Mario’s Bouncing Balls
Mario Pinball Land is not your typical pinball game. Like a double-edged sword, the unique game design is what separates this game from any other pinball game, but it is also its downfall.
The Mario gang is at a carnival and Princess Peach decides to take a ride in a new machine that turns the user into a ball. A pair of Goombas take advantage of the situation and launch Peach away from the carnival and into danger. Mario, without even thinking, transforms himself into a ball and follows Peach. This might be the first mistake of Mario Pinball Land. Does a pinball game really need a story? Mario has taken many roles over his career, but assuming a pinball is probably the worst.
Graphically, the game looks great. Almost everything onscreen is a nicely rendered 3D model. However, looks are not everything. The game play mechanics suffer from lack of excitement and tedious movements of progression. Each game board fits on a single GBA screen. There is no vertical or horizontal scrolling. Most screens lack any type of basic pinballing elements like bumpers, ramps, or secret side passages. Instead, each screen will display an enemy or two and a passageway to get to the next screen. Stars must be collected in order to progress through the game just like in Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine. For example, you can only open a 4 star door when you have four or more stars. I appreciate the modern gaming ideas the developers try to incorporate into this game, but it just does not truly fit the ideal pinball game.
Stars are collected by defeating bosses or by performing other tasks like killing all the enemies on the screen. Unfortunately, this is more frustrating than it sounds. The ball physics are very inaccurate and the game drops a serious amount of frames no matter which board you are playing on. It is very difficult and frustrating to play a choppy pinball game. Lining up what would be simple shots can take dozens of attempts before getting it correct as the flippers do not respond well with the ball. The speed of the ball is not the problem; the choppy game play is.
Besides from the dropped frames, the game is just plain boring. Each screen only has a couple of interactive objects. In any other pinball game, each successful tap of the ball with a flipper will generate at least a few hundred points by hitting bumpers, barriers, ramps, etc. I cannot even count how many times I launched the Mario ball through the game board and hit nothing and collected zero points. It can be understood if this happens once in a great while, but it inexcusable if it happens a dozen times in a row. Pinball games should be filled to the brim with action, a super high scoring point system, and hopefully, a mini game or two.
The developers tried to spice up their boring gameplay by adding usable items. These items are found in item boxes or they can be purchased in Toad’s shop. The “B” button can use these items at will any time during the game. Each item is lacking in some way, however. For example, the multi-ball feature is extremely weak. One extra Yoshi egg ball will accompany the usual Mario ball. Adding one other ball is pretty lame. I want to see a half dozen balls on screen at one time. The lightning bolt can be used to eliminate all on screen enemies at one time. This item is rare and costs a lot to purchase, but there will never be a good time to use it since the player will never see more than a few enemies simultaneously.
Next to the poor and choppy ball physics, the unforgivable backtracking is the most frustrating part of this game. The player might remain on a single game screen for several minutes, about to collect a much needed star, and the ball will fall down to the previous screen. Once the player manages to get back to where he was, he will find that everything is reset and all the work must be done over again. Nothing is more frustrating than losing something after you worked hard to obtain it. The game teases players this way.
The game has tons of sound effects but most of them come from previous Mario games like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros 3. While these cartoony effects worked great in those games, they become a little annoying in Mario Pinball Land. I would have preferred new sound effects over recycling old ones. But Mario’s comical yelping and grunting will help purge some of this pain.
Mario Pinball Land is a very boring game. There is not enough substance on each game board. Trying to take the pinball video game genre in a different direction is a noble step, but at the same time, you cannot remove things that define pinball games and make them fun. Massive point totals, a solid multi-ball feature, accurate ball-to-flipper physics, mini games, and tons of interactive objects are the most important elements in any pinball game. Adding a tilt feature would have been nice. Mario Pinball Land does not contain the same addictive quality that other pinball games have due to slow and inaccurate game play. Just like Mario Vs Donkey Kong, Mario Pinball Land is very disappointing. If you need to play a pinball game on your GBA, then look for Pokemon Pinball: Ruby and Saffire, Pinball of the Dead, or even Kirby’s Pinball Land.