I have a tradition that occurs about twice a year. I dust off my 3DS, tell myself this time I’ll find something to play on it, then stuff it back its bag and ignore it for another six months.

I think there are a couple of problems contributing to this neglect. Firstly, games on its online store seem rather pricey to me, a PC gamer long accustomed to Steam sales. Secondly, I’ve come to the realisation that, apart from those famous first-party series like Mario, I actually know nothing about the games on there. I’m too out of touch to know what an Animal Crossing is, have never been interested in Pokemon and am completely baffled by any jrpg that isn’t Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 6/7.

To this day I’ve only actually completed two games for it – Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow (actually for the older DS) and Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. Both of them were pretty great but I might have to just admit I’m not going to get much more use out of this device. I’m otherwise too dedicated to the PC, and my Steam and GOG backlogs are too lengthy. My interest in consoles remains limited to the 8 and 16 bit days.

Still, the 3DS can at least cater to this nostalgia for a short while, thanks to its virtual console. The classic games are also pricey (compare to GOG stuff of similar vintage) and the lack of SNES games is inexcusable but it does have a decent library of NES and Gameboy games. So I was rooting around trying to remember what I’d bought several years ago, and found myself on Super Mario Land.

It was probably had the second-highest profile of any Gameboy game, after the almighty Tetris. I’m sure many of us could hum the music to stage one. Yet I’ve always found something about it to be weirdly distracting. It has most of the familiar Mario features – mushrooms, head stomping, bashing blocks from underneath. Yet there are also a bunch of little differences that feel out of place.

The fire flower is renamed “power ball” and works differently. The koopas don’t leave shells for you to kick; rather they explode like a bob-omb. In some levels it turns into an side-scrolling shooter. Worlds are themed on real life locations; so we get ancient egypt in one, China in another. Also Easter Island statues, which have an otherworldly quality wherever you see them (part of why they are so fascinating), but are just plain odd in a Mario game.

The primitive nature of the graphics, even by Gameboy standards, adds an extra layer weirdness to it all. The faux-koopas are barely recognisable, and I was never quite sure if that’s a mouse with big ears or a fly with wings, attacking you on the first level (it’s the latter).

The overall effect is a bit like playing some kind of knock-off; like someone copied Mario but threw in random ideas of their own. Still worth playing for a bit, but even if it’s quite brief I doubt I’ll ever bother making it to the end.

I also downloaded the sequel, which feels much more like a proper Mario game. The artwork looks a lot better, probably because developers had learned how to squeeze more out of the Gameboy’s meagre hardware. Add to that the inclusion of a flying powerup, and levels joined by a map screen, and it’s clearly following the lineage of Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World.

So it’s a reason to keep the DS out of storage for the rest of the week, at least.