(click, click)
Ok, that's two, only one more… Damn!
(rapid button-clicking)
What the hell? Aargh… Frickin' $&%!
(SP crashes loudly)
Ok, back up the two screens, hit the pulley and… damn!
(click, click, click)
Noooo… who the hell would design something like…
Goddamned fat bastard Bowser!!! Shove that damn flipper up…
(plastic cracking)


If you had been sitting near me while I waited at the airport for a recent flight, the excerpt above is what you would have heard, and you would have thought I was a lunatic. With this brief snippet in mind (taken from hours and hours just like it), it's pretty obvious that time spent with the game wasn't all sunshine and roses. However, I honestly do believe that Mario Pinball Land has a great deal of unrealized potential despite the frustration it put me through.

Oh, and I also need a new SP.

Instead of the classic static playfield, or even the usual scrolling videogame pinball approach, Mario Pinball Land for the Nintendo GameBoy Advance tries something fairly new. The developers at Fuse have shifted the focus of traditional p-ball by making each playfield, or "board," exactly the size of the GameBoy screen. This eliminates the need to aim for things that are offscreen, and puts everything right where you can see it. I liked the approach—it's small, compact, and to the point.

The other big departure is that instead of the usual hot spots, chutes, and various stationary targets littering the surface of pinball tables, the emphasis is on hitting moving targets. These things take the form of classic Mario enemies like ghostly Boos, hard-shelled Koopas, and those annoying red fish that always seem to hit you no matter which way you swim.

These two changes seem innocuous, yet end up being quite fundamental to the formula. As a result, Mario Pinball Land feels significantly different than pretty much everything else out there, and this is both good and bad.

It's good, but only because I'm weird. Let me clarify: I have to admit that I'm sort of an oddball when it comes to pinball games in that I don't care about racking up high scores, but I do like it when there are goals to achieve. In Mario Pinball Land's story mode, each board is its own little quest. Meet each requirement, earn a star. Earn enough stars, move on to new boards. Throw in a few bosses, and you've got it.

I enjoyed this setup very much, and the variety of the boards offered seemed to be satisfactory. Rather than three or four large boards (as is the norm), this cart has twenty-odd small ones divided up between several themed worlds. There's Bowser's Castle, a desert filled with Spiny cactus creatures, and a frozen land populated with snowmen. Anyone who's played any of the regular Mario games will feel right at home. However, the game has enough hidden downsides that the charm likely to hook potential fans will wear off soon enough.

In the beginning segments, things were great. I was knocking out circles of mushroom Goombas and getting the hang of moving the ball around reliably. It took seconds to grasp, it controlled well, and it was different enough to pique my interest. But, in later areas the going gets significantly tougher. That's the bad part.

In a nutshell, many boards require absolute pinpoint accuracy with the ball, with no room for error. To make it even tougher, there are usually obstacles placed directly in the path your ball needs to travel in order to reach the already-hard-to-hit areas, so they're even harder to reach. Patience is definitely required, especially since pinball isn't exactly something that comes to mind when I think of pulling off intricate, multi-step (and sometimes even timed) maneuvers that require a good deal of precision. I mean, the ball is just sort of whinging around bouncing to and fro, and in this particular game, it usually felt more like luck than skill when I managed to nail my target.

In one example of the sort of maddening difficulty at work here, I was desperately trying to get my ball into a gate in the upper-left corner of the screen, but blocking the way was a "cannon" warp used to navigate between the worlds. Every time I hit the cannon, it became a little vortex that sucked my ball in, and shooting the ball past it was mission impossible. In another section, in one of my least favorite challenges, I had to use the face of a sunken pyramid like a ramp to launch my ball into the air and hit vultures circling above. This was pretty tough to do with any accuracy, and required many, many retries.

Those kinds of things were bad, but mostly tolerable… in small amounts. What really pushes it over the edge is the fact that the boards in each land are connected, one atop the other. If the ball falls past the flippers on the lowest board, you lose a ball. But, if you're on a higher board when the ball falls through, you go back to the board immediately underneath. While this sounds like a generous thing at first, falling back down to a lower board and then shooting your way back to the one you were just at becomes a seriously annoying chore, and any progress you made is automatically reset if you leave the screen and come back.

Finally, the boss battles here would test the patience of a saint. The worst one, as I alluded to above, was Bowser. In that excessively intricate encounter, the board is a large circle with a wheel on each side, a target in the center, and two Thwomp blocks suspended from the ceiling by chains. Bowser is a huge figure, and walks around the room blocking shots. To knock him out, the wheels on the sides of the room have to be hit with the ball and spun to raise up the Thwomps. Once raised, the target in the center of the room has to be struck (and for something dead set in the center of the screen, it was amazingly hard to tag.) After hitting the target, the Thwomps fall and make Bowser roll over onto his back. Does that hurt him? No, of course not. That would be too easy. By knocking him ass over teakettle, I earned a tiny window of time to work the returning ball into position and strike Bowser's exposed underside with it. These few seconds are so tight that it drove me completely batty. On top of all that, Bowser has the ability to stomp and freeze up my flippers—and that leads to a cracked SP. Why? Because when the ball falls between the flippers, it gets sent two boards away and all damage you've done is reset to zero. My SP is lucky it was only cracked, really.

I'm a big fan of gimmicky pinball games and I also like Mario, so this little cart seemed tailor-made for me. It started strong and kept me playing for a few hours, but everything went downhill so rapidly that it was force of will alone that enabled me to see the credits roll. In fact, I grew such hatred for it that it went out my window and became a gift to the creatures living at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. I'm sure the sea cucumbers will get more use out of it than I will. Mario Pinball Land still strikes me as a good idea, but in its current state it falls obscenely short of the fun and playability that usually comes with a Mario game. The rating is 4 out of 10

Brad Gallaway
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