make a workable platformer with good, detailed graphics. If the designers got too ambitious and drew some beautiful player sprite, the game would end up being tough to play because the characters would be too big on the screen and you wouldn’t be able to see what was coming as you scrolled around. (see Metrioid II: Return of Samus or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall of the Foot Clan.)
Nintendo R&D 1 sidestepped this issue in Super Mario Land by making Mario tiny, which wasn’t necessarily the best fix. The quality of the gameplay was maintained, but I can remember a couple of occasions when I lost the little guy in all the action. Fortunately, The Super Mario World Mario sprite works pretty well for 6 Golden Coins, finding a happy medium. The pace is certainly a little slower than your average platformer to be sure, but the game isn’t boring by any means.
To some people, power-ups are the most fun part about Mario games, and it seems like Nintendo knows this and really puts a strong emphasis on new and interesting Mario abilities with each game, especially recently. Personally, I’ve never been all that enamored with the Tanooki Suits or the Kuribo Shoes or what-have-you, but I could see where people who are might be a bit disappointed with the lineup in Land 2. Aside from the standard Super Mushroom, Fire Flower and Starman, there’s only one unique collectible: The Magic Carrot. This gives Mario some bunny ears which he wiggles to hover around and slow his descent from jumping. Sounds pretty boring but it’s fun and is predictably used to bypass large chunks of the levels or uncover the secret exits. Whatever, good enough for me.
Overall, Land 2 is kind of a more leisurely Mario. It’s a tad whimsical, and maybe a little easy at times, but it’s still great fun. It was certainly a good entry point for me, as a kid, into the Mario games, and it really set me up to be blown away by Super Mario World when I got a bit older and played it.
IF THEY MADE THIS GAME TODAY:
Well, they kind of still are. Over time, the Mario Land games morphed into the Wario Land games, which in turn became WarioWare and on down the line. Wario’s latest sidescroller, Wario Land: Shake It! was well reviewed, although I haven’t played it myself. In any event, Nintendo’s design principles remain some of the least corrupted in our turbulent times, and all the mainline Mario and Wario platformers are solid as hell. No snarky commentary here.