"There's a little less Panic in this Doki Doki..."
I'll get right to the point of Super Mario Advance: it's a port of the US version of Super Mario Bros. 2 combined with an updated Mario Bros. from the arcade era. If you're not at least a little interested in either of these Mario-headlined goods, then forget about this package...
Just in case you're one of the five people who doesn't already know about the sequel to the legendary Super Mario Bros.: there were two alternate follow-ups released in different regions of the world, both initially named Super Mario Bros. 2. One launched in Japan that utilized both an engine and assets that were similar to the original title. Unlike the first installment, this one featured more problem-solving mechanics that made for a trickier experience. Some folks dug this new approach to an old gem, while others preferred the speed-running nature of the primary affair. This game would later arrive worldwide under the title Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels.
The US version of Super Mario Bros. 2, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. You see, Nintendo of America didn't want to roll the dice on Lost Levels because of its elevated difficult rating and the notion that it would feel dated after its localization. This decision made sense at the time because the North American video game market crashed in the early '80s, and part of Nintendo of America's goal was to get it back on track. Lost Levels would run the risk of burning out a reviving industry.
Nintendo president Minoru Arakawa selected a non-Mario title to be repackaged as a sequel: the Arabian-themed platformer Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic. Two of the characters became the titular Mario brothers, one transformed into Princess Peach, and the last morphed into Toad, Peach's faithful retainer. Dev team R&D4 also nixed a handful of other elements from Panic, including the requirement to finish every level of the campaign with each playable character. Instead, you could accomplish this feat with any combination of them, plowing through each stage singularly.
This reskinning effort went on to become a top-selling cart that met critical acclaim. It also permanently roped a bunch of Panic's foes into the Mario franchise, including Birdo and the Shy Guys. Hell, it was so popular that Nintendo released it in Japan as Super Mario USA, remade it for the Super Mario All-Stars compilation, and then ported that remake (with a few added perks) to Game Boy Advance.
Where its predecessor is more of a speed-based platformer, US's Mario 2 focuses on exploration and combat. Instead dispatching enemies by jumping on them, you pick one up and toss it at another to eliminate both. Alternatively, you can also pick up environmental objects, such as vegetables, and use them as throwable weapons.
Each stage's design is a bit more complex than your average platformer. You don't merely run to the right, but also plunge into vases that lead to impossibly large rooms, enter doors that take you to internal chambers filled with all kinds of challenges, or climb beanstalks that usher you to realms in the sky. You often bump into anxiety-inducing moments, such as a few where you stand on top of layers of sand that you can dig using the lifting ability. Doing so plunges you further into the ground, where monsters close in on you and prey upon your claustrophobia.
However, the most frazzling experience on display here involves locked doors, which send you scouring for keys. Your search inevitably leads you to a room with a key guarded by a killer mask. Predictably, the menace follows you the instant you nab the key. You end up occasionally tossing the item so you can temporarily evade the mask, though the thing will recommence pursuit once you pick it back up. Also, a panicked chuck could prove problematic. If you happen to throw the key where you can't reach it, you're pretty much screwed. Or, you might accidentally hurl it into a pit, causing it to respawn in its initial location.
Personally, I dig this adventure. Its exploration factor, creativity, and surreal landscape make it memorable and enjoyable, even today. It's also more varied than its antecedent, sporting sections that feature different gimmicks or themes, including slippery ice, the aforementioned sand, and even more indoor areas. Moments like those see you traversing copious conveyor belts or plucking bombs out of the ground to blast through stone walls.
My only complaint with the NES release revolved around the game's length. I'm not fan of warping ahead, and prefer to play everything I can in a single playthrough. The NES version forced you to accomplish this feat with finite lives and continues, plus no saves or passwords. As a kid, I could never finish the entire shebang in a single sitting, and thus got bored of trying. The SNES iteration introduced saves, which continued into the GBA edition.
By now, you're probably wondering how the portable Mario 2 stacks up to its brethren. At its core, it's the same game; no better and not much worse. However, Advance tries to pack on a few unnecessary features that mostly detract from the finished product. The most noticeable addition comes in the form of grating voice acting, in which each of the characters speak while adventuring. This is a minuscule touch, but one that annoys more than anything, especially if you're controlling Peach or Toad. The former of these two comes across as whiny (especially when she dies and says, "OHHHH NOOOO!" like Mr. Bill), the latter belting out vocals that sound like one of Donald Duck's nephews after years of chain smoking.
The new campaign also includes a collectable element, in which you secure hidden "Ace Coins" in each stage. And what's your reward for gathering all of them? Nothing. A pat on the back, at best...
Oh, but finishing the campaign also unlocks "Yoshi's Challenge," in which you search for giant Yoshi eggs. And what to do you get for your troubles here? Another pat on the back... It's funny now because there was an old rumor that if you cleared Yoshi's Challenge, you could unlock the tongue-flicking dinosaur as a playable character. Of course, this obvious lie led to players completing it, only to discover that their efforts merely netted a slightly altered title screen and a wink from Hiroshi Yamauchi.
I'm sure many GBAs were thrown across the room around that time...
As for Mario Bros., there really isn't much to say. It feels more tacked on than anything, but it's a neat add-on if you enjoyed the coin-op back in the day. It's the same offering with a more updated presentation, and that's really it.
Ultimately, Super Mario Advance is an okay enhanced edition of Super Mario Bros. 2, but not the best one. It's great that you can save your progress, as you could in the SNES iteration, but the added voice acting and collectable hunt do little to bolster the experience. At the time of its release, this port's existence kind of made sense. The NES and SNES carts were well past discontinued, and Nintendo wasn't even close to releasing digital online games. In other words, Advance was the most accessible option in regards to Mario 2 in the early 2000s. Nowadays, it's no more available than it siblings, and thus its relevance to the franchise is slowly slipping away...
Staff review by Joseph Shaffer (January 11, 2023)
Rumor has it that Joe is not actually a man, but a machine that likes video games, horror movies, and long walks on the beach. His/Its first contribution to HonestGamers was a review of Breath of Fire III.
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