Over the years, Mario's done a lot of different things. He's jumped on hundreds of platforms, been sucked through thousands of tubes, played golf, tennis and gone racing in tiny go-karts. Mario Pinball Land marks his move into the world of pinball gaming, and while Mario Pinball Land is one of the most visually impressive Gameboy Advance titles on the market, the game behind the visual pizzazz isn't solid or lengthy enough to really justify the asking price.
If all you want is a title to really show off what the Gameboy Advance can do, visually speaking, then you'll love Mario Pinball Land, but most gamers will find it too short to be worth bothering with.
Mario Pinball Land (released as Super Mario Ball in Japan, which is actually the version reviewed) borrows from the existing Mario canon for its visual and gameplay inspiration. Thus, you're playing pinball in which Mario himself is the ball, with targets that include Koopas, Goombas, Piranha plants, and, of course, Bowser himself. Pinball Land consists of six worlds, each of which is represented by a multi-level table.
You can only lose a life by dropping off the bottom level of each table, but to unlock the doors that close off the higher levels of the tables, you've got to earn the number of stars (or greater) than the target number on each door. This is achieved by clearing all the targets (or meeting some other more specific criteria) on each level of each table.
Initially, while your star count is low, you'll find yourself flicking between worlds, hitting all the one and two-star doors, but eventually you'll earn enough to allow you to go wherever you want. As a mechanism to extend gameplay, it's reasonable enough, but you're always aware that it's just there to extend the title's play life.
Some challenges - especially the game's bosses - are harder than others, although that's often more as a result of Mario's rather unpredictable ball motion rather than solid design, and, naturally, there are a few well hidden challenges to overcome. Mario's also capable of being powered up, with the usual iconic Super Mario Bros powerups giving him the ability to grow large (a larger ball hits more targets), block the bottom of the table (with a pipe, naturally) or even go into a multiball situation via Yoshi eggs.
While it's not terribly challenging, Mario Pinball Land does present something of a challenge to anyone who loves pinball games, purely because Mario doesn't react in the way you'd expect a pinball to do. That may be accurate - we couldn't' find a nearby plumber who was willing to be crushed into a ball for testing purposes - but because you can't always predict how to shoot Mario at a particular target, at certain points in the game you may find yourself cursing the controls. It's also obvious that Mario's animation routines are very scripted in certain sections, as you'll sometimes spot him rolling in an unusual, counter-momentum way purely because that's what the game wants him to do.
Mario Pinball Land uses pre-rendered visuals to great effect. When you first begin to play you'll be surprised that the Gameboy Advance can output graphics at this level. Mario himself is particularly impressive, from the moment you watch him crushed into a ball onwards. As a ball he doesn't really animate all that much, but this has given the game's designers more time to tweak the animation of all of the game's enemies, especially the main bosses of each world. Each of the game's tables, which use standard Mario themes - Ice worlds, desert words, and so on - look suitably sumptuous as well. Audio is exactly what it's always been in Mario games - boppy stuff that you'll find terribly familiar, but that many gamers will find repetitive all too quickly.
Given that most gamers will be able to plough through the game's challenges in only a couple of day's worth of light play, leaving only the time trial option to keep them amused, you can't help but feel that more should have been made of the concept - especially considering the game's sparkling visuals. It's good to see Nintendo trying something different with the Mario licence, although surely there can't be too much left that Mario hasn't already done - but even the company's own Pokemon Pinball is a better and more challenging title, even if it doesn't have Mario Pinball Land's visual oomph.