Super Mario Advance, a Twenty Year Reunion
I find it odd that despite being known for its killer portables, Nintendo has bothered very little to come up with impressive mainline Mario games for those systems. At least until the release of New Super Mario Bros for the Nintendo DS. Although, that game ended up taking the franchise into a downward spiral of mediocrity that would only be mitigated with the release of Super Mario Odyssey in 2017. During the Game Boy Advance era, for instance, there wasn’t a single new Mario platformer released for the system. Case and point, its launch title, and possible killer app at the time, was Super Mario Advance, which is now twenty years old, alongside the GBA itself. If you’re feeling like a dinosaur right now, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
For those who have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, Super Mario Advance was actually remake of the American version of Super Mario Bros 2, released in 1988. For those who have been living under yet another, even bigger rock for the past thirty-two years, this version of Super Mario Bros 2 was actually a reskin of another Nintendo game called Doki Doki Panic. Although, the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros 2 was nothing more than Super Mario Bros with newer, far more frustrating levels.
Super Mario Bros 2 was a fantastic game in its own right and has never been considered a black sheep despite being so different from its siblings. However, I wonder why was this game chosen to be remade and released as the Game Boy Advance’s flagship launch title.
The core game is here, completely unchanged. You can play as Mario (the balanced character), Luigi (slower, but with the best jumping skills), Peach (weaker, but can hover), and Toad (stronger, with poor jumping skills). Instead of stomping on enemies in order to kill them, you either need to stand on top of them, grab them and throw them onto another foe, or throw a vegetable in order to kill them, in a move I like to call “the reverse Popeye”. The gameplay isn’t as fast-paced as the original Super Mario Bros, being more focused on exploration and puzzle solving.
All of the warp zones and bosses are here as well, so if you want a proper recreation of Super Mario Bros 2, but on the go, Super Mario Advance is a perfect fit. Having it on-the-go was a big deal as well. The game was significantly longer than other Mario games, as well as harder, especially for a kid, so the addition of a battery save system on a portable version of such a game felt like a perfect addition.
Finally, besides Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario Advance also included a fully remade version of the original Mario Bros arcade released in 1983. Not a lot to talk about here: it’s a proper recreation of that underrated classic, albeit running on a slower framerate and slightly different physics in order to comply with the GBA’s small screen size.
Being a launch title, Super Mario Advance was supposed to showcase the GBA’s graphical and audio capabilities. While the game isn’t exactly the most impressive visual showcase of the system’s launch lineup (that award goes to F-Zero: Maximum Velocity), it did prove that the GBA’s soundchip, while still a piece of crap, was leagues better than what the Game Boy Color could pull off. Not only was the soundtrack quality better than what the SNES could achieve, but it also featured tons of voice acting. Yep, voice acting. Charles Martinet and his gang are all here, in heavily compressed, but still pretty audible voice lines. That was the thing that impressed me the most back then, and it still does now.
With all that being said, I have two additional questions that need to be answered. The first one: does Super Mario Advance hold up? My answer is… kind of. All of the four Super Mario Advance games were basically remakes or remasters of classic Mario games, without offering many new features to make them stand the test of time.
While they are fun games in their own right, they face the issue of being considered useless the second a new portable system offers the same experience. Case and point, the Switch’s NES and SNES catalogues, while undercooked as hell, offer perfect renditions of these classic Mario games, as well as Super Mario All-Stars. There is little to no reason to revisit this version of Super Mario Bros 2 if the Switch, or even the 3DS, offer the same kind of experience nowadays. Charles Martinet’s voice acting isn’t enough to compete against save states in the Switch version, for instance.
My second question: was Super Mario Advance a good way to showcase the GBA’s capabilities at launch? Not quite. Other games like Rayman Advance and F-Zero: Maximum Velocity were better technological displays, be it with the former’s perfect translation of a 32-bit game into a portable or the latter’s great framerate or Mode-7 gimmicks. Super Mario Advance feels like a rushed job, a game that screams “so, hey, we have this new system coming out and Mario Kart: Super Circuit isn’t going to be ready by its launch date, so just come up with something easy and quick so we can have a Mario game at launch”.
Twenty years later, Super Mario Advance is still a very fun game, but it doesn’t hold up. It doesn’t feel like a memorable chapter in the franchise’s history. It feels like a rushed title made just so the Game Boy Advance would have a game featuring Nintendo’s most famous mascot at launch. There are much better ways to play classic and remastered versions of Super Mario Bros 2 nowadays on more advanced portable systems. But if you’re into retro collecting, then this game is a must-have for your Game Boy Advance library. Plus it’s probably stupidly cheap nowadays.