Super Mario Advance
Developer: Nintendo EAD, ported by Nintendo R&D2
Publisher: Nintendo (all regions)
Size: 32 Mbit
Let’s start with a disclaimer. I never played a Mario game before. Actually, to be more precise, I did play some of them, but it was always limited to being shown the game, trying to go through the first level for a few minutes and leaving completely uninterested.
This time, I kind of had an obligation to invest some time into actually playing. Long story short, I’m still not interested in the slightest afterwards.
And I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with the fact that this is my first time playing a Mario game. Because that was the first time I played a Mario game, did I mention that already? I just happened, by random chance, to be born in a second-world country with limited access to technology and a culture completely different from the one that spawned GameBoy Advance and modern retro gaming, spared the social pressure to get familiar with what’s probably the most popular videogame series in history. And then, sometime in the mid-to-late nineties, I found about Sonic the Hedgehog, my personal standards for a platformer changed forever and there was no turning back. But that’s another story, one that’s best saved for a more fitting occasion.
I cannot become a Mario fan now. I doubt anyone can become a Mario fan anymore (although I should probably withhold that statement until I try its latest WII incarnation; which, of course, I don’t plan to do). The part of me that the game appeals to is long gone.
Kids of the eighties, do you remember your first days of electronic entertainment? Everything was fresh and new, everything was exciting, full of things you’ve never seen before and never knew were even possible. Games weren’t just games, they were challenges to overcome, unknown lands to explore, beautiful clockworks of unpreceded complexity that were a thrill to just interact with.
Fact of the matter is, this game is made with people like that in mind. It lets you see things you’ve never seen before (before circa 1987, that is), exploit its mechanics like you couldn’t before (before circa 1987, that is) and search itself for many, many hidden surprises.
It just doesn’t seem to care whether you’re actually having fun during the entire process.
I’m not a kid anymore. I’m older, busier, more tired, and have over twenty years of gaming on my back. Nothing is new anymore, and when I play, I don’t do it to check the new things the game will show me or let me find out about itself, because I’m sure I’ve seen them somewhere already, many, many times. The days I could spend hours upon hours replaying Montezuma’s Revenge to finally go all the way to the end are long behind me. Now I just want to enjoy myself, every single second.
So I’d like some proper controls, ones that can actually be grasped, ones that won’t make me, at best, redo some long maneuver or, at worst, accidentally kill my character half of the time I try to jump over some apparently bottomless pit because they literally require pixel-scale precision. I want a proper level design, one that doesn’t require memorization, one that will let me explore them without the risk of killing myself every time I want to try something new. In the eighties, they thought it’s so much fun, putting additional hurdles for people to overcome so that exploring the game takes them longer. But it doesn’t really make the game more difficult. It just makes it much more of a chore.
And even the constant thrill of danger, my last chance of enjoying the game, was destroyed by the fact that I wanted to see as much of it as possible and decided, at some point, to use that vile savestate feature that emulators invariably have. This one is my own fault, I admit, but rage-loading is still better than rage-quitting. I tried to limit it as much as possible at first, but redoing things over and over again was too much of a bother.
So what was left for me was puzzles. The game is perfectly fine in that regard when it wants to, and it was enough for me to hang to while going through the levels. But now that I’m finished, I’m glad it’s all over. Here’s hoping for no more old platformer remakes in the near future. Unless it’s Montezuma’s Revenge, that would at least be something I’m familiar with. (I just checked, it’s on GameBoy Color instead; oh well.)
Now for something completely different – a Mario platformer that isn’t really a Mario platformer. You see, back in the NES days, Nintendo needed a follow-up to the massively successful (for good reasons) Super Mario Bros. game. The game had a sequel for Japan only FDS accessory, but that was more of a level pack, made with masochists in mind – the difficulty level starting with inhumane and quickly turning to impossible.
Instead of releasing this to (still virgin at the time) USA audience, Nintendo took another one of their games, Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic, made a quick sprite swap job, did some minor and not so minor arrangements (like adding the ability to run for instance) and released the game as Super Mario Bros. 2 in the USA and later on as Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan.
Both Super Mario Bros. 2 games were later ported to SNES and packaged alongside the original game and Super Mario Bros. 3 as Super Mario All-Stars (Super Mario Collection in Japan). On the system launch of Game Boy Advance Nintendo decided to release the game for their latest handheld. To recap, we’re talking about a slightly enhanced port of a graphical remake of a total conversion of a decidedly un-Mario game.
Well, R&D 2, despite not being a very experienced developer (this being their fifth game), threw the players some bones, and there are certain bonuses in this version that make it worthwhile to play the game even if one had any of the previous incarnations. All levels in the game have 5 red A(dvance) coins added to them, kind of like the Dragon coins in Super Mario World. The game keeps track of all the coins you gather, giving you a nice incentive to catch them all. There are a few other changes here and there, gigantic versions of enemies and power-ups, but really nothing comparable to the red coins.
Also included is a port of the original Mario Bros. A good time waster, but I don’t imagine anyone playing it more than once – especially since the GBA port has a smaller view, one that requires scrolling the screen to see the upper row of the level.
You can’t really fault the game’s presentation. The graphical side is spot on – crisp and cheerful, while music has the usual catchy Koji Kondo flair. Maybe it does not sound as good as the SNES game (a trend you will notice in pretty much all SNES to GBA ports), but definitely serviceable. Only thing I don’t really like are the character voices. Those were added to the GBA conversion, and well, calling them grating is an understatement. It’s a pity there’s no option to disable them, while keeping the music. The controls are responsive and while there seem to be a slight slowdown from time to time, it’s almost unnoticeable.
Please take note that this is an 8-bit game at heart. It’s out to get the player and doesn’t pull its punches. This is more noticeable starting from level 3-3, which took me almost as long to clear as all the other levels before it. And the game doesn’t get easier after that – some of the levels will destroy your 1-up surplus in a matter of minutes. Luckily, 3-3 seems to be a turning point in the game, since it has a nice, quick and easy way to farm extra lives, which should be detailed somewhere above. After that it’s just a matter of perseverance on the player’s side. It still makes for some rather intense moments, for instance during my play-through I’ve started 5-3 with a stash of 99 extra lives and ended up finishing the level on my second to last 1-up.
It’s still fun, even despite the difficulty level. Mainly due to exceptional level design. You can see Shigeru Miyamoto’s hand in this game almost on every single screen. Loads of secrets hidden around here and there, and everything is placed in a way that will give you the maximum level of challenge while still being completely doable.
There are two things that keep the game from being a classic. One of them is the somewhat weird character controls. Of the four characters, Mario is pretty much his usual self, albeit with so little friction, he handles like he’s on ice on normal levels, and even worse on ice ones. Luigi jumps higher, but the jumps he makes are very, very floaty – not something I could wrap my head around. Peach is some sorts of an easy mode – she has the ability to float for a second or so after each jump, making her the easiest to control, but robbing the game of most of its challenge. Toad controls feel the most like Mario’s in other games, but his character voice is so grating you will want to rip your cochleas out after few seconds of exposure.
The second thing is the complete lack of vertical scrolling. Yes, you read that right. The game scrolls horizontally in both directions, but each up or down movement beyond the screen is accompanied by a full screen switch. Which is very confusing, since you lose control of your character for a split second, but don’t lose the acquired inertia. I don’t even know how many lives I lost due to that.
I wasn’t able to finish the game in week’s time, but I did clear more than two thirds of it, and I must say I had fun while doing that. The game does not give a very good first impression, what with the weird scrolling, but it definitely grew on me the further I went into it. This is something I’d gladly come back to, to finish the rest of the levels and grab the remaining red coins.