In this series of 30 daily articles celebrating the upcoming 30th Anniversary of Super Mario, various members of the Nintendo Life extended family will share their memories and thoughts on the iconic franchise. Next up is Editorial Director Damien McFerran.
Tetris is widely regarded as the game which sold the Game Boy to the world and turned it into a commercial smash hit, but for me personally, it was Mario's first DMG-01 outing which made me desire the portable system more than water, food and oxygen.
The year was 1991. I'd just moved house and was about to start at a new school, and as always there was that thorny issue of making friends. I'd moved to a new part of the town of Hinckley, Leicestershire and as a consequence knew nobody; bonds had to be formed using the traditional weapons of the pre-teen era: football (soccer to our American readers) and video games. As I had, at that point, only a passing interest in the former, it would be the latter that really broke the ice with my newfound neighbours.
A kid across the street called Ed proved to be my first new chum, and it was Nintendo's brick-like handheld system that provided the foundation for our budding friendship. At the time I was a card-carrying Sega fan, having received a Japanese Mega Drive the previous Christmas. I'd dabbled in home computers beforehand, owning an Atari 800 and Atari ST, but Sega's 16-bit machine convinced me to take my gaming to the next level of obsession, and I would buy every magazine going in order to learn more about games in general. UK publications Computer & Videos Games and Mean Machines were my personal favourites at the time, and it was in the pages of these two fine tomes that I would first lay eyes on the Game Boy.
To a child in the '90s, it represented something truly incredible - the ability to enjoy console-quality gameplay outside of the house. Nintendo's reputation as a creator of amazing gaming experiences naturally added to the allure, but it's vital to stress that I'd never played a Nintendo console game up to this point - my only experience with the company's output was a Donkey Kong II Game & Watch. I never owned a NES - in the UK, Sega's Master System was the dominant 8-bit platform - and as such, Nintendo's quality was something I only knew about second-hand, lifted from the glowing reviews in Mean Machines which attested to the incredible playability of the company's library of games.
Ed's Game Boy therefore became a particular point of fascination for me; Tetris looked interesting but without the chance to pour hours of gameplay into it, it seemed too abstract to really grip me on looks alone. It would be Super Mario Land which would truly hook me in and make the Game Boy a desirable object in my young eyes. This in itself is quite ironic as Super Mario Land is often seen as the runt of the series; directed by Satoru Okada and produced by Game Boy creator Gunpei Yokoi, it was the first Mario title to receive little-to-no input from series creator Shigeru Miyamoto, and as a result it felt a lot different to what had gone before.
The Mushroom Kingdom is abandoned in favour of the mystical Sarasaland, complete with oddball enemies like UFOs, sphinx statues and robots with flying heads. As Super Mario Land was only the fourth Super Mario game at the time of its release in 1989, these differences appeared to be less pronounced than they are now; it's only the passage of time - and the repeated use of several Super Mario tropes in subsequent games - that makes this handheld offering appear so unique.
Super Mario Land boasted other innovations, such as a "lucky chance" game at the end of each level which would allow you to earn more lives and fast-paced side-scrolling shooter sections. The game was clearly designed with the Game Boy's limitations in mind; the sparse visuals aimed to avoid problems with the console's blurry LCD display, while the tiny enemies allowed the designers to fit more on the screen. Subsequent Mario games on the console bumped up the graphical detail and adopted more traditional themes, but there's a simplicity to the original which endures even to this day. When I hear Hirokazu Tanaka's distinctive music and see that boxy, ill-defined main sprite running along, I'm instantly taken back to 1991, sitting in Ed's bedroom waiting patiently for my turn on his coveted Game Boy.
As it happened, I had to endure a long wait, and wouldn't actually get my hands on my very own Game Boy system until a year or so later. My dad owned a video rental store and was given a free Game Boy console when he placed a bumper order for Terminator 2: Judgment Day on VHS, and thankfully this unit would find its way into my waiting hands. Super Mario Land was naturally one of the first titles I invested in, and I still return to it every few years. It's possible to finish it in a few hours, and while the lack of challenge may have been a concern to reviewers back in the early '90s, to me it represents the perfect way to spend an evening - allowing nostalgia to wash over me as I enjoy the game which will always been considered an outsider by Mario fans, but nevertheless introduced me to the world of portable gaming, and Nintendo itself.