Taking the next step in their quest to bring Mario to every game type imaginable, Nintendo has released Mario Pinball Land. This time, our pasta-loving hero finds himself acting as a ball on a series of bright and busy pinball tables. Alongside a cast of familiar faces, he bounces and bumps his way through this beautiful, but eventually average, game.
In true Mario fashion, the pinball action revolves around saving the Princess. Once again she has been kidnapped by Bowser, and once again it is up to Mario to rescue her. Oddly, however, this time she was kidnapped while on an amusement park ride that mashes people into spheres and shoots them via cannon at a giant dartboard. After the ride is hijacked and she is shot into the far reaches of Bowser’s castle, Mario eagerly jumps in the ride and goes spinning after her.
It may not be the most compelling story ever, but it does create a way for a pinball game to play as a non-linear quest. Each game table is a different world. Using cannons players can move from one table to another, clearing them in any order they like. All five worlds have a different theme, challenge, and enemies from the standard Mario stable of characters.
The opening world, an amusement park, starts players off knocking goombas and ghosts into oblivion. The quest moves on through the grass, desert, water, and winter worlds before eventually ending at Bowser’s castle. Worlds are divided into multiple boards, which each fill the Game Boy screen. Although it is possible to travel to each world from the beginning of the game, many paths to different boards can only be accessed after a certain number of stars are collected by completing challenges.
Challenges fall into a few categories, including defeating all the enemies on the screen, collecting red coins within a time limit, and finishing off the boss that waits at the end of each world. Boss fights, like some of the other challenges, usually involve more than simply pounding enemies with the ball. Instead, most rely on indirect attacks using the environment or power-ups.
Power-ups can be purchased from Toad with coins dropped by defeated foes, and using them adds quite a bit of variety to the game. No Mario game would be complete without mushrooms. This time, they either turn Mario into a double-sized ball or shrink him to sizes small enough to enter holes and access hidden areas. Extra balls, warp pipes, and Yoshi-egg multiballs are a few of the extras that spice things up.
Pinball Land‘s sound and graphics are both top-notch, featuring some of the most interesting graphics seen on the GBA. Level designs are imaginative, without becoming cluttered enough to overwhelm or distract from the action. Mario and his enemies are all crisp and colorful, with a pre-rendered look reminiscent of Donkey Kong Country.
Animation is fluid, which goes a long way toward creating an illusion of depth. Elements bounce around convincingly, with no slowdown or glitches to distract from the frantic gameplay. Sound effects are all familiar themes from Mario’s world, which are used appropriately and accent play well. The music, as well, does a good job of setting an upbeat and quick tone without becoming repetitive or annoying.
Unfortunately, all of this polished gameplay begins to dull after a few hours of play. Pinball Land may be challenging, but it is still rarely dangerous. Players are only actually in danger of losing a life on the bottom screen of each world, so, as more areas are opened, the player spends little time in places where there is real danger of failing. This subtly shifts the focus from the normal pinball-style fight to keep the ball in play to a more sedate quest to explore all the areas and complete all the challenges.
The challenges can be hard, and take some practice to master, but without the rush of fighting to stay alive they lose some of their excitement. Removing the fear of losing a ball and including the ability to save your game creates individual pinball sessions that go on almost indefinitely. After playing for hours to reach all the goals, players will tend to feel finished with the game. Without the thrill of standard pinball, they may be unlikely to play through it again.
This is balanced somewhat by the addition of a time attack mode, where players race to take down a world’s boss in the shortest time possible. After having beaten the bosses at least twice each to complete the standard game, though, this mode just doesn’t seem as compelling as it could.
Physics in Pinball Land, like its graphics, are more suited to a cartoon than the real world. The ball’s movements, particularly off the tips of the flippers, aren’t quite what one might expect. This may be a source of frustration for the first few minutes, but after playing for a while the exaggerated responses begin to fit the tables well, allowing for shots that loop around the screen and reach areas that wouldn’t be accessible on a real table.
Though not without its annoyances, Mario Pinball Land is still an entertaining game. Its engaging mixture of game types and interesting graphics combine to create a fun ride, but one that is sadly over too soon.