This is a 2D platforming game to its core. You’ll control Mario as he runs and jumps through levels in order to reach the goal. Along the way, you’ll encounter enemies and power-ups – and that’s when it hits you. While you’ll still see the standard Goomba or Koopa on occasion, you’re dealing with foes that have never appeared in any other Mario game before or after this one. Kid Dracula, evil crows, archaeologist ants, and possessed umbrellas make their presence known throughout your journey. You’ll also meet some interesting bosses throughout the game, though the fights mostly play out as “jump on him until he’s dead”. Items can aid you in various ways; fire flowers allow you to launch projectiles, rabbit ears enable you to glide in the air, and stars grant you temporary invulnerability. Each level takes place in a different zone, so there’s room for lots of variety.
That’s the key here – variety. Everything about 6 Golden Coins just oozes that feeling of freshness. You’re going to journey to outer space, climb into a robotic Mario, go swimming, and play mini-games at the end of each level. There’s so much to do and see that the game feels short, even though it isn’t. The 32 levels can vary in terms of length, but each and every one feels unique and well-designed. With multiple routes to take to the goal, there’s also a lot of replay level packed into them.
The game’s physics are spot-on and Mario controls like a dream (unlike in the original Super Mario Land). He can also execute a spin attack by pressing down, but this is really just an option for advanced players to do some nifty stunts. Your eyes might need to adjust to the small screen size in contrast to the rather huge sprites, but it’s a piece of cake once you grasp the visual scale. Both the D-Pad and circle pad do an admirable job at keeping Mario on his toes.
As mentioned earlier, there is an overworld for Mario to traverse ala Super Mario World. It’s nothing particularly groundbreaking, serving merely as a hub for the various worlds, but it’s still nice to have total freedom over what levels you want to play first (aside from the locked castle). Once you gather the six golden coins, you’re free to enter the castle and face off against the game’s antagonist (hint: it’s not Bowser). You can redeem the regular coins you collect in levels for various power-ups, so the hub setup is somewhat practical. It’s infinitely better looking than a simple list of stages, that’s for certain.
The visuals and sounds are unforgettable. The game’s cast looks gorgeous in their bulky sprite form, pushing the standard of what Game Boy games could do at the time. Beyond the classic Mario fireball and coin sound effects, you’ll hear some of the most memorable tunes in all of Mario’s adventures. You’ll always want to play with the sound on rather than listen to your own music. It’s good news when a retro title can accomplish that. The too-frequent frame rate slowdown is rarely going to lead to an accidental death, but it's a real downside to the quality of the game's visuals.
The level challenge in each stage is pretty darn close to being "perfect". I had some trouble as a youngster, but I was still able to conquer the game without getting too frustrated. Giving the game a shot today, I found out that it still has some kick to it in certain stages. The best thing though, is that there are virtually no unfair deaths. It’s never the fault of the controls or the location of enemies – none of that ever matters. When you lose a life, it’s because your efforts were insufficient. The game is rather generous when it comes to gaining access to the bonus mini-games and with save points (plus the 3DS port has suspend points), so just about anyone should be able to enjoy this...for the most part.
There’s very little to criticise about the game as whole, aside from one bothersome flaw: whenever you get a Game Over, all of the golden coins you collected return to the bosses. You’ll have to defeat the bosses again if you want to be eligible to enter the castle at the end of the game.
Super Mario Land 2 is the kind of game that people can enjoy regardless of their gaming preferences. The top-notch game design packed into its tiny file size is proof that some Game Boy titles can actually warrant the premium price Nintendo charges on the eShop. If you only ever get one Virtual Console game, this should be one of your top candidates.