Mario Pinball Land Review
Posted by Christopher Ingram
A flipping good time?
Our beloved hero Mario has starred in a multitude of sports throughout his long career: golf, tennis, hockey, soccer, basketball, go-karts, etc. It seems there’s hardly anything the famous plumber can’t do — even going so far as winning a gold medal at the Olympics against his long-time rival, Sonic the Hedgehog. Nintendo has taken us through all sorts of alternative titles with our beloved hero throughout the years, and back in 2004, Mario took on another of our favourite pastimes: pinball. Instead of going the easy route of creating a few Mario-inspired pinball tables, Fuse Games and Nintendo used the wonderful worlds of past Super Mario games to craft another Mario Land, but this time around its played pinball-style. Sound a bit crazy? It should, but it’s crazy in that charmingly Nintendo way that only they can pull off.
Upon starting this pinball journey, Mario and friends set out for a fun day at the carnival, but the good times come to an abrupt end when Princess Peach slips and falls into a cannon. To everyone’s surprise, the cannon is operated by goombas, who quickly proceed to blast her off into Bowsers castle; capturing her once again. The only way for Mario to save his lovely princess in this wacky pinball world, is to use a strange contraption to transform himself into a pinball and bounce his way through the multiple worlds; collecting the necessary stars and keys to gain access to Bowsers castle, and save his princess once again.
The games scenario should already sound familiar to anyone who’s played a Mario platformer since Super Mario 64, as the game uses the exact same formula to progress the story. Instead of running and jumping through each world to collect the stars, you’ll instead be bouncing a balled-up Mario through tiered levels with pinball flippers. Each world starts off with a one-screened level (table), with pinball flippers at the bottom of the screen — just as would be found on an actual pinball table — with a set objective to complete to gain a Star (e.g. kill all enemies). By gaining Stars you’ll gain access to locked doors at the top of the screen to progress deeper into the world. This formula continues until the world’s boss is reached, and upon defeat, they’ll hand over one of the keys needed to unlock the gate to Bowser's Castle. If you’ve got enough skill to claim all the keys from each of the five worlds’ bosses, you’ll be able to put your pinball skills to the ultimate test against the Koopa King himself, Bowser.
Each of the five worlds found in the game are lovingly crafted upon those found in other Super Mario titles and each one is filled with enemies that fans will instantly recognise: Goombas, Koopa Troopas and Shy Guys are just a few of the enemies found in the game. The levels are much different than one might expect too; instead of having tables with flashing lights and spiralling lanes like an actual pinball table, standard Super Mario obstacles (e.g. green pipes, snowmen, pyramids, etc.) are used to bring the tables to life instead. This gives the game a unique Mario feel, and one that’s not unlike playing any other Mario platformer, especially with the Star collecting and boss battles. A few extras like hidden warp zones and timed red coin challenges are thrown into the mix to add a bit of replay value as well.
A few of the worlds expose Mario to various elements that affect his ball speed as well (e.g. when underwater Mario rolls much slower than normal), and while it’s definitely a nice touch to the gameplay, the game already has a ‘bouncy’ feel to it that's likely to frustrate pinball purists. This new feel to a pinball game takes a few minutes to adjust to, as the game's ball physics are a far cry from the way a steel pinball reacts on an actual pinball table, but it’s a fitting style for this type of game design. The one questionable gameplay change here is the omission of a tilt feature – standard on any pinball table or game — meaning that you’ll have to get used to letting Mario roll up an extended flipper to lose speed so, that you can try and catch him on the opposite flipper to gain a precision shot when needed. You are completely free to bounce Mario around nonchalantly, but by doing so you’ll find the game more frustrating than fun, as you’ll often mess up and let Mario slip between the flippers, dropping down to the previous level and resetting the above stage. A blue pipe power-up — among a few others — can be used to block the space between the flippers to help alleviate this issue, but it only last around 20 seconds, meaning you’ll need to master the precision shot technique for maximum enjoyment here.
What makes this trip so enjoyable, though, is its presentation. Mario Pinball Land is a Game Boy Advance title that could easily be mistaken for a DS title: the worlds are sketched with bright, vivid colours and the enemy sprites pop off the screen with full 3D character modelling – ingeniously made possible with the use of an isometric camera angle that doesn’t need to pan around. The bosses are especially spectacular, as they nearly take up the entire screen. Audio, while good, isn’t quite as spectacular as the graphics though. Straying away from the tunes of Mario’s past, carnival themed loops are used that fit the game's theme, but the track loops are a bit on the short side, which has a tendency to get repetitive during extended playtime. It’s a small gripe, and one that’s obviously due to cartridge limitations, but it’s there nonetheless.
What could have easily been a quick cash-in pinball title with a Mario theme slapped on turns out to be a completely unique way to experience the wonderful worlds from the Super Mario series we all know and love. Hardcore pinball fanatics will likely find little to enjoy here, but for Nintendo fans, tracking down this spin-off from Mario’s ever-growing catalogue is definitely worth your time. Even with its few flaws, Mario Pinball Land is as much a treat on the eyes as it is on the thumbs, and once again proves there's nothing Mario can't do.