Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES) review
"Call it destiny. Call it fate. Call it ka, if you will. But something was obviously at work in Nintendo Towers on the day they decided not to release the original version of Super Mario Bros. 2 in the western world, choosing instead to paint the Mario characters onto an existing yet obscure Japanese platform game called Doki! Doki! Panic!. Because as great as the original Mario 2 is (and it's subsequent release on the SNES' Super Mario AllStars, and later on the Game Boy Color's Super Mario Bros..."
Call it destiny. Call it fate. Call it ka, if you will. But something was obviously at work in Nintendo Towers on the day they decided not to release the original version of Super Mario Bros. 2 in the western world, choosing instead to paint the Mario characters onto an existing yet obscure Japanese platform game called Doki! Doki! Panic!. Because as great as the original Mario 2 is (and it's subsequent release on the SNES' Super Mario AllStars, and later on the Game Boy Color's Super Mario Bros. DX, have shown that it really is), it plays in a very similar way to it's predecessor, and franchises such as Tomb Raider have now shown us that people have little patience for things that don't evolve as time goes by. Doki! Doki! Panic! is very different to the first Mario title, and at the risk of sounding controversial, I think that it's all the better for it. With this title's quirkiness, and the way in which Super Mario Bros. 3 revolutionised 2D platforming, Nintendo ensured that all three of the NES Mario games had it's own distinct voice. Every one of them stood up as an individual title, as well as a part of an ongoing series, and has the original Mario 2 made it to these shores, that wouldn't really have been the case. Plus, if nothing else, it gives us an answer as to just where Bowser found the time to sire so many offspring between the first and third games (and Princess Toadstool's appearance in this game puts paid to one ugly rumour with that regard). So call it what you will: the risky decision to re-release Doki! as a Mario game was a truly inspired one.
Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)
As you'd expect from a game that wasn't supposed to be a Mario game at all, the plot feels very different to the other tales of the Mushroom Kingdom. After a hard day spent unblocking all the green pipes that litter the land, Mario takes a well-earned nap. Only, as the old adage goes, there's no rest for the wicked, as in his sleep he is transported to the World of Dreams - the land of Sub-Con. It seems that a really mean, really fat giant frog-like creature going by the rather unattractive name of 'Wart' has started to wreak havoc on the peaceful land, aided by his right-hand lady - an odd-looking, skinless bird named Birdo, and their armies of monsters. Naturally it's up to Mazza to stop this villainous horde of horrors. Thankfully, Mario isn't alone, as this time round he's joined not only by his taller brother Luigi, but also by Mushroom-headed freak-boy Toad, and by the fair Princess Toadstool, who has evaded Bowser's amorous advances long enough to actually do some heroic fighting herself. And so our fearless four head into the fields of Sub-Con, to start the journey to their climactic showdown with Wart.....
Despite the fact that it felt so different at the time, a surprising amount of Mario lore actually originates from this plot. Toad progresses from being just a gimp who moaned about how the Princess was being held elsewhere every time you completed a world in the previous game, and becomes an important character in his own right here. His role was downplayed somewhat in the next Mario adventure, but he still manages to firmly establish his place in the Mario world. What's more, many of the villains here reappear in later titles - Birdo shows up in some of the spin-off games many years after her initial appearance in this title, and most prominently of all, the Shy-Guys - the robed, mask-wearing fiends that have become almost as iconic as the Koopa Troopas, Bullet Bills and Goombas that litter other Mario games - make their debut here. As such, this game has the feel of one that is so far removed from its stablemates that it is known as very much the odd one out, and yet subsequent games have made it feel much more a part of the Mario universe than it did at the time of it's release. Perspective is a funny thing....
Don't Hate Me Because I'm Different
It's not only in terms of plot that this game differs from it's kin, either. The gameplay is distinctly un-Marioesque, too. While other Mario titles feature you planting your arse on enemies' skulls to dispatch them, in this title you go all Alan Titchmarsh, pulling up vegetables and other plants and throwing them at your foes. And if there's no vegetation sprouting from the ground then you can pluck your enemies from under your feet and hoss them, still wriggling, at their comrades in order to dispatch them. This can feel a little confusing at first - it's not as intuitive as the traditional method, and first time players may well find themselves perplexed when they jump on top of an enemy and wind up riding it (no, not like that - that's just your sick, sick mind, you perv) as opposed to simply squishing it, but once you get used to the system it plays out very well - it requires a different sort of skill from the player - if you have just one turnip to hand, and a small gang of Shy-Guys heading for you, far quicker reactions are called for in order to waste the little bastards than before.
It's not just vegetables that you'll wind up pulling out of the ground, though. You can end up plucking up a bomb that can be used to blast through walls that stand in your way - this can call for some well-timed throws in places: hold on to a bomb too long and it will detonate while still in your greasy paws, don't hold on to it long enough, and you may find that when you throw it, it goes beyond the area that you wish to clear. Once again, this requires a different sort of skill to that usually called up by a Mario adventure, and some may not find this to their liking. However, this does mean that even the most hardened veteran of Mushroom Kingdom conflicts will find some challenge in this title, and that can't be a bad thing.
You may also find that you unearth a bottle of red potion during your quest. If this happens, then shattering the beaker on the floor causes a door to appear (the wonders of science will never cease to amaze me). Travelling through this door sends your character to a 'backstage' area of the level, known as 'Sub-Space'. You're still in the same place, but everything is presented in silhouette form. In this area, instead of pulling veggies from the soil, you pull up coins - as such, some strategic use of where you deploy your hidden door is called for: there really is little point throwing your potion in an area where no plants are growing.
In yet another break from Mario tradition, the coins aren't used to gain extra lives (at least, not in the 'collect a hundred to get a 1-UP way'). Instead, at the end of each level you are transported to a slot machine game. One by one you put in the coins you have gathered, and watch the reels spin. Lining up the right icons reaps big rewards (three cherries grant you a very satisfying five extra lives....). However, this is all a rather random affair, and when compared to other Mario bonus games, such as those on the Game Boy titles, which are more a test of good timing and skill, it can feel rather uninspiring and lacklustre. You are often left feeling that all the effort that you spent collecting the coins is simply wasted - you could have a healthy handful of cash and end up with nothing to show for it, or you can have just a single piece of currency to your name and wind up hitting the big time. Mind you, that's the nature of gambling I suppose...
The Long And Winding Road
Before you venture into each of the game's levels, you get to choose which character you wish to play as. As you'd expect, each of the four plays differently: Mario is the perfect choice for the novice - he excels at nothing, but doesn't suck at anything either - pretty dull really. Luigi can jump higher and for longer, but this is more of a pain than anything else, in all honesty, as it makes controlling him feel more unpredictable - the big green git spends more time floundering about in the air, where you have less influence over his actions, and as such he is far from being my character of choice. Toad, on the other hand, jumps like your Momma (in a bad way - any of you birthed by an athlete should disregard that statement), but is far and away the fastest at pulling up vegetables and at digging - useful in a tight spot. And finally the Princess - not the strongest bint in the world, but like Luigi, blessed with a powerful jump. However, her jump feels more controlled, due to the fact that she can float (a benefit of a royal upbringing, and a parachute-esque skirt, no doubt). And so, with your hero selected, it's time to venture forth into the world.
First impressions of the level design are very favourable. The first level alone sees you crossing a treacherous waterfall by means of falling logs, climbing high into the clouds via a network of vines, and having the first of many conflicts with Birdo high atop a mountain - there's even a hidden shortcut in this first stage that lets you take a different route to the end. This good impression is carried on as you progress through the game - the second world, for example, sees you cross a desert, complete with an abundance of quicksand, and sees you using your digging skills to burrow through the sand to underground areas. However, as things progress, it all starts to feel a little less inspired. With most of the game's tricks proudly showed off in the first half a dozen stages, things start to blur together a little, and the level design becomes slightly more ordinary and predictable (yes, there's an ice stage in there....). That doesn't mean that it's not enjoyable - it still stands out amongst the majority of NES platformers - but it is a minor disappointment.
Thankfully, the enemies that you face are really quite inspired. From the standard enemies you face - such as creatures riding magic carpets - carpets that you must hijack in mid air, to the genuinely creepy faces that doggedly pursue you with eerie grace when you pick up one of the keys in the game, and only back off when you drop the key - to the inspired bosses such as the three-headed snake or the gangster mouse that throws bombs at you, you are treated to a horde of memorable figures. It is a genuine treat to be faced with very different looking bosses at the end of each world, and although each is usually dispatched by simply throwing stuff at them, they all have different attack plans to go with their differing appearances, which makes for a pleasant change to facing off with Bowser at the end of each stage.
Something About The Way You Look [and sound] Tonight
Graphically this game is leaps-and-bounds ahead of it's predecessor. The levels are much more detailed than before - little touches such as they way that light pours into the dark caverns through the doorways really add no end to the atmosphere. But it is in the character design that this game really delivers the goods. The character sprites are much more detailed than before, and as such they are much more loveable. Witness the strain on Mario's face as he struggles to pluck a turnip from the ground. See the way his cheeks puff out as he crouches down to ready himself for a super-jump. Gloat at the way Birdo's head snaps back when she is hit by an egg you threw at her. This game really does look the part - it's not quite up there with the sheer majesty of the third entry to the series, but it is still really rather lovely, and could hold it's own against most platform titles on the system.
The music is of a similarly high standard - the jaunty jingle that greets you when you first set foot in Sub-Con sets the mood perfectly - it's nice and cheery: a light-hearted tune to accompany what is supposed to be a fun experience. The boss music, on the other hand, is really rather imposing. A rather simplistic collection of notes, this manages set the scene perfectly: by juxtaposing a rather tense little number against the previous jolly music, the message is very effectively conveyed - you have no doubt that things are getting serious when you face up to the bosses here. All in all, this is a superbly presented game.
Super Mario Bros. 2 may well be seen by many as the outcast of the family, as the token wild child in the otherwise impeccably mannered brood. While it must be said that this game certainly is the more rebellious of the NES titles, being neither as achingly perfect as the third entry, or as simple and honest as the first, it still has plenty to offer. It starts to drag a little towards the end, but on the whole this is still a very accomplished and solid platform game.
Community review by tomclark (February 02, 2004)
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