It had all the markings of a fantastic spinoff game: It’s based on a very-unlikely source series; the production values were super high; and it’s a virtual pinball game, I mean what more do you really need? Well I can tell you now that you apparently need a lot more than that: I was finally able to pop in Mario Pinball Land for the Game Boy Advance this past weekend, and oh boy did this one disappoint.
First and foremost, I think we need to talk about the kind of unprecedented amount of quality pinball spinoff video games there are out there. Big ones come to mind like Sonic Spinball on the Genesis/Mega Drive and Kirby’s Pinball Land on the original Game Boy (Special shoutout for being one of the earliest games I ever beat all on my own!). But there are also some other games that had great pinball outings: Pokemon Pinball and Pokemon Pinball: Ruby & Sapphie were both good games, as were Pinball of the Dead and the pseudo-sequel to Sonic’s game, Sonic Pinball Party both on the GBA. While there were duds along the way as well, clearly it was possible to adapt a seemingly unadaptable game to the pinball genre.
My excitement for Mario Pinball Land was high. I bought the game about eight years back, I believe from an online seller. My younger mind thinking the game would be a must play upon arrival… but as you can expect of me, I didn’t get around to playing it until recently. I had my GBA SP sitting out thanks to an upcoming episode of the RPGaymer podcast, and thought I should pop in a few games to play before putting it away again. Mario Pinball Land came to mind immediately, and a couple minutes later, I was finally realizing my dream from 2014.
Mario Pinball Land tries to blend the Mushroom Kingdom in all its glory into a pinball game. From the outside this is achieved quite splendidly. The visuals are stunning for a GBA game. Mario, Peach, Toad, and Bowser, among many other familiar faces, look fantastic, and there’s even some great sound clips of Mario and others sprinkled throughout. Stages are reminiscent of locales from past games, like Bowser’s Castle, the wooded Mushroom Kingdom itself, a dry desert scenario, so on and so forth. The goal in each pinball table is to collect a star, just like in other Mario games at the time. In truth, if you didn’t know this was a pinball game from just hearing all that, you’d expect to just be playing a typical Mario platformer on the Game Boy Advance.
Sadly, it’s where the pinball comes in that the game falters. Even if you have all the trimmings of a decent Mario game, if you’re going for a pinball game and you can’t get the pinball right, we’re gonna have some problems. First off, the game just isn’t well thought out. Each zone you enter is a non-scrolling pinball table, with the aforementioned goal of collecting a star. However, zones don’t save progress as you move between them. For example, if you’re trying to defeat a trio of Shy Guys to get a star, defeat two of the three, and then shoot your pinball (which is Mario, by the way… don’t ask) into another zone, returning to the Shy Guy zone will spawn all the Shy Guys again. This wouldn’t be so bad if this weren’t a pinball game, meaning you do rely heavily on luck for some of your shots and tasks.
Other examples of “Did anyone play test this?” include a really annoying sequence early on in my playthrough. A zone in the Desert world has you simultaneously trying to hit a pair of Sphinx at the edge of the table, which will raise a pyramid in the middle of the table, which can be used to defeat a flock of vultures floating around said pyramid, which can also be entered to begin the next zone. Each of these tasks could have been their own goal, that I as the player would have logically come to find happen through normal play, but instead they’re all thrown at you with no real regard to flow. Then, if you happen to hit your ball into the pyramid by mistake, when you exit you’ll have to do most of those tasks again from the beginning! It’s not a good system, and immediately becomes tedious and unfun.
Speaking of unfun, the pinball included tries too much to be a Mario game and not long enough being a pinball game. There are often times where I would need to time my shot with something moving on the board, so I would just hold my flipper with the ball until it was lined up, and then shoot. Basically I was not playing the game in order to advance the game. This happened often across multiple stages. I get that this is more a Mario game featuring pinball, but the core pinball mechanics were neglected in favor of a pretty Mushroom Kingdom feel, and that was a mistake.
If we look at Sonic Spinball, one of the earliest successes in the pinball spinoff, we see elements that retained the Sonic formula: The presentation is just like Sonic 2 on the Genesis, the music is spot on, Sonic is still able to do Sonic-y things like spindash and jump, and you can even do pinball specific stuff, like nudge your ball and interact with the board itself to open up new pathways and goals. Mario Pinball Land delivers on the presentation but neglects all the elements of gameplay you’d care about, i.e. the pinball. Thankfully the developers, Fuse Games, learned from this experience and their next spinoff pinball game, the Nintendo DS’s Metroid Prime Pinball was much better received, as it was a functional pinball game.
High hopes were crushed after a few hours of Mario Pinball Land. I was expecting something fun and entertaining, like so many Mario games before, but instead was given a mediocre at best pinball game with a Mario skin slapped on top. There are certainly worse pinball video games out there, but what you should really be focusing on is how there are plenty other better ones. Hell, there’s three on the GBA itself that I’d say are way more worth your time. This transgression to pinball games doesn’t falter my opinion of loving pinball spinoffs though, and I really hope Nintendo and team can come together and really give Mario and crew the pinball game they deserve! Or maybe just skip Mario entirely and give me that Legend of Zelda pinball game. Oh my god I’d love that…