If Nintendo’s ultimate plan with the American version of Super Mario Bros 2. was to create a game that was accessible and different, they succeeded resoundingly
With more than two decades elapsed since its original release, Super Mario Bros. 2 remains quite an oddity within its franchise. The explanation is quite simple: the title was not developed as a Mario game, but as a totally different adventure dubbed Doki Doki Panic. In it, an Arabian family comes into the possession of a magical book about a land where the dreams of its inhabitants determine the quality of the weather on the following day, and that gets suddenly overtaken by the devious Wart when he turns their recently built dream machine – constructed to guarantee clear skies – into a nightmare-producing apparatus. Therefore, it is no wonder the game is so completely different from its prequel and from all Mario platformers that came after it.
Doki Doki Panic starts when the family’s youngest children, a pair of twins, get absorbed into the book, leading the four remaining members of the household to fearlessly jump into the story. Only, given its transformation into a Mario game, the captive siblings are written out of the plot and the four people who tackle the adventure, this time to rid the book’s magical land of evil, are Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad.
This strange entry in the series came to be because the original Super Mario Bros. 2, which did indeed hit store shelves in Japan under its intended format, was visually very similar to its prequel: playing like a slightly updated and much harder version of Super Mario Bros., only with all new levels. Fearing the title would be too difficult and fail to provide enough new features for American audiences, Nintendo opted to re-skin Doki Doki Panic and sell it as a Mario game in the United States.
For all intents and purposes, if Nintendo’s ultimate plan with the American version of Super Mario Bros 2. was to create a game that was accessible and different, they succeeded resoundingly. As far as challenge goes, Super Mario Bros 2. is still particularly brutal: 1-Ups are hard to come by, stages offer obstacles that are tough to overcome and that were blatantly designed for cruel murder, and running out of continues means having to start back from the first of the game’s twenty levels. However, not only is it easier than Super Mario Bros., especially because of its continue system that gives players extra chances to beat a level, it is certainly a relative breeze when compared with its Japanese counterpart.
When it comes to its uniqueness, Super Mario Bros. 2 stands out in pretty much every way, starting with the absence of blocks to be broken, coins to be collected, and power-ups, which are replaced by an HP system that has characters begin all levels with two points of energy and that allows that bar to expanded by picking up mushrooms located in secret areas. Graphically, it is far more vivid and colorful than its prequel; and it holds a bigger amount of visual assets, which give the limited range of scenarios within which it works – grassy plains, deserts, and caves – a great, albeit somewhat fake, feeling of variety. However, even though it is an aesthetic improvement over the original, the soundtrack remains limited and lacks the famous tunes of Super Mario Bros., and the gameplay twists that Doki Doki Panic brings to the table make playing Super Mario Bros. 2 a mixed experience.
The fact that, whenever starting a stage, players are free to choose between the four brave heroes is unquestionably great, especially because the quartet of characters are not mere sprite swaps of one another, but actually behave quite differently. Mario has average speed and decent jumping skills, which make him easy to control and adaptable to all kind of situations; Toad is incredibly fast but an ineffective jumper; Luigi reaches incredible heights with his leap but is slightly slow and hard to control; and Princess Peach is the slowest character but has the useful ability to hover in midair for a little while, making her the perfect choice for beginners and those who want to land their jumps perfectly.
By joining forces, Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad will need to overcome seven worlds, each with a mighty boss awaiting at the end, and clear twenty levels that are structured very differently from those in Super Mario Bros. While, in the original, stages were a simple trip from the left of the screen to the right, where the coveted flagpole was located; Super Mario Bros. 2 navigates more complex waters.
Not only are the levels multiphased, usually being composed of various screens and landscapes accessed through doors and openings in the scenario, they also scroll sideways as well as upwards and downwards, hence allowing the game to take some small turns towards some non-linearity and lean on a kind of progression, and rhythm, that is far more meticulous than that of Super Mario Bros. And therein lies the main problem with Super Mario Bros. 2: where its prequel was sheer thrill and a rush of adrenaline, it is a far more cerebral game that suffers from pacing problems, which become rather noticeable in a few levels that stretch for far too long without going anywhere clever.
Much of that stems from how Mario and his partners are unable to get rid of foes by stomping on their heads. It seems ridiculous to strip a character off the form of attack around which his first original home-console adventure was built, but that is what Super Mario Bros. 2 – thanks to its origins – does. Instead, the heroes are forced to resort to either landing on top of the enemies, lifting them up, and throwing them on other critters; or picking up vegetables, bombs, or shells that are planted on the ground to use as weapons. Needless to say, such an attack strategy, which is less exciting than simply jumping, makes the fluidity of Super Mario Bros. go up in flames.
In all fairness, though, Super Mario Bros. 2 is a good game. Most of its flaws are only unearthed when it is directly compared with its predecessor, which is not fair considering it is actually an entry from another franchise dressed up as a Mario title. Although its gameplay is not as entertaining as the one featured in Super Mario Bros., it is a game that – thanks to a long gap between releases – has a number of resources at its disposal, either purely technical or related to level design, that did not exist back when Super Mario Bros. was being produced.
As a consequence, Super Mario Bros. 2 has many nice tricks up its sleeve – such as flying carpets, breakable walls, locked doors, boss arenas, maze-like areas, and the ability to backtrack through the levels – that are nicely used and end up making it worthwhile. It may be seen as the black sheep of the main Mario platforming line, but, within the context of the NES’ library, it is easily one of the most charming and fun games the system had to offer.