Many reasons have been given for why the Virtual Boy failed so badly when it was released in the mid '90s. One of the more convincing arguments is that the lack of a 'proper' Mario game meant that hardcore Nintendo fans ignored the console; while it's hard to accept that this is the only reason, it certainly played a part.
That isn't to say that the Virtual Boy lacked Mario-action at launch; it had Mario Clash. However, while fans were expecting something along the lines of Super Mario World, Mario Clash actually plays like the original (non-super) Mario Bros. game. Levels are made up of pipes and platforms and you earn points by clearing the screen of enemies before moving on to the next.
In a change from the earlier game, you cannot walk off one side of the screen and appear on the other, but you can use the same pipes as the enemies to get to different platforms. Rather than the platforms just being arranged vertically you have some in the foreground and some in the background, with a pipe or two allowing you to travel between them.
The biggest difference between the games is the way enemies are defeated. Here there is no POW block and knocking the platform from underneath does not stun them. Instead you throw Koopa shells at them (Koopa Troopers being the only enemy Mario can jump on).
The 3D effect works well, giving you a good sense of the distance between background and foreground and throwing a shell across the gap looks good as it gets bigger before smacking into an enemy or missing and flying close to the screen. Each level is designed differently but there’s only so much you can do with pipes and platforms before it becomes very samey looking. Characters are well designed and feature usual Mario foes such as Boo’s and Para-Goombas as well as spiked enemies and crabs familiar to Mario Bros. players. Unfortunately the sprites (including Mario) can at times look very flat which is at odds with the 3D appearance of the stages.
The left D-pad controls Mario’s movements and holding down L allows him to run. If you’re expecting A to jump, as in many Mario games on many different systems, you’re in for a shock as it actually throws a shell in the direction you’re facing (should you be carrying one). B is used for jumping and it doesn’t feel natural at all. Luckily you can also use the R button which is preferable as not only do you avoid dying due to accidentally pressing the throw button, but it frees your thumb up for the right D-pad. This too controls throws but you just tap the direction you want to send the shell rather than having to turn around first, which isn’t practical once things get harder.
Each enemy requires a different tactic to defeat. They’re all defeated with shells but their movements and the number of hits required vary (though typically one to stun, one to dispose of). If you take out multiple enemies at once you get extra points.
The small spiked creature can be dispatched by a single hit from any direction and the crab has to be spun around first, but apart from that all the other characters are stunned by hitting them on the side by throwing from background to foreground (or vice-versa). This is fun at first but gets quite repetitive and it doesn't take long for you to end up feeling pretty bored.
The game starts off slow with just a few enemies, giving you chance to get used to the different types, before things get steadily more difficult and you find yourself with enemies coming from all directions. This adds some excitement as you find yourself having to avoid enemies rather than just defeat them, either by jumping over them, or smacking them with a shell to turn them around. Later levels are very challenging, especially if they involve snakes as they lay eggs that another snake hatches from.
Aside from the various enemies you may also have to contend with fireballs that appear from time to time, travelling from one side of the screen to the other as in the previous game, and icicles that form under platforms before falling. Some levels are icey which adds to the challenge as you find yourself sliding about.
There’s just one power-up in the game: a mushroom that appears after you’ve defeated a number of enemies. Pick it up and you can quickly get rid of any remaining foes with a shell-hit from any direction. After clearing a few levels you get to play a bonus game where you jump about collecting coins travelling towards you to earn points and-if you get them all-an extra life.
There are a lot of levels in the game (99 before it loops back to the start) but you are unlikely to see them all as there’s no save feature. The game does let you pick any of the first 40 levels to start from but really this just allows you to start with a bit more of a challenge than provide an opportunity to see everything. The lack of a two-player mode removes a lot of the fun and replayability found in Mario Bros. but you can always keep interest in the game by trying to beat your high score. Of course that lack of save function means you’ll have to scribble it down on a piece of paper or something, which is pretty lame.
The sound effects fit well as do other things like the sound from Mario’s feet as he skids about. The jumping sound effect though is disappointing: it lacks bounce and seems more appropriate for selecting a menu item. There are a few music tracks in the game for the levels but they all sound similar: laid back and plodding, a bit beepy, not annoying but very unremarkable. There is other music though which is better such as the short triumphant piece that plays upon clearing a level or the more fun and upbeat track from the bonus game.
At times Mario Clash can be pretty boring and with its flat sprites, lack of a save function and other minor niggles, it's hard to recommend as an essential purchase. However, if you stick with it you'll find it does provide something of a challenge and once you’ve got the got the hang of it start you should try starting from a later level for maximum enjoyment. It's no Super Mario World, but it hardly deserves the title of 'Worse Mario Game Ever' that it has been awarded.