Super Mario Land Mario’s first adventure outside of the Mushroom Kingdom just happens to also be his first in the portable sphere. Mario Land is a serviceable adventure filled with the weird and different (Tatanga, anyone?), but it’s still good Mario. The mechanics resemble SMB, and the graphics keep things familiar enough despite spaceships and pyramids making an appearance. Keep this early Mario as an option on the go.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins Mario’s second handheld adventure is a step up in terms of … everything. There are more power ups, more stages and more enemies to take on, including Wario, who is introduced to the world at large here. The six titular golden coins mean more places to explore and more to do, which is always helpful in a Mario title. The controls get a little crisper and the graphics are gorgeous for a handheld title. This is one to own, even if you’re not a super Mario fan.
Score: 4 out of 5
Mario Kart: Super Circuit Mario’s first foray into the handheld karting side of things is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it’s Super Mario Kart finally on a handheld system. That instantly makes it worth checking out by itself. On the other hand, the difficulty and rating system make it a frustrating experience. If you’re used to the rubber band AI from the two previous titles, you’ll find it well worn here. And good luck getting the max number of coins and stars possible in the bid to max out the game. But, it’s still decent Mario Kart overall and the game plays exactly like you’d expect. That’s a winning attribute that helps salvage this race.
Super Mario Bros. 2 an uneven, heavy-handed sequel
If there were ever a time when Mario was considered not to be fun, this would be it. I have always had a major fascination with Mario and the Mushroom Kingdom, but the true sequel to one of the greatest games of all time made me wish I didn’t go down the rabbit hole. At first glance, SMB 2 is your typical sequel: Improved graphics and new concepts, such as the addition of the Poisonous Mushroom. But there’s immediately something off putting about the game. It’s familiar yet foreign. A lot of the same enemies are used and the game has a lot of the same story-specific elements as its predecessor. The objective remains the same: Save Princess Peach from the invading Koopa army. But this is where things take sinister and not-so-pleasant turn. I’m not going to beat around the bush: The difficulty level is not friendly. If you didn’t start with Super Mario Bros., stop right now and go back and study up that game. The sequel is designed to be set up and buoyed by the original. If you start here, you’re setting yourself up for failure. The new levels were designed to take “super” players to task and show them that Mario isn’t the cakewalk they thought him to be. So, born from that are Sisyphean efforts such as warps that return you to an earlier part of the level; or my favorite: The fact that using level warps at all prevents advancement to the real ending of the game. This is Ghouls and Ghosts before Ghouls and Ghosts. This frustrating tactic of punishing the player for being too good is exactly why the follow up to Super Mario Bros. would have never flown in America and why we didn’t see the game until a full five years after its release in Japan. People traditionally play Mario to relax, not be thrown backward in a never-ending loop of anger and frustration. This doesn’t appeal to the mass players and it’s cheap and perverse that Mario is used in this way. While it’s not the same Mario in a lot of respects, the same old charm is present. The whimsical jaunt through the Mushroom Kingdom is now fraught with all types of danger, but it’s still pretty to behold. And the music is still the main act of beauty and source of joy in what is a dark skip through the forest of Mario. Somehow, through all of the anger, Koji Kondo’s masterpieces never seem to get old. For the sake of your controllers, I suggest investing in cheat codes to get through SMB 2. It’s one of the few games I would ever give this advice about to beat. We Americans might be lazy and unchallenged (editor’s note: Nintendo confirmed that this is the real reason why we received the much-easier-but-still-hard SMB 2 USA/Doki Doki Panic ripoff), but at least our controllers remain intact and whole, no thanks in small part to getting a far easier version of Mario 2. Super Frustration Bros. would have been a more apropos title for the sequel to the greatest game of all time.
Mario Kart has always been an interesting experience. Combining go-karting and Mario has and is a recipe for success for Nintendo, quite honestly. And, by the time Nintendo got around to making the sequel to the smash hit Super Mario Kart, they knew they had a surefire massive hit on their hands. Mario Kart 64 takes everything you loved about the first game and immeasurably increases it. The Mario characters, the tracks, the secrets; everything about Mario Kart 64 is better than the original in every respect. Driving has improved with better steering qualities for all characters including the bonafied introduction of powersliding. Mastering powersliding means a world of difference in race times, especially when you have bragging rights at stake. Old mechanics, such as the weight class concept, are still present but it seems everyone has a better representation with respect to how a class really controls. The lightweights feel like, well, lightweights. The heavyweights actually feel like they’re heavy to handle. While I’m an admitted long-term Mario Kart aficionado, I have to admit that if you’re going to get into Mario Kart, this is the title to do so with. It’s not hard to pick up MK64 and grasp the mechanics. It’s also easy to play with friends who understand the nuances of Mario Kart so that you’re not left behind for very long. And it’s the playing with others that makes this one of the best party games ever created. MK64 has Battle Mode as its ace in the hole and it makes it one of the first quintessential party games, alongside Goldeneye, Super Smash Bros. and Mario Party. With all that it has going for it, however, there a few minor drawbacks. First, if rubber band AI bothers you, this is not the game for you. MK64’s AI is one of the worst offenders of the rubber banding practice and it gets worse as you go through the single player race campaign. Combine that with the punishing difficulty of 100cc and 150cc races and you have a frustrating, controller-throwing mess. Second, this is the second game after Mario 64 where Mario characters are vocalized. I promise you will get tired of hearing characters say their favorite phrase long before you finish any of the modes. It gets old quickly and makes one wish they could turn the sound off, except that you’ll realize quickly that the soundtrack is actually great. This, however, is the game that turned me against Mario characters talking. Mario Kart 64 is polarizing to some players: Some think it’s one of the greatest kart racing games ever made while others hate it. I tend to be in the middle; it’s a great entry in the kart racing genre, but there are some fairly major quirks with how it plays to throw a wrench into things. I like to think that the fun and the quality associated with Mario Kart boosts it out of the middle of the pack.
Most of the gaming world would agree that Super Mario 64 is one of the greatest games of all time. I would agree also except for two things: First, the game gives me a tremendous headache after about 10 minutes of play; and, second, I’m not like most people. See, where I have a problem with Mario 64 is where most people don’t have a problem. Don’t get me wrong; I love the leap forward that presents itself as soon as you boot up the game for the first time. I was — and still am — in awe of the wonderment that is seeing Mario in 3D after playing 2D Mario games for the majority of my gaming career. However, I’m not in concert with the idea that it’s one of the greatest games of all time. Why? Just because it was the first to fully realize a formerly 2D character in 3D splendor? Because it’s Mario and just because it’s Mario? No, I can’t form my opinion or even include the game in the conversation of greatest game of all time just because of any of those things. There has to be some valid reasoning and while there are some great points for it, I’m not sold 100 percent. Mario 64, graphically, is steps ahead of almost everything for the Nintendo 64. Note that I said almost. Most games don’t hold a candle to Mario in fully realized 3D and, even with his polygonal block style as with most early N64 games, Mario still looks like a king. Peach’s Palace is interestingly laid out and the graphical quality of the castle still blows away the competition 20 years later. Watching Mario run around, run and jump and be Mario but in a non-2D sprite is pure heaven for Mario lovers like myself. But there’s that blockiness that I mentioned before. It’s obvious throughout and can be jarring from time to time. And for motion sickness sufferers like myself, the 3D is nigh unbearable. It’s all I can do not to vomit after 20 minutes, so my playtime is immediately limited because of the visuals. I should not be wanting to vomit after playing a Mario game. The soundtrack makes up for the illness-inducing gameplay. The soundtrack is fantastic and it’s worthy of a mainline Mario game, easily. From running around in the plains of Bob-omb Battlefield to traversing numerous obstacles to take on the King of the Koopas, Mario 64 is a dream come true in terms of audio pleasure. And, this is, after all, the first commercial game where Mario actually speaks. It’s a joy to hear him squeal and squawk for the first time as he explores the various worlds. With all of my negative sentiments about the leap from 2D to 3D for Mario, I still appreciate the masterpiece that is Mario 64. Groundbreaking and simultaneously frustrating? Yes. But it’s frustration worth having even if it takes a tumble down my list of greatest games ever.
The moment you know Mario has gone on too many adventures is when you know you’ve played way too much Mario. Paper Mario, the sequel to the hard-to-top Super Mario RPG, is when I knew I’d played way too much Mario and seemed to expect way too much from a Mario game. The joke, however, was on me as I realized that an in-depth and long adventure awaited, and a story was to be told here that needed to be told after the highlight of RPG. Paper Mario starts out much like any other Mario game: The princess has been kidnapped and Mario needs to save her. However, there’s a twist in the danse macabre that is Mario and Bowser’s eternal struggle over Peach. Bowser has managed to get his hands on the Star Rod, imprisons most of the wish-granting community and has literally absconded with Peach and her court into the sky. This is the point at which you should be saying, “Really Bowser? You just helped save your universe in RPG and you’re back to creating problems again?” But, nevertheless, the story must go on and Paper Mario fills that void nicely with an engaging tale of teamwork and camaraderie. I was most impressed with the depth of the characters and the deft way Intelligent Systems fleshed out the world of Mario and some of his never-before-seen allies who come from all walks of the Mario life. Another impressive part of the tale is the tongue-in-cheek humor sprinkled liberally throughout. Paper Mario isn’t afraid to be self-referential or pinch off other games when it calls for shaking up the routine “Mario saves Peach” bit. Spoilers ahead: There is a section that calls for a certain princess to become a virtual Solid Snake-like character and it immediately calls forth images of Metal Gear Solid. That kind of borrowing is the kind of thing that’s allowed and plays well within the context that Mario is the king of all that he surveys and even in his spinoff titles, he can still run with the best of the best, pay homage and still come out smelling like roses. In his second RPG outing, Mario still plays just as well as his first attempt in the role-playing sphere. Paper looks like and plays out like a storybook, which is fresh and inviting to old diehards like myself. The mechanics are simple to learn and are layered enough that an experienced RPGer can jump right in and understand what’s going on without much explanation. If you played the first game, concepts such as timed defense, timed offense and first hits will make sense. It’s that kind of referencing that makes the game a success: It’s easy to pick up and play, regardless of your level of familiarity with the series’ system. My main gripe, though, is that the game feels sprawling and slightly disjointed at times. That’s a great problem to have actually, but there are times when backtracking and the seemingly endless sidequests tend to distract from the main goal. Still, I’d rather have that problem than be bored with nothing to support the main story. Also, as a rather nitpicky side gripe, the final boss fight is one of the most aggravating fights I have ever experienced. I was easily in that battle for half an hour solely because of the boss’ ability to heal, not because I was doing anything particularly wrong. If, at the end of the battle, I say, “I will never fight this end battle again,” there is a problem there. It was as if it was protracted and drawn out for the sake of being a hard boss battle. My issues aside, though, I had an engaging and memorable time playing through and I couldn’t wait to work through a new chapter in the saga that was Paper Mario. This is a tale you literally can’t put down.
Super Mario Maker is the Mario game that isn’t quite the standard Mario fare but is the game you didn’t know you needed. It is, alongside few others, the killer app for the Wii U.
Let’s start with what Mario Maker isn’t. This isn’t your regular Mario hop and bop, save the princess adventure. In fact, little story if any exists and Peach is barely mentioned or referenced. This is Mario stripped down to his bare elements, showing how his adventures come together. It’s also really an excuse to revisit Mario’s past and get some of the newer enthusiasts up to speed, just in time for Mario’s 30th birthday.
The stage is set by utilizing some of Mario’s greatest games. Making an appearance are elements from the original platforming masterpieces Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3. Joining those are secondary greatest hit Super Mario World and the more recent hit New Super Mario Bros. U. All four games represent some crowning achievement for the everyday plumber and thus have some merit for making you revisit these set pieces to create your own masterpiece.
Creating that masterpiece is simple and intuitive. The level editor focuses on levels, not worlds, and wisely makes the process quick and painless. Want to make a level with 10 Bowsers underwater only to face off against a lone Hammer Bros. before the end gate in Super Mario world style and graphics? That’s easy. But this is also where the only gripe that I have with the game rears its head. While you may want to make that stunning gauntlet of pain immediately, you’re limited because of the game’s unlocking system. Game styles beyond the initial two and ultimately the majority of your creation library are unlocked via a time system that goes by days. You can speed it up, but it’s intended to make you the creator spend several days trying out the system and getting a feel for new elements in a paced environment. I can appreciate the sense of not wanting too many elements all at once, but the system is a little slow and frustrating when I have a million ideas that I can’t fully implement for several days initially.
Mario Maker looks fantastic for the most part. The non-level editor graphics look great and are crisp. The game runs off the Wii U graphical power so while your newer game styles and non-editor graphics look good on the Wii U gamepad and on the TV, your older graphics for most of the styles are going to look a little bad at 1080p resolution on a newer TV. Nintendo took a risk in not jazzing up the older game styles and it paid off, quite honestly. I’d rather play a SMB3 level in the way that it would have looked on the original NES than a fixed version that’s been changed.
In addition to the graphics, the soundtrack is a mix of new and old. The main themes associated with each game style and level type (Ground, Underwater, Underground, Castle, Airship and Ghost House) are remixed for use during the editing process. They are found, though, in their original form when an actual level is played. The remixes are great and bring something new to the table, while using the original version does a lot for immersion. The game’s illusions to spiritual predecessor Mario Paint don’t hurt, either. It, too, had a unique soundtrack and hearkening back to that era of creativity in several places such as the soundtrack is a welcome inclusion.
What I love most about Mario Maker is its sense of Mario love. It’s not afraid to let the gamer take control and it’s also about Nintendo letting folks in to see the wheels turn behind one of its most iconic franchises. Nintendo clearly loves Mario, whether it’s from a monetization point of taking its internal level editor and turning it loose on the population, or from the standpoint that Mario is Nintendo and he’s been given the royal treatment for a job well done for the past 30 years. Super Mario Maker is the company’s love letter to Mario fans and well done letter at that.