When the Game Boy Advance was released in 2001, it opened up a whole new world to portable gamers. Previously locked in the grip of technology far behind what home console players were used to, the upgraded Game Boy Advance in its slick purple shell upped the ante significantly with improved graphics, improved sound, and increased cartridge space, which meant the days of staring at bland games were over. Touting a "32-bit processor", this little system could kick some major butt compared to its older brothers, the Game Boy and the Game Boy Color. And with it came a flurry of more impressive titles than ever seen in the handheld market. Launch titles included Castlevania: Circle of the Moon, a game that continued in the footsteps of the always popular Castlevania: Symphony of the Night exploration style; Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2, whose Game Boy Color counterpart was scoffed in comparison to this more accurate masterpiece; and Konami Krazy Racers, which put that delicious Mode 7 to good use, creating a deliciously spicy racing title rivaling the best of the SNES. Of course, Nintendo needed its own killer app to jumpstart the GBA's success, but upon its release in North America, they only had one game of their own to offer.
And it probably wasn't the game players expected. Super Mario Advance isn't an original game per se; it's more of a reimagining of Super Mario Bros. 2 on the NES. At first glance, it may seem like Nintendo was really lazy and, instead of creating something original, just rehashed what they knew was popular. But Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn't even the most popular Mario game. They could have easily retooled Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World to get the Game Boy Advance selling like hotcakes on a cold winter morn, but then again, sometimes we never know WHAT Nintendo's thought process looks like.
The premise of Super Mario Advance hasn't changed much — Mario still finds a weird door in his dream, and inside he hears a voice beckoning to be saved. Upon awakening, Mario finds a nearby cave, and inside he discovers the same world he saw in his dream. With his brother Luigi, Princess Peach (no longer just the "Princess"), and her retainer, Toad, they all venture in on a new adventure to save the world of Subcon from the evil frog king and one-time villain, Wart.
When you begin playing Super Mario Advance, a goofy guy shouts out "Choose a game!" and you can select between the new version of "Super Mario 2" (not Super Mario Bros. 2 — I guess the word "Bros." shouldn't be there, seeing as how there are now four characters, two of whom aren't brothers, and one of whom isn't even human) and a version of the original arcade Mario Bros. that can be played via link cable (or later, the Wireless Adapter) with a friend. Not being a major fan of Mario Bros., and also because I'm flying solo here, let's just stick with Super Mario 2.
The game closely resembles the 16-bit remake from Super Mario All-Stars for the SNES, chock full of colourful backgrounds, updated sprites and foreground objects, and an upgraded soundtrack to better reflect the capabilities of the system. Mario & Co. still have their basic abilities: Mario's the more well-rounded character, the jack-of-all-trades, if you will; Luigi has the power of high jumping, indicated by his ever-flailing legs; Princess Peach can float through the air for short periods of time, though we're still not sure how (I'm presuming gas); and Toad can pick up items more quickly. The main draw — picking up items either directly or via sprouts poking through the ground — is still very much a key element to the gameplay. It looks and feels very similar to what you had already seen in Super Mario Bros. 2. It would not be unusual to assume you bought a flat-out port. You'd be wrong, however, as the other major alterations make themselves easily known.
I noticed it immediately from the very first second: your character starts out SMALL. In the older versions, when you respawned from a death or just started a new game, you'd automatically be in taller "Super" form. That isn't the case, here, and it makes the game slightly more difficult, as revival comes with a one-hit death possibility, unless you find health. To counteract this, health is in greater supply; some hearts can even be plucked from the ground, a new feature here. In addition, remember when you found mushrooms that would add to your health bar? Some stages in Super Mario Advance feature MORE than two of them, unlike in the past, so you could have more health in theory. Finding them is a pain (tossing a potion to make a door appear in just the right place is still a challenge to me).
While the basic level design remains the same, Nintendo has taken a few liberties here and there. Once you enter the very first area of the game and get to the bottom, a hill that looks just like a hill stretches and springs alive with some weird creature underneath! Who put that there?! Some items have been shuffled around. That 1-Up in the very first level is no longer where you remember: it's inside a cave...in a bubble! Who put that there?! In that same level, when you're hopping up through the clouds, there are jars up there! Who put those there?! As another example, the second level has been shrunk, its large bottomless pit that you have to traverse with a flying carpet significantly shortened to make life easier. And going inside the vases isn't quite as dark as it used to be. In fact, they replace the atmospheric earthy-shaded simplicity with bright pastels and a merry-go-round theme song to go with it.
Whether big or small, Subcon has it all.
Super Mario Advance also adds a new collectable in the form of Ace coins. There are five of these large coins in each stage, and by grabbing each one, you add a percentage point to the game's completion total. Plus, collecting all five earns you a 1-Up. A few of them are placed in really awkward locations that will likely force you to lose a life to catch them, but otherwise, they're pretty easy to capture. Another collectable comes once you finish the game and unlock the Yoshi Challenge, where you are asked to return to each stage and seek out well-hidden Yoshi eggs. This is for people who love to torture themselves.
One thing that REALLY stands out is the inclusion of voice acting. And I don't just mean with the playable characters; I mean EVERYONE has something to say. Birdo sure loves to smacktalk before getting pummeled by her own mouth eggs. While hearing the bosses give a short speech for each battle is a treat, having to hear a shout every time you do ANYTHING is downright painful. "Haw! Hiyaw! Haw!" Toad sounds like a parrot severely suffering after trying hard drugs for the first time. Even Peach's normally soothing voice can make a grown man wince after a while.
Now here's something I wouldn't have expected: they've added a score function. In neither the NES original or the SNES remake did they need this, and I see very little reason for it to exist now, other than for boasting rights. Yet I highly doubt that most players really care much about score, so adding it here seems like a futile effort. The only explanation I can muster is that this port may be partially based on the enhanced Satellaview version (a modem peripheral for the Super Famicom that allowed for games and other media to transmitted via satellites at pre-determined times, similar to TV stations), entitled "BS Super Mario USA Power Challenge". Transmitted in March-April 1996 (and re-run in June of the same year), this version broke up the quest into four broadcasts, each of which also featured live narration via the system's SoundLink function to give advice to players as they quested onward. This port also had a score counter. But why they'd use this over the far more prevalent All-Stars version, I'd never know. Guess this was just closer on the shelf so the programmers didn't have to reach as far or get up and risk dropping their broasted chicken thighs on the keyboard. Score does play a key role in earlier extra lives, however, as knocking out multiple enemies continuously in a row increases in score count until you eventually get a 1-Up.
Other key modifications include having some larger enemies; although they're not frequent, giant Shyguys are known to wander around or even be hidden underground. They're just big. They don't cause any more havoc than your average Snifit or murderous Albatoss. While most enemies otherwise remain the same, the Mouser boss at the end of World 3 has been replaced with something entirely new: a large robotic version of Birdo! Robirdo looks a bit messed up, like it was built by Wart at the very last minute, but she's actually rather tough by comparison to some of the other attackers. There's also some new music cues, and I like how someone opted to have characters do a cool backflip when they do a charged jump.
All in all, though, it's a coat of fresh paint on an already proven platformer. The same frustrations from 1988 are rampant here, plus a few new ones. While the game still holds up, it's disappointing that the Game Boy Advance didn't even get an original Mario platformer in its lifespan, especially one to celebrate the system's arrival. Granted, neither did the Game Boy Color, having to accept only a remake of the original Super Mario Bros. instead of anything new. Nevertheless, Super Mario Advance serves as a decent demo to show off how "advanced" the system was by comparison to everything earlier, and it brought a classic to the attention of a new generation of Nintendo fans.