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Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES) artwork

Super Mario Bros. 2 (NES) review

"You probably know the story now. What we Americans know as Super Mario Bros. 2 - that weird, quirky platformer no one quite knew what to make of back then - was never meant to be a Mario game. It is the illegitimate child of Doki Doki Panic, an odd Japanese platformer, and the Mario universe. Fearful that the frightfully difficult Japanese SMB2 will turn away American gamers, Nintendo had grabbed this little game, forcibly inserted Mario and friends, and released it upon unwitting America..."

You probably know the story now. What we Americans know as Super Mario Bros. 2 - that weird, quirky platformer no one quite knew what to make of back then - was never meant to be a Mario game. It is the illegitimate child of Doki Doki Panic, an odd Japanese platformer, and the Mario universe. Fearful that the frightfully difficult Japanese SMB2 will turn away American gamers, Nintendo had grabbed this little game, forcibly inserted Mario and friends, and released it upon unwitting American audiences as the sequel to Super Mario Bros.

It's easy to hate Super Mario Bros. 2 given the snobbish and arrogant manner of its conception. But you know what? We got the winning trade. Easily. The Japanese SMB2 is a tired retreading of all the original's ideas; what we got is a singular adventure bustling with charm and originality.

Super Mario Bros. 2 takes place in the world of Subcon, land of Mario's dreams. Right from the start, the game makes it clear that you're no longer in the stuffy, restricted Mushroom Kingdom, where plumber heroes may only move left to right. The very first level starts with Mario opening a door and falling, Alice-style, several screens down through a clear blue sky. Yes, Super Mario Bros. 2 scrolls in all four directions, and throughout the game you'll be climbing up through beanstalks, scaling waterfalls with falling logs, and digging down through dirt.

Once he lands on his feet, Mario will no doubt feel unfamiliar even in this world created by his own subconsciousness. The most humble of the local wildlife, the Shy Guy, is a cylindrical four-legged being that wears a mask. Bird-like creatures called Pidgets ride magical carpets, regularly swooping down on you. The grassy landscape is dominated by waterfalls and plant life, not a single pipe or question mark block in sight.

There is something different about Subcon, certainly. Even Mario himself has changed, looking a lot more like his current self than the yellow-faced, squinting sprite found in SMB1. The pipe-fractured Mushroom Kingdom cannot possibly hold a candle to its vibrancy and cohesiveness; it's about as close to constructing a world as an NES game has gotten. Enemies and characters alike are wonderfully animated and make the world truly come alive. Bird-like enemies flutter around, enemies on foot walk with natural gaits, and bosses' attacks have fluid animation. All of this seems oddly synced with the upbeat, catchy overworld theme, creating a bright, enchanting atmosphere that will have you humming along with the game music.

Running and jumping remain your most basic ways of getting around, but the various monsters of Subcon can no longer be defeated with a simple bop to the head. Instead, you must take advantage of the game's most important new ability: lifting. Mario can now lift next to anything light enough to carry, most obviously the blades of grass springing up everywhere in the game. Radishes form the bulk of the native vegetable population, ready be thrown in the faces of the vegetable-hating baddies. The idea of destroying mask-wearing bugs with veggies is so ridiculous that it is immediately endearing, and in no time at all you will be pulling and gladly throwing those lethal projectiles.

But why stop there? What makes this system truly charming is how you can lift the enemies - a stroke of genius that proves to be endlessly enjoyable. Nothing jazzes up plain old enemy-killing better than grabbing an baddie and throwing it at another, conveniently dispatching both at a time. Want to fly a magic carpet? Simply jump on top of its owner and lift, and you get both a carpet and a weapon!

Of course, you won't always pull up boring old vegetables; many things masquerade as local plant life in SMB2. You may find a beaker filled with red potion: throwing it will create a door that leads to a dark, enemy-less, one-screen-large version of the Subcon we know. This area, known as Subspace, contains various helpful items if you created the door at the right place. Or you may pull up a bomb, which blows apart everything from enemies to rocks to you. Or perhaps you may even pull up the coveted stopwatch, which freezes all enemy movement for a short amount of time!

It is the incredible variety with these gameplay elements that makes Super Mario Bros. 2 such a classic. There are rock walls that must be blown apart with bombs, often requiring you to think and throw quickly before the bomb blows up in your face. Mountains of underground earth must be dug through, but beware of the enemies that follow you down the holes you have created. The magical potions must be thrown in exactly the right places, and only through experience will you learn exactly where to create those magical doorways.

Right when you think you've seen it all, however, the game will suddenly throw you a curveball. Indeed, SMB2 delights in keeping its players guessing. Even the lowliest drone becomes infinitely more dangerous when they suddenly acquire steeds to ride on, roaming merrily at alarming speeds; right when you start having fun with your magic carpet, what seems to be winged monkeys start swooping down on you. Phantom masks, the guardians of keys, relentlessly chase you whenever you have one in your hand. The bosses, present at the end of every level, steadily increase in difficulty as you progress. Arenas become cramped, attack patterns become more aggressive, and weapons become more varied.

SMB2 also provides the player with four characters to experiment with - an ingenious addition that allows for some rather interesting strategizing. As you can switch your character every time you clear a level, there's no reason to stick with a character you dislike. Perhaps Mario's lack of any real strengths irks you - switch to Luigi with the incredible jump or Toad with the immense upper-body strength (allowing for faster lifting). Upset at your inability at controlling your jumps? Princess Toadstool, with her ability to float in mid-air during a jump, may just be your savior.

And yet the beauty of this system is that you're not required to use it. Even if you close your eyes and randomly choose a character from the selection screen, SMB2 remains a joy to play. The level design allows every secret to be reached by every character. Even if you come across a platform only Luigi could reach with a jump, there will always be some enemies around that other characters could use as stepping-stones. Although there are only twenty stages, the sheer length of each easily makes up for the numerical deficiency.

The Mario characters were tacked on long after the game was finished, but anyone should be able to catch quite a few references to the Mario canon throw in when it was repackaged. Occasionally you may pull up a troopa shell, which when thrown will obliterate anything in its path until it hits a wall. Starmen appear, with the same effect of making you invincible. And of course, there are mushrooms - lift one, and see your health increase by one heart.

It's only fitting, then, that the Mario games which followed have all in turn taken something from Super Mario Bros. 2. Shy Guys, Birdo, Bob-ombs - all originated in this game and are integral parts of the Mario universe. It has never achieved the popularity of either its sequel or its predecessor, but SMB2 is always a game you can depend on for a refreshing take on the Mario series; it seems so different, but there's something about it that makes it truly belong to this esteemed family of video games. Perhaps that's what makes it so endearing to me, and why it has aged so gracefully. With many more modern versions - Super Mario All-Stars on the SNES, and Super Mario Advance on the GBA, there is no reason you can't enjoy this classic.

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Community review by lurkeratlarge (June 10, 2004)

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