Sometimes, you get an entry in a series that is profoundly different from all the others. In the NES era, this tended to happen with the franchise\’s sequel. One of the best known examples is Super Mario Bros. 2, which originally wasn’t a Mario game. The actual original game to bear that name was ironically the least innovative game in the Mario series, something that is well known at this point.
Nintendo instead gave a coat of Mario paint to a game called Doki Doki Panic and released it as Super Mario Bros. 2 outside of Japan. The Mario-ized version was later released in Japan and the western SMB2 was adopted as part of the official Mario series, but the question is whether or not it deserved this honor.
Since Mario has a very logical, restrained, and consistent setting, Super Mario Bros. 2 obviously needed a good excuse for having such a different feel. One night, Mario has a dream about finding a strange new world where enemies can withstand being stomped on by an overweight plumber and he is asked to save the citizens of Subcon from Wart and his nightmare machine. The next day, Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad are having a picnic and find an entrance to the world Mario saw in his dreams. They are always ready to take on an entire army at a moment’s notice and set off to defeat Wart.
In the most broad terms, Super Mario Bros. 2 is in the same genre as the traditional Mario games. It is a linear platformer broken up into worlds and levels, but that’s pretty much the only connection to the other Mario platformers. The levels in SMB2 are far more open than even the modern 2D Marios, let alone the original Super Mario Bros. Levels scroll horizontally and vertically and are filled with separate rooms you can freely enter and exit. There are also quite a few puzzles and sections where you have to find and carry back a key to enter a locked door. Many levels feel like their own little adventure game world, although it’s never too difficult to figure out where to go next. The substance present in the levels is quite impressive for an NES game.
The character control in Super Mario Bros. 2 is very good and actually quite close to the later Super Mario games. You have more control over your character’s jump direction and momentum than in the first, making precision platforming even more enjoyable. You can even charge up for a super high jump, a technique that would become important nearly a decade later in the 3D games. There are four playable characters who have advantages and disadvantages in jump height and speed, although Toadstool’s ability to float makes her easily the best one.
How you interact with the environment, however, is very different from other Mario games. The most distinguishing gameplay element of SMB2 is the emphasis on picking up and throwing things. No enemies in the game can be defeated by jumping; to defeat them you must hurl something at them. Interaction is a huge part of the game, since most enemies can be ridden and maybe even picked up. They are not just obstacles to be avoided. Although almost all were new when the game was released, Mario familiars, including Bob-ombs, Pokeys, and Sparkys, in addition to the iconic Shy Guys, made their debut in SMB2.
Enemies won’t be the only thing you have to deal with, either. There is an emphasis on puzzles more than any other Mario platformer. What makes them stand out is that they don’t break the game\’s flow at all; you solve them by creatively using enemies and level features for platforming, not by slowing down while the genre changes. A few puzzle mechanics can get a little annoying, such as timing bomb drops to destroy walls, but overall, they’re very well done.
Puzzles aren’t a dominating gameplay feature, but there are a few memorable ones that really give the game its own personality. As mentioned earlier, exploration is also very important in the levels. While linear enough that you’ll never be upset that there isn’t a map, very few levels can be beaten by just moving up or right. This also does not interfere with the platforming — all of the levels\’ routes have something that requires frequent jumping and carrying a key means being hunted by the cause of many nightmares, Phantos. The level design is consistently creative and enjoyable, even though the world themes are reused.
At twenty levels, Super Mario Bros. 2 may seem pretty short compared to its relatives, but the levels are quite vast in comparison. While not lengthy, which is understandable since you originally weren’t able to save, it surpasses the original in game length and with much less repetition. The difficulty hits the sweet spot and the game can be challenging but rarely feels cheap.
You start only being able to take two hits, but you can find one or two Mushrooms per level that will give you an extra hit point for the remainder of the level. Coins are rarer than in other Mario games, being hidden in a bonus mirror world whose location is chosen by where you toss the potion that creates the world\’s entrance. The coins let you play a mini-game that is the primary method of getting extra lives, so you have plenty of incentive to thoroughly explore levels.
Super Mario Bros. 2 also stands out quite a bit in the visual department. Grasslands, deserts, ice worlds, and castles are all common in Mario games, but they are all revisited and revamped in SMB2. The dream-like description of Subcon, bright and even more surreal than the Mushroom Kingdom, is successfully captured. There are also some level themes that have rarely shown up in Mario games since their debut, such as the warehouse-style castles and Greco-Roman feel of the last world. While some themes are repeated — mainly the desert, which isn’t a surprise, considering the Arabian feel of Doki Doki Panic — there is far more variety than in the original Super Mario Bros.
Super Mario Bros. 2 earned its place as a Mario game. In the battles of the SMB2s, the game formerly known as Doki Doki Panic definitely wins. The excellent control and level design, as different as it is, give it the quality that is expected from franchise. While it doesn’t quite reach the level some later Mario games would achieve, it has aged incredibly well for an 8-bit platformer and is just as enjoyable now as it was back then. Regardless of whether you knew SMB2’s complicated history when you first played it, it is still a great platformer and an essential chapter of Mario’s adventures.