Redeeming Jesse Kellogg: Looking Past Bad Memories and Loving Super Mario Land

Growing up, everybody knew somebody who was inexplicably cool.

Whom you couldn’t stand.

That kid who drew popularity like mosquitoes to a bug light; luring them in without reason, only to destroy them when they got close. Or least, that’s the assumption when you make when you don’t understand what’s going on and feel like an outsider looking in.

The muse of my ire was a guy named Jesse Kellogg. He kind of swooped in during fifth grade with his charming smirk, fast one-liners and rat tail. I can’t think of any standout traits the kid had, other than glowing with the musk of coolness. Whatever his voodoo magic was, he quickly became the king of the hill in my Boy Scout troop and I didn’t much care for it.

A time honored tradition for Boy Scouts in the Black Hills was the yearly jamboree, in which all the local troops would file into the local mall, set up semi-educational booths that were to teach us social skills and hob-knob with shoppers in order to teach them the Boy Scout Way.

It’s was here, back in 1989 or ’90 in which Jesse Kellogg earned the brunt of my loathing one fine spring day. When we all should have been smiling and offering passersby a lesson in the joys of tree ring aging, instead the kids were mesmerized by Jesse playing Super Mario Land on his shiny new Game Boy.

Of course I wanted to watch him play a Mario game in any spot he so chose, but my resentment towards him just led me to doing my duty to the troop and occasionally scowling in quiet rage instead.

Why am I bringing up my decades old pre-teen angst? To let you know that I carried that same misguided feeling towards Super Mario Land as well. It’s dumb, I know; but I kind of carry a lot of nostalgia based on the games of the time, and when I think of Super Mario Land… I think of Jesse Kellogg.

While using the term “making amends” seems a bit drastic for playing a twenty-five year old game after the fact, Super Mario Land became available on the 3DS Virtual Console and I decided that maybe I should give it a shot.

Much like Super Mario Bros. 2 before it, Super Mario Land feels like it’s a Mario game in the loosest sense of the term. It might star the titular plumbing hero, but the rest of the game feels foreign. You might be quick to point that maybe it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing like the aforementioned NES classic, but in reality I think it had more to do with the hardware it was created for.

I’m not one to hold legacy against a game; if it’s fun it’s fun.

Using the word foreign to describe the feel of Super Mario Land is a good one; most of the worlds are based on actual locations, which for Mario is a weird place to be. You start off in what looks to be Egypt with pyramids in the background and enemies akin to sphinxes. You then travel through the Easter Islands, Japan and some weird, misplaced tropical places filled with spaceships. The Bermuda Triangle maybe?

On top of that, the enemies kind of theme themselves as well. There are little karate guys who try to drop kick you and Moai statues who run full tilt in your directions. Occasionally you see familiarity such as goombas and koopa troopas, but even they are off-putting in either design or attack.

It’s a lot like those old knock-off toys you’ll see in random gas stations or smaller big box stores. You know what I’m talking about: those action figures who looked just enough like He-Man or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to trick kids into buying them but being different enough to allude getting dinged for copyright infringement.

Even though it might not be official, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time with it.

There are a couple of things in Super Mario Land that set it apart from other games in the series, even today.

First and foremost is the Super Ball, the sole power-up in the game. While it comes across as a lazy rendition of the fireball, it actually manages to be its own crazy beast. The trajectory feels the same at first, but after its first bounce it kind of takes off in whatever direction it so chooses. If it hits anything else in the level, it bounces off and keeps going.

It can be a little aggravating for those honed on the skills of fireball tossing, but after a while you begin to appreciate its nuances. You use the Super Ball often to collect coins in little alcoves that can’t be reached by a supersized Mario and eventually you get the hang of the trajectory and can start dropping those annoying flying baddies from safety.

The other innovation is the inclusion of the occasional shoot ‘em up stage that has you patrolling the skies or waterways with a biplane or submarine. They’re a nice little reprieve from the standard hopping and bopping, created in such a way as to give the player an edge the whole time. While most people prefer the bullet hell style of today’s shmups, I enjoyed the simplicity of being able to cover the screen in my own projectiles and watch the enemies fall.

For all my bellyaching about the undeserved attention Jesse Kellogg got, I can at least go on record and say that I’ve found some redemption in his attached memory to Super Mario Land.

It deserved a fair shot and got one, and proved to be better than the stigma. At this point I’ve actually played through it about three times, which means it’s the type of game that is easy to decompress with. It has a low challenge threshold, it’s short and the music is charming, something I’m sure I would have appreciated…twenty years ago when I should have played it instead of being a pouty Patty.

As for Jesse? His reign was short lived; the only year he attended my school was the fifth grade. As mean as it is to say, I can’t say I missed his rat tail a whole lot. However, even though my memory of him is an unduly negative one, at least I detached that feeling with the quirky little game I associated with him.