GBA Review: Mario Pinball Land

So Mario’s wandering around the fair one day with Peach and spies Toad with some sort of weird contraption with giant toilet plungers. Excited, Toad demonstrates that his machine can squish anyone into a contortionistic ball to be shot out of a cannon. Rather than be horrified at this diabolic torture device, Peach gamely steps up and gets herself squished into a cute marble. Trouble strikes! Goombas appear and shoot the Peach-Ball into Bowser’s castle. Mario, for some odd reason, decides that he can better rescue her as a ball and climbs into the device with a determined look on his face. Only he is bouncy enough to rescue the princess.

If that intro seems… farfetched, well, it is. It would have been great to see a Mario pinball game, just without a desperately reaching attempt at connecting it with any sort of reality. Gamers tend to have a decent suspension of disbelief, and there was no reason to subject players to the goofy storyboard sequence introduction. Mario is a pinball, and that is that.

Mario Pinball Land doesn’t feel like an average pinball game. There are no flashing lights or tracks or ramps; instead, the player is treated to a bizarre mixture of side-scrolling platforming, adventure, and bad pinball physics.

Gameplay itself is relatively simple, following the standard two flippers at the bottom. The goal is to collect stars and to defeat bosses of four different zones, thus granting access to the final area. Generally what this boils down to three goals: destroy everything on the screen, destroy everything on the screen while desperately attempting to not have Mario go down the drain – resetting everything, and hitting a few switches with Mario before destroy everything on the screen… etc.

The game is constructed to encourage players to move back and forth between sections, trying to collect all the stars. Players advance within each area by knocking down a door at the top of the screen; this door has a number on it which represents the number of stars that a player must currently possess in order to pass through. Other areas might require specific items in order to get to; for instance, Mario can shrink himself and enter an igloo in the ice area. While there are a few mini-games and items thrown in, they do not do enough to break the tedium of the main goal. The mini-games tend to be short, and the items woefully limited.

Unfortunately, beyond repetitive goals, the game also suffers from a distinct lack of good design. It defies common sense that a rolled up plumber be able to move, much less in any posthaste manner, but the Mario ball could give Superman a run for his money. Any sort of accuracy with the flippers is more matter of luck than skill, and the game is mostly comprised of open fields that require direct placements to achieve any results. In addition to all this, sheer frustration results from the fact that game screens reset immediately if Mario accidentally falls to a lower level – no matter whether there was only one more spot to hit or whether the level was just starting. This, combined with the fact that there are far too many ways that Mario can exist any given level mean that players can expect to make dozens of attempts on the harder screens. The real difficulty lies not in the skill but in achieving enough patience to fumble through levels.

The game also features a time attack mode, but this is merely a rehash of the normal levels with the emphasis being on getting through each level as quickly as possible. Fortunately, it is possible to save progress, allowing permanent items (stars and keys) to remain in inventory from game to game. The cartridge only features one slot though, so players must make careful decisions regarding the save feature.

About the only good point of the game is that it’s a great example of a 3D game on the limited GBA platform. Graphics are bright, cheery, and varied according to the levels. Artists also point to previous Mario games through the visual scheme, and it is quite enjoyable for veterans to see what random Mario characters will appear. The audio is a different matter, with only the most elementary of soundtracks and effects.

Overall, Mario Pinball Land is a frustrating title that could have been much better. Recommended only to Mario nuts and those absolutely starved for pinball games.

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