As we approach its 30th anniversary, let’s take a look back at Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins – one of the best Game Boy games ever made.
The first Super Mario Land was released for the original Nintendo Game Boy handheld way back in 1989. It is perhaps most well-known among the Mario fandom for being the first Super Mario title that Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t work on, having handed over the reins to Game Boy hardware designer Gunpei Yokoi and his team. Naturally, selling over 18 million copies ensured a sequel – and in November of 1991 Yokoi’s team set to work on developing what would become Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins.
Released in September 1992 the end result is, simply put, one of the best games for the Game Boy handheld. The original intention of the team was to create a game that would stand apart from prior entries in the franchise, but as development progressed a general feeling began to mount that they were straying too far from what makes a Super Mario game, well, a Super Mario game. What remains is a title that feels like a mix-and-match of pre-existing and new elements.
The first indication that this is a break from routine is in the plot. For once, this doesn’t revolve around a love interest getting captured. Having rescued Princess Daisy in the events of the first game, Mario returns to “Mario Land” (an actual place, apparently) to find that his childhood friend Wario has taken over his castle and cast a spell that has turned the inhabitants of Mario Land against him. On top of all that, Wario has only gone and distributed the six Golden Coins – which act as keys to Mario’s castle – to the bosses of each of the six zones. Capitalist Mario really can’t stand for this even distribution of wealth – certainly not during the early nineties at any rate – so he sets out on his adventure to defeat each boss, reclaim the coins and take back Mario Land once and for all.
Following a quick introductory level that teaches you how to run and jump through a stage, you’re greeted by a new addition borrowed from the franchise’s console brethren: an overworld map. Functionally, this map gives the game an almost open-world feeling so you can tackle each of the zones in any order you like. While nowhere near as large as the maps in Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World, it makes an impressive addition to a Game Boy title and is surprisingly detailed for such a small screen.
The first Super Mario Land had done a decent job of distilling the essence of Super Mario Bros. into the handheld format, but it had found criticism for being far too short. The team seem to have taken this criticism on board, as Super Mario Land 2 features 32 stages spread across the six zones. These zones are suitably varied and, if you choose to start clockwise around the map, Tree Zone is a great introduction to this variety. Mario will begin outside the tree in the dirt on the first stage before moving through tree sap inside the tree itself for the second stage, then outside on the branches before fighting the boss in a bird’s nest right at the top. It not only helps to break up the monotony of how Mario stages can sometimes feel, but also helps in the immersion of Mario actually progressing through an area.
Turtle Zone benefits similarly well, with Mario working through a beachhead, then a sunken submarine, then inside a whale to the final boss. Mario will also have to fight his way through the Halloween-themed Pumpkin Zone, the Giant Land-inspired Macro Zone, fight Tatanga from the first game in Space Zone and navigate a giant, clockwork statue of himself in Mario Zone. The last one is a bit baffling, for Mario to have his own Zone in his own Land, but it does feature a neat little reference to Nintendo’s N&B Block product from the late sixties (it’s LEGO Super Mario before LEGO Super Mario!). There are also secret stages that offer some replay value for players that want to see everything Mario Land has to offer.
Power-ups are similar to most games in the franchise, featuring a mushroom to turn Mario into Super Mario and a fire-flower to give Mario the ability to throw fireballs. There’s one new power-up – a carrot – which gives Mario the ability to super-jump and hover in mid-air, similar to the P-wing in Super Mario Bros. 3 (it also gives him little bunny ears on his cap, which is neat). Invincibility stars are also back, both in regular play but one will also fall from the sky if you defeat 100 enemies.
Unfortunately, much like its predecessor, the game still is far too easy. This is, in part, due to how generous the game is with lives. Ring the bell at the end of each stage and Mario will get taken to a bonus round, giving him the chance to earn up to three extra lives. Multiply that for each stage and you’ll never really run out. Collecting 100 coins no longer adds an extra life to the tally, but instead coins can be spent in a gambling area on the map where Mario can earn a further 50 lives.
The open-world nature of the map probably doesn’t help here. The first level of each Zone has been designed to be fairly easy to make your way through, which makes sense if that Zone happens to be the first one you pick – but it means that after completing a Zone, your next stage will be relatively easy. Bosses don’t put up too much of a fight either, needing three hits to take down each. Some bosses, such as the Three Little Pigs ruling Mario Zone, do try and keep things interesting. Each of the pigs need taking down individually, with increasingly difficult attack patterns to navigate, but they’re still too easily despatched to be of any real challenge.
The difficulty ramps up significantly when you reach Wario’s castle, however. It’s chock-full of traps, from statues breathing fire to trip switches that release gloved hands. It’s actually a refreshing challenge compared to the rest of the game. The final fight can be tricky too – Wario will fight you in Super form (he towers above Mario), fire form and bunny form while trying to stun you. The only saving grace is that since his sprite is quite big, so is his hitbox. If you really struggle, there is a semi-secret Easy Mode listed in the manual. (Ah, the manual. Remember when games had manuals? – ed.)
Graphically, Super Mario Land 2 is an absolute powerhouse given the limited hardware. Boot the game up and the first thing you’ll probably notice is that all the sprites are now larger and vastly more detailed when compared to the first game. Mario’s sprite, in particular, appears to be based more on his sprite in Super Mario World. The four-tone colour palette of the Game Boy is used brilliantly here, giving the suggestion of more shades being in place than there actually are. There’s excellent background detail as well, such as in the submarine in Turtle Zone and the gothic backdrop of Wario’s castle.
Of course, Super Mario Land 2’s greatest accomplishment is Wario himself. Wario – whose name is a portmanteau of the Japanese word “warui”, meaning “bad”, and “Mario” – functions as a perverse inversion of the main character, much in the same way Venom might to Spider-Man, or Two-Face to Batman. This inversion is explicit in the design language of the character; where Mario’s moustache is soft and round, Wario’s is sharp and jaggy. Mario’s cap features an M, but Wario’s naturally inverts this to a W. Mario’s primary colour is red – a symbol of power and protection from evil in Japanese culture – and Wario’s colours are yellow and violet; symbols of temples and royalty respectively, reflecting Wario’s belief that he has a right to be King. (It’s also maybe no accident that this is the first game to feature Mario owning a castle, for this reason.)
Perhaps I’m reaching a bit there, and Wario really does just represent the team’s supposed distaste for the Mario character. It would maybe make a bit more sense, as Mario does not come off that well here. He has an island, named after himself, where one of the areas is effectively a giant effigy of himself, and in the centre of the island is a castle emblazoned with a giant M, in which he hoards the most valuable of the shiny money for himself. It’s really no surprise that an embittered childhood friend would come along and try to steal all of that. It’s a tale old as time.
Wario ended becoming so popular that he became the central protagonist of this game’s sequel. Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3 was released in 1994 and spawned a whole four-game franchise in its own right. With the exception of one recurring enemy, however, Wario Land is really a sequel in name only; about as much as Yoshi’s Island is a sequel to Super Mario World. Of course, Wario would go on to feature in any number of spin-offs, from Mario Kart 64 to Mario Golf, and even has his own WarioWare franchise.
In 2011, the Mario Land series saw a semi-revival in Super Mario 3D Land, built from the ground-up for the Nintendo 3DS handheld, though that game takes place in the Mushroom Kingdom and features no reference to earlier Mario Land titles. It seems the Mario Land franchise as it was known up to that point ended with Super Mario Land 2 – at least in a sense. If you’d like to play it these days, and have something that plays Game Boy games, loose cartridgess go for under £10/$20 on eBay. If you have a 3DS, you can pick it up on the Virtual Console before the eShop gets shut down for good for under £4/$4. If you can find it, however, the absolute best way to play it would be in the fan-made Super Mario Land 2 DX patch, which reworks the game to be in colour, makes some minor graphical changes and even lets you play as Luigi.
How you play it isn’t really as important as the fact that you do. Super Mario Land 2 is a stand-out title – not just for the Mario franchise, but for the Game Boy as a whole.