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Nintendo 3DS Virtual Console: Hands-on with Super Mario Land and Link's Awakening

As part of this week’s deluge of 3DS info, Nintendo revealed its plans to populate a new 3DS Virtual Console with classic Game Boy and Game Boy Color games. This makes sense – with the 3DS as Nintendo’s new handheld, why not offer older handheld games as digital downloads? But uh, Game Boy games are cruddy, black and white messes that looked like ass by the mid ‘90s, and Game Boy Color was little more than a stopgap before the Game Boy Advance took control in 2001. Are there enough games to keep this thing alive for years to come? We’re not quite sure… but Nintendo did pick two great games to kick off the service.

Super Mario Land

First released during the 1989 Game Boy launch, Super Mario Land put the Nintendo’s hero in a new world with new powers, and to this day remains one of the oddest games in the series. Instead of Fire Flowers, Mario picks up iron balls that ricochet around the screen. Instead of saving Peach from Bowser, Mario’s rescuing Daisy from an alien named Tatanga. Koopa Troopa shells explode when you jump on them. The oddities go on… we went over this in greater detail here, but yeah, it’s definitely a weirdo entry. There’s even a space-shooter level with Mario in a ship!

Despite its age and piddly graphics, SML is actually still quite fun. The running and jumping controls aren’t as tight as you’d expect from mainline Mario games though, so be prepared to adjust to this game’s rather unique take on the series’ “physics.” As a kid I put up with it because zomg Mario, but today it’s noticeably different (i.e. worse).

Above: It also has some damn catchy music

One big ol’ bonus longtime gamers will notice right away is how clean and clear the Game Boy graphics are on the 3DS screen. If you happened to own a bulky, murky OG Game Boy, you undoubtedly remember its awful, awful display. Everything was blurry as hell, and there was no built-in light. Later revisions to the hardware (Game Boy Pocket and GBC) cleaned things up, but you still had to sit under an external light source to see anything. Now, this old-ass game is finally crystal clear and backlit like nature intended. We’re all set to play through this again on 3DS, provided the price point isn’t too high. We’re thinking $4 (compared to $5 for NES games on Wii) is a fair amount. Waiting on you, Nintendo.

When the Game Boy Color arrived in 1998, the hot idea at the time was to re-create old black-and-white games in DAZZLING COLOR. Super Mario Bros, Tetris and The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening all received these “DX” makeovers, though only the latter was on display this week. Don’t be surprised if the other two show up before too long, given the state of the GBC’s library…

Fittingly, Link’s Awakening is also an oddball entry in a long-running Nintendo franchise. No Ganon, no Triforce, not even an appearance by Princess Zelda – no, this all takes place on the mysterious island of Koholint, and chronicles Link’s journey to find and save the Wind Fish. The ending (1993 spoilers!) heavily suggests the entire game was a dream, which makes sense given how bizarre the world, enemies and villagers are – Mario, Luigi, Chain Chomps and Yoshi all have cameos, for example.

Above: And like Mario Land, Link’s Awakening ALSO has excellent music

As for this 3DS version, it was a timed demo, so one can only get so far in a Zelda game with such constraints. I poked around the overworld for a bit, and the only real discrepancy I noticed was somewhat softer visuals. The sprites definitely had a slight haze to them, though in a “cleaning it up” kind of way, rather than a “why is this all blurry?” foul up.

With SML and Link’s Awakening on the way, it’s safe to assume other Mario/Zelda games will be trickled out over the next year or so. Super Mario Land 2, Wario Land II, Oracle of Seasons and Ages are all safe bets for the future, though based on news this week the entire Virtual Console service won’t be up and running on day one anyway. Gives us some time to think about what we’d want to see make the jump. Oh wait, we did that already.

Jan 20,2011