Super Mario Bros. 2
Super Mario Bros. 2 never really seems to get its due these days. It’s a great game, one of those rare and precious NES titles that remains fun to play even now, but you’d never know it to hear the Nintendo fan community talk about it. Somewhere along the way, gamers got a bug up their collective arse about Mario 2 and decided that it’s an impostor at best, a disgrace at worst. They’re dead wrong about the latter, and they’re not entirely on-target regarding the former, either.
Of course, we all know the nature of that particular orifice-violating insect (if you need a refresher you need look no further than the previous issue of GameSpite Quarterly, where it was touched on multiple times). Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn’t originally designed as a Mario game; the real Mario 2 -- which we’ll refer to as The Lost Levels for the sake of simple clarity -- was basically a soul-crushingly difficult Japan-exclusive expansion pack for Super Mario Bros., looking and playing almost exactly the same as its predecessor but for the expert-level stage design. It never made its way to the U.S., or at least not for another six or seven years and one hardware upgrade later.
The game Americans knew as Super Mario Bros. 2 was actually a hack of a licensed platformer based on a family of Fuji TV promotional characters. The playable characters were redrawn as Mario and friends, the game mechanics were tweaked, and it was shipped to unsuspecting fans in the U.S. as the real deal. This would be an unusual situation under any circumstance, but given that Mario 2 falls directly between two of the most popular, successful, influential, and beloved games ever made pushes it well over the edge from “unusual” where it plummets far into the depths of “violently controversial.”
Despite its rocky origins, you can make a case in support of Mario 2’s legitimacy without even breaking a message board sweat. The thing is, though, that Mario 2 is a good enough game that it doesn’t need white knighting. Chivalry is hardly necessary to defend the honor of an objectively excellent game, and Mario 2 is fantastic by any standard -- yes, even by this franchise’s legendarily high standards.
What puts off most detractors, even more so than Mario 2’s lineage, is what an unconventional Mario game it makes. Look at the Japanese evolution of the series and you have the single-screen Mario Bros.? evolving into the side-scrolling Super Mario Bros., which enjoyed a brief dalliance with hardcore precision play in The Lost Levels before leaping into the diverse brilliance of Super Mario Bros. 3. There’s a steady evolution of play mechanics in this sequence of begats, with the most unusual change being the ability to squash enemies by leaping on top of them in Super Mario Bros. By comparison, the apparent evolution of the series for American gamers began with Mario punching turtles from below, then jumping on their heads to squash them, to throwing objects and foes alike, then back to jumping. Level designs made the transition from static screens to fixed scrolling to free-roaming complexity, then rolled back to more linear dynamics. At first glance, Mario 2 fits uncomfortably within the larger framework of the franchise: an out-of-place diversion. An evolutionary dead-end mooted by SMB3’s reversion.
But is it really? While Mario quickly went back to squashing bad guys dead with his fatal leaps, the ability to pick up and carry objects became an integral component of the series beginning with Mario 3. It worked differently than it had in the previous game, but not irreconcilably so. Mario 2 also abandoned the one-way scrolling of the original Super Mario (something which had been carried over into The Lost Levels), introducing the more deliberate pacing and exploratory mechanics that fully took hold of the series with Super Mario World?. In that sense, Mario 2 really does feel like an evolutionary experiment to help determine the future of the series -- a far cry from The Lost Levels’ “more of the same, but obnoxiously hard” design principles.
This isn’t to say Mario 3 and World did evolve directly from Mario 2, but it’s certainly easy to how they might have. After all, the core Mario team -- including Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka -- designed Doki Doki Panic, the Famicom Disk System game that had been reworked into Mario 2. Heck, if the definition of a “true” Mario game is one guided by Miyamoto’s quirky genius, Mario 2 has a stronger claim to the title than The Lost Levels, which has all the earmarks of a quick cash-grab farmed out to the B-team.
But, ultimately, that’s mere semantics. Mario 2’s strength is in its gameplay, which in 1988 was way ahead of the curve. Super Mario Bros. had established the curve in the first place, presenting gamers with a huge, varied world, responsive controls, and an ineffable feeling of solidity. Mario game or not, the American sequel was at the time the single most impressive expansion on Super Mario’s accomplishments the world had ever seen. While other developers were finally pinning down the specifics of what made Super Mario so brilliant and devising ways to match those traits, Mario 2 leapt to the next level. It gave players four different characters to chose from, imaginative worlds, and unique (yet internally consistent) play mechanics for both the stages and the characters.
The addition of a distinct assortment of heroes -- who could be alternated between at the beginning of each new level -- was possibly the most important feature of Mario 2. Mechanically speaking, it gave Nintendo a chance to dabble in other play styles. Mario had become the new baseline for action platform heroes, the golden standard -- and Mario 2 treated him as such, reworking his abilities slightly while retaining the essential feel of his movement; he was the all-around hero. Luigi, on the other hand, was floaty and imprecise, feeling a good deal like the competition’s botched attempts to replicate Mario. Toad was nimble and responsive, but he sucked for jumping. And Princess Peach (née Toadstool) wasn’t much for altitude but could hover via her billowing skirts for great hang time and impressive range. Luigi’s leaps actually had the potential to range further than Peach’s, but the shaky feel and high arc of his jumps made the princess more practical in most situations.
Each hero approached every level differently, and certain characters were better suited for specific stages than others. Luigi and the princess were able to access more shortcuts through levels than Mario or Toad, but Toad was the ideal choice for farming coins and racking up extra lives.
Innovative as these varied character mechanics were, they weren’t the most important contribution Mario 2 made to the series. Plenty of other games lifted the idea, but later Mario titles pared back the character selections considerably. 2009’s New Super Mario Bros. Wii was the new first chapter of the series to offer a choice of playable characters in more than two decades, but it completely leveled the playing field by making all its protagonists -- Mario, Luigi, and a pair of Toads -- play identically.
No, Mario 2’s most important contribution to the series was in defining the series’ characters. Despite the absence of regular villain Bowser and his Koopa Troopers, Mario 2’s presentation of the main cast defined a bunch of non-entities. Luigi had never been anything more than a palette-swap of his brother; now he was the lanky, awkward one. Toad gained both a name and visibility, having been little more than the anonymous “mushroom retainer” in the first game. And Peach benefited the most; the princess had resembled a grotesque Hollywood stereotype of a drag queen at the end of Super Mario Bros., but now she was feminine -- more than that, she was empowered by her femininity, using her skirts to inform the abilities that enabled her to be more than just the helpless victim in need of rescue.
These characterizations stuck for years, although Miyamoto still has trouble seeing Peach as a character rather than a plot device if New Super Mario Bros. Wii is anything to go by. But the denizens of Sub-Con have made their way into the larger series as well. Some of them, notably the infuriating bob-omb, immigrated their way into canon as early as Super Mario Bros. 3. Others have remained more tangential; shyguys and snifits never seem to show up in “real” Mario games, but they’re all over the franchise’s side excusions. Yoshi’s Island is lousy with them, and they pop up constantly in the series’ RPG iterations as well. Whenever Mario strays from his core strengths, chances are pretty good you’ll see the fingerprints of Super Mario Bros. 2 all over it.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the game’s most essential legacy: establishing the fact that there’s more to Mario than running, jumping on enemy heads, and flinging fireballs. The series’ greatest strength is its flexibility and extensibility, and Mario 2 paved the way for outliers like Super Mario Kart and Super Princess Peach, and even more esoteric offspring like WarioWare, Inc.
Really, Mario 2 isn’t even terribly far removed from the platforming rules laid down in the original Super Mario Bros. Yet it has a flavor all its own, cheerfully discarding traditional Mario power-ups and skills in favor of a more leisurely pace and level designs that treat each stage as contiguous, self-contained spaces. In traditional Nintendo style, the game’s unique mechanics -- in this case, the ability to lift and throw objects and enemies -- are explored to both creative and logical ends. Toting blocks allows players to build their own platforms and create makeshift shortcuts. Enemies and other items can be carried along as a reserve of ammunition. Mario and friends can fling a bird from its flying carpet perch, hijacking its ride. And the need to retrieve keys to unlock doors elsewhere in the stage gives rise to one of the game’s most memorable situations: being chased by the invincible, implacable Phanto. By the game’s end, players are combining their unique abilities to conquer challenges, riding along on an enemy’s back to reach a high platform with a charged-up super-jump while carrying a mushroom block. The lack of a timer, scoring, and other traditional gaming measures of performance or skill actually make the game more fun to play, leaving players free to experiment with the rules of Sub-Con and the unique talents of the different cast members, allowing them to master the dream world on their own terms.
As an aside, it’s worth noting that Doki Doki Panic’s familiar facelift also helped keep a great game viable by hacking off someone else’s licensed property; where the Popeye arcade game appears to be lost forever to rights issues, Super Mario Bros. 2 allows Nintendo to keep a masterpiece of a platformer in circulation without having to worry about Fuji TV’s royalties. In short, everyone wins thanks to Mario 2.
So yes, it’s a slightly odd little game that didn’t even begin life as a Mario game. But any student of biology knows that a breeding pool only becomes stronger when new genes are introduced, and Mario 2 is proof positive. Its retrofit identity helped canonize the lateral approach of later Mario games and spin-offs. It defined the series’ core cast. And best of all, it’s still a damn fun game after all these years. It may not be remembered with the same hushed reverence as Super Mario Bros. 3, but that’s fine: It’s a different game, after all. And that’s precisely what makes it great.