Mario Clash (Review)

Hell, why not? It’s been a little over two years since I played through the entire Virtual Boy library in one of my Twitter-based retro runs. I do have a Virtual Boy story: I wanted to try the demo one at a store, because I was 6-years-old and Virtual Reality was supposed to be the wave of the future. I imagined in my head that it would be like entering another world. But, the display unit had so many warnings on it about eye-strain, warnings about extended usage, and warnings about headaches that my parents vetoed it. That was 1995. Now, in 2023, my eyes are sore from playing a version of it that I didn’t have to shove my eyeballs into. Good call on not letting me play this, Mom & Dad! Good call. I remember very distinctly watch my Dad poking his head into the display unit, messing around with it for like thirty seconds, then taking his head out. He shook his head with a smirk and a giggle, which is his way of saying “well, that was crap.” He’s nice. No clue what happened with me.

Sign here _______ and initial here ___ to opt out of your eye coverage. You’re now free to enjoy the media of this review.

Despite the device’s reputation, I found two VB games I felt were worthy of recommending. One of these days, I’ll do a full review of Wario Land Virtual Boy, which was easily the best game in that run. But, the thing is, there’s been other Wario Land games in the years since. Lots more. And then there’s Mario Clash, which I certainly overrated my first time around. Originally, I walked away thinking this was really good, and that people who disliked it were out of their minds. Having now replayed it, it ain’t all that. It’s just barely okay. I think it stood out so much the first time around because Mario Clash is this weird first-party Nintendo anomaly where nothing like it has been attempted since. That’s especially strange for two reasons. #1: Mario Clash is a okay game that could be a great game, with the right adjustments. #2: Nintendo made a handheld platform, the 3DS, that seems like it would have been match made in heaven for it. But, it didn’t happen. In fact, it’s been almost thirty years, and Nintendo hasn’t attempted another game in this formula since. I don’t know if that’s because Mario Clash got a mixed-to-negative reception or because it’s too simple a premise.

I was 6 when Virtual Boy came out, but I never have used a real one. I didn’t even have interest in gaming until Santa Claus brought me the original PlayStation with Crash Bandicoot for Christmas in 1996. I kid you not, that is EXACTLY 500 days after Virtual Boy released in North America. Cosmic.

Mario Clash is such a weird name to begin with for what is basically a direct sequel to Mario Bros. As in the 1983 Nintendo coin-op that occasionally shows up as a mini-game in other Mario releases. All indications are that’s what this was originally going to be too. When Virtual Boy was shown off in playable form to the public for the first time in 1995 at the Consumer Electronics Show, one of the launch games announced was called VB Mario Land. Apparently, even though what screenshots are out there look nothing like Virtual Boy Wario Land (including a shot that looks like a Zelda-like dungeon), that single-level demo was retooled into Wario Land VB, while the mini-game for it was expanded into the very game I’m reviewing. Essentially an extended tech demo/proof of concept for the Virtual Boy’s stereoscopic 3D, Mario Clash’s combat is basically Mario Bros. with an extra plane of existence. I’ve never liked Mario Bros. I think it controls crappy and is a repetitive, sloggy grind. Mario Clash CAN be repetitive, and the level design can lead to a frustratingly slow pace, yet the combat is so cathartic that it never truly becomes boring. It just, you know, tries boring on to see if it fits.

Such a shame they never made a first-person Terminator game on Virtual Boy.

Mario Clash levels each have a foreground and a background. Instead of tipping-over enemies by bumping the ground under them, the object is to grab turtle shells and hit the sides of enemies by throwing the shell across the planes. There’s a pretty sharp learning curve when it comes to lining up your shot. You can only use the turtle shells to attack all the enemies that matter in the game (the turtles don’t), which you get by jumping on them. Then, it’s a matter of figuring out the right angle to attack. You can either wait for the enemies to line-up, or you can go through the pipes to switch between planes. You can attack from either side of the screen, though it’s not remotely intuitive. If you score a hit, the enemy might become dazed, but many require additional hits to kill. Once an enemy is dazed, you can simply kick it off the ledge, or you can also charge-up your shell’s potency by throwing it again to eliminate the stunned enemy. Shells can be caught on the rebound if you score a hit, and doing so charges up how far the shell can travel if thrown horizontally instead of between the planes, which can also be used to eliminate enemies and earn scoring multipliers. It’s incredibly weird that the multiplayers are tied to the 2D attack, since the whole point of this is the multiplaned gameplay, but it’s satisfying to eliminate a whole string of enemies so I’m fine with that.

I don’t think any game I’m prepared to award my Seal of Approval to is more sloggy than Mario Clash. When it has a slow pace, it’s agonizing. BUT, when it cooks, it’s incredibly rewarding.

Of course, if you miss, or if you don’t catch the shell on the rebound, you have to stomp one of the continuously spawning Koopas to get another shell. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t play this in 3D. I can’t. It’s a strict epilepsy no-no. But, from everything I’ve heard, figuring out the right angles to attack wasn’t intuitive whether the game is played in 3D or not. I was constantly missing my attacks, which slowed the game down to a halt. There really needed to be more Koopas, and OTHER ways to get shells or ammo to attack enemies. Most importantly, the action needed to be sped up by having changing planes be done much quicker. It can be sooooooo slow. I can totally get why some people despise Mario Clash. No game I’ve ever reviewed teeter-totters between an exhilarating YES! and an angry NO! quite like it. When it sucks, it’s so obviously bad with such self-evident means to correct the mistakes that I can’t believe Nintendo released this in the shape its in. I’ve already talked about this, but I want to once against stress that being able to seamlessly switch from foreground to background, like you can do off springs in some sections of Wario Land VB, would have fixed 90% of Mario Clash’s issues and probably made it Nintendo’s undisputed best post-arcade arcade-style game. And that’s just the start of Clash’s problems.

One thing I appreciated is the ability to skip ahead up to 40 levels without a code. This feature was added because this is a long and slow game and not really meant to be “beaten” or explored in-depth in a single sitting. On a platform that literally pauses itself in short intervals to spare you from retina damage. Really, there’s no way to put a positive spin on Virtual Boy. It has to be one of the all-time “WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?” moments in gaming history.

There’s too many ice levels. In a game about precision aiming, having entire stages where you slip and slide across the frozen platforms makes lining up to get your shots hair-pulling levels of frustrating. This is further compounded on packed levels, where finding time to get off a shot without having to worry about getting tagged by either another enemy or the Mario Bros.-like fireballs that occasionally spawn from the pipes is like a war of attrition. It got to the point where every time I heard the ice-theme play instead of the stage’s normal theme, a chill went down my spine.. which you have to admit is fitting. Also, while the enemies mostly all are really good, there’s one I found especially annoying: these little tank things that throw projectiles at you. The stuff they throw can intercept your shell, and since only two Koopas (or shells in total) can be on the screen at once, they become VERY annoying to fight.

Virtual Boy is a tragic system, because the graphics are almost universally excellent in it, as long as you ignore that they only come in shades of red. There’s such a delightful irony that a console marketed for its stereoscopic 3D effect features some of Nintendo’s all-time best 2D sprites. This and Wario Land VB have incredible character and enemy models loaded with personality. Hmmph. It’s a crying shame is what it is.

Yet, all the other enemies I actually liked. I love how they all have a gimmick, but retain their balance. The crabs that have to be hit horizontally, then from across the screen was genius, and there’s something so satisfying about jumping up and throwing a shell right in the direction of the camera, from the background to the foreground, and nailing a Boo mid-air, then jumping back up and catching the rebounding shell. Part of me thinks the issues with aiming could be fixed with an aim guide, but moments like that wouldn’t be as good if you had an on-screen indicator of where you’re aiming. Despite the sense of frustration when you miss, there’s this subtle elegance about Mario Clash’s enemy design, its potential for chaos, and how the combat plays out that hasn’t really been done since. That’s what makes it stand out nearly three full decades removed. When you hit your shots, it feels great, and that’s owed in no small part to the TA DAH noise that increases in pitch with every consecutive shot you hit. This is a great example of marrying graphics, animation, and sound design to create OOMPH, my pet term for video game violence feeling impactful, like it has real-world weight to it. That’s why, despite Mario Clash seemingly wanting to be a hard game to love, I still enjoyed my replay of it.

I have no clue if the bonus rounds play better in 3D. Given that the aiming is apparently bad no matter how you play it, I imagine not. No, you’ll never shake the feeling that you’re playing a tech demo. In fact, this is so tech demoish that I can’t believe they didn’t pack this with Virtual Boy. I think they realized their lineup sucked and the best chance to minimize losses was to sell a game one-to-one with it, so they sold Mario Clash separately. No clue if it worked or not. No matter how good or bad Mario Clash was, it WASN’T the Mario game anyone would have wanted. I can’t help but wonder if they had gone through with the VB Mario Land game if Virtual Boy would have sold better. It looks fun!

Don’t get me wrong: when Mario Clash bottoms out, it can be dull. Never bad, but just.. very, very dull. Honestly, it could be so dull that I went through periods of playing this not even sure if I’d ultimately award it my Seal of Approval, and ultimately I had to think very hard about my “did I have more fun than not” rule. For Mario Clash, it’s more like 50.0000001% good, but that’s still good enough. Win or lose, I really wish that either Nintendo would take another crack at this formula, and add co-op because this would KILL as a co-op game. If they have no interest.. and apparently they don’t.. hopefully some day an indie developer will file the serial numbers off it and create a tribute game with a faster pace. There is something here that’s incredible. Unfortunately, it’s hard to figure out what exactly that is, because it’s poking its head out from raw sewage and nobody wants to get close enough to figure it out.

Mario Clash is Chick-Approved

Mario Clash was developed by Nintendo

About Indie Gamer Chick
Indie game reviews and editorials.

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