I think 2D Mario games are just okay. Wait! Don’t click off this article just yet! I do enjoy 2D Mario games for their polish and fun factor, but they just feel a bit basic to me. Everything that 2D Mario pioneered, for my tastes, is brought to a new level by Donkey Kong Country. The richness of the worlds, the complexity of the level designs, the placement and utility of collectables – DK’s games just eat Mario’s lunch in my opinion. I still enjoy blasting through a Super Mario Bros. 3 or World, I mean who doesn’t, but they have been superseded by Rare and later Retro’s joint simian series. But, while Mario may falter a bit in 2D for me, his 3D platformers are just absolutely unmatched.
Beyond their mechanical successes, what I love about 3D Mario – particularly the Galaxy games and Odyssey – is just how unceasingly creative they are. Every area is lovingly brought to live with all manner of absolutely bizarre characters and concepts. To me, this is Mario at his best. When I get to meet imaginative new faces and places, Mario reminds me of a very particular childlike joy. I’ve always loved media that is unabashedly creative and playful. I think that’s why my love of Disney and Nintendo go hand-in-hand and have since I was young.
3D mario magic
However, I never felt like 2D Mario quite hit that same bar. When I think of 3D Mario, I think of Piantas and Bonneters, of Conkdor Canyons and Honey Hive Galaxies. These games have a scope and a whimsy and a spark of invention that persists and evolves. They build worlds with wacky inhabitants and geography that is equally peculiar. This is why 3D Mario makes me want to explore and keep exploring. In my opinion, 2D Mario doesn’t quite achieve that.
These 2D games are creative and polished, certainly. However, they exist within the contexts of the same level themes and characters repeated time and time again. Naturally, these titles introduced the bulk of Mario’s core cast, but they also fail to present the breadth of ideas that are on display in 3D Mario games. For me, that makes it a bit harder to connect to these 2D exploits when I contextualize them against the 3D ones. But, there is one humongous outlier: Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins.
Just when you thought that I couldn’t blaspheme any more in this article, let me just say right here that Super Mario Land 2 is my favorite 2D Mario platformer. Wait! Don’t click off here, either! I want to take a moment to explain why that is. To do so, we have to look back through the lens of the 3D Mario games. The reason that I love Land 2 so much is that it embodies the same creativity and variety that the 3D adventures do, but arguably on an even more comprehensive scale. The title takes place on the eponymous island, Mario Land. This place is home to more bizarre level concepts than perhaps any 3D Mario game, per square inch. I quantify that statement in this respect because Super Mario Land 2 is a very short game. I beat it in two sittings. However, I was never bothered by the runtime because the adventure was continually inventive. I had no time to be disappointed that my journey was rapidly approaching its close because I was always being shuffled from one eclectic set piece moment to the next.
You wouldn’t assume this at first, as Mario Land is laid out in a similar manner to Super Mario World’s Dinosaur Island. But, basically nothing is as it seems in this place. The locale is split into six zones that throw all convention out the window. Perhaps my favorite is Turtle Zone, which Mario enters after being swallowed by a huge sleeping turtle on the overworld map. It gives me big inside Jabu-Jabu vibes.
If Turtle Zone wasn’t indication enough, even the more traditional level themes, such as the underwater theme, are contextualized in fresh ways consistently. I’d argue that Turtle Zone may be more smelly than fresh (considering how you reach it), but I digress. Another favorite of mine is Pumpkin Zone, which ended up being perfect Halloween fare as it is full of spooky delights. Even the grunt enemies here are in the seasonal spirit, wearing little Jason Voorhees hockey masks with knives stuck in them. Oh, and there’s a huge sleepy hippo on the overworld, and if you ride his snot bubble through the sky you end up in Space Zone. That’s the sort of game Super Mario Land 2 is.
It’s also a grand adventure for its time. This is certainly one of the most impressive Game Boy games that I’ve ever experienced. Like Link’s Awakening, Super Mario Land 2 did its best to punch at the same weight as its SNES colleagues. Unlike Land 1 which was incredibly rudimentary, Land 2 looks and plays like Super Mario World. It even has the spin jump (not that I ever used it when playing)! Now, it’s important to note that this game may have pushed the hardware a bit too far. There is a lot of slowdown here, not that it majorly impacts the experience. Instead, it’s simply a testament to how much was happening under the hood, especially as the level design features a lot of both vertical and nonlinear level design. Not even the NES titles, or even World for that matter, broke the left-to-right design structure as often as Land 2 does. It’s a true development feat.
I just love Super Mario Land 2. Like my favorite 3D Mario games, it always has a new motif around the corner. It breaks the Koopa, Goomba, grassy plains, desert-theme formula of its predecessors. This is what I look for in my Mario platformers, and this is what Land 2 provides in spades. It’s such a charming and quirky little title that encapsulates the very creativity which keeps me enamored with Nintendo’s games year after year. Considering its short length and lovely array of ideas, I’ll certainly be returning to Mario Land time and time again.