Super Mario Bros. 2
System: Nintendo Entertainment System
Review written March, 2002
I got Super Mario Bros. 2 in the mid-1990's, when stores were liquidating the last of their NES stock, and the remnants could be had in pristine condition for $5. After buying the game for about an eighth of what it would have cost me eight years prior I took it home and played it, beating it on my first try, without continuing (I did skip a few stages with warps - sometime in the approximate decade after the game's release, news of the warps must have leaked out to me). After beating SMB2, I immediately started it again and then played through the entire game, without warping or continuing. In about an hour and a half I had done everything that was possible to do with Super Mario Bros. 2. I relate this story for two reasons: To make it clear that SMB2 is too easy, far too easy, but also that I'm less inclined to obsess over this fault than if I had paid more than $5.
Perhaps SMB2 is so easy because you can get a life meter that lets you take up to 3 free hits, or because, like later Mario games, getting over 20 extra lives is not uncommon, or maybe by the time I played SMB2 I was just getting too damn good at these games. The life bar might seem to make the game easier than SMB or SMB3, but there are other games (Castlevania 3 comes to mind) that don't have one-hit-kills and yet are much harder than SMB2. The extra lives might make the game a little easier to finish without continuing, but it's not a dominant issue: I still beat the game quickly, which wouldn't have happened if I died often. I wasn't a novice when I played SMB2, yet I'll be humble enough to expect that if SMB2 wasn't easy, I wouldn't have found it easy. I have played older games that still challenged me, such as The Lost Levels on Mario All Stars, after I played SMB2. No, SMB2's lack of challenge is a consequence of design.
Stage 6-2 seems to leap away from typical side-scrolling conventions. Instead of running and jumping between platforms spaced with pits as you've done in many games before, the stage is mostly one big chasm. You pass it by hitching a ride on the back of a bird. This idea for a stage is creative. But it's an idea that the designers didn't do much with: You transfer between birds a couple of times, and then easily jump over a few slow enemies that infrequently move into your path. Most of the time you're just standing perfectly still on top of a bird, so the stage, unusual though it may be, doesn't generate any energy. There is a similar moment in Super Mario Bros. 3 when you bound across an expanse on the backs of flying beetles that is far more kinetic and exciting.
If 6-2's course layout is not representative of the game, its feeling of missed opportunity is. I could name other promising parts: There is a jump between two flying carpets, from one you previously stole to another you can steal from the enemy riding atop. And there are gulfs you brave by hopping from head to head of three fish who leap from the depths. Confronted directly, I would not say these parts are difficult; moreover, there are tricks to circumvent these challenges entirely. And these parts may be among the closest to fruition in SMB2. SMB2 rarely pushes players at all, and when it does, it never pushes hard enough.
As for the whole of the game, there are many bottomless pits but, unlike in the other Mario games, jumps over pits seldom seem hazardous. The focus of SMB2 is elsewhere. After jumping on an enemy, you can then hoist it over your head, carry it around, and eventually toss it at another enemy to be rid of them both. Throwing things can be fun, especially when several enemies are in a row, and the thrown enemy bounces across the others, taking them all out. Doing away with enemies is one of SMB2's better satisfactions, but the satisfaction is limited because stages do not derive challenge from clever enemy placement and very few enemies are dangerous by themselves. Many enemies simply walk or bounce across the ground. The breeds probably most worth mentioning are Snifits, who spit miniature cannon balls from their bored masks, and Pansers, flowers who lob fireballs into the air - but even these creatures are easily dealt with or evaded.
Almost every level ends with a fight against a mini-boss, who must be struck three times, usually with eggs he spits out, before yielding. Fighting the same enemy so often might sound like it could become monotonous. It never felt that way to me, though: The mini-boss's powers are varied slightly as the game goes on, and the fights are over quickly enough that they can't become boring. Instead, the miniboss contests are a part of SMB2 that take advantage of the fun of fighting with thrown objects. So are the battles with the bigger bosses at the conclusion of each world. They include a bombing mouse bedecked with sunglasses and a three-headed, fire exhaling serpent; about half of the bosses are defeated by grabbing and returning their deadly arts. Two bosses are later repeated; I wish each world had a unique boss. This may be interpreted as some compliment of the bosses that do exist.
You choose among four characters to decide who will challenge each stage: Toad is fast; Luigi can jump high; the Princess can float; Mario has neither outstanding weakness nor strength and so controls most naturally. Episodes that are designed to be exploitable by some hero - opportunities early in the game for extra lives that Toad could quickly grab; shortcuts that Luigi or the Princess could reach, or dangers they could effortlessly fly over - are sparsely scattered about the game - so sparsely, indeed, that most stages are played the same no matter who runs through them. SMB2's stages are the paint that forms the composition on the game's canvass; Mario, Luigi, the Princess and Toad's talents are but different lacquers that may be applied to temper the sheen, leaving the essence unchanged.
What did I like most, with least qualification, about SMB2? SMB2's demesne, Subcon, the World of Dreams, is an inviting place with a presence and vitality occasionally beyond being an abstract obstacle course. Boldly colored, cartoon styled settings; whimsical music, punctuated by an enthusiastically trilled guitar; and an eccentric cast combine to give SMB2 personality and charm. Of those charms, the cast has proven most memorable. SMB2's genesis was not as a Mario game: The Japanese game Doki Doki Panic was altered, and the Mario heroes inserted, to create the U.S. Super Mario Bros. 2. Yet when we visualize Mario today, the indelible image in our minds (my mind, at any rate) resembles the rotund plumber with the bushy mustache featured on SMB2's cover, represented to 8-bit accuracy in the game itself, more than any previous incarnation. Some characters - such as Snifits - introduced in SMB2 were later canonized in the Mario series, appearing in games like Yoshi's Island and Super Mario RPG.
Nothing could communicate the enemies' eccentricities better than their descriptions in the instruction manual. Mouser, the bombing mouse, "is proud and it doesn't believe that it is just a mouse." The miniboss exhibits a more severe identity crisis: "He thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth." In the Super Mario Super Show and Super Mario RPG, this character was known as Birdo; the manual refers to the miniboss as Ostro and a different enemy as Birdo. Could the manual's taxonomy be mistaken? The game's ending refers to the enemies by the book's nomenclature. If, somehow, this was a mistake that occured twice, it could have been mended (as several glitches in the original games were) when SMB2 was remade and included in Super Mario All Stars. But the ending in that version again refers to the miniboss as Ostro. Mistake or paradox? This identity confusion could complement Ostro's Freudian manual description and be consistent with the surreal setting of the World of Dreams. Ostro's identity and SMB2's psychology are issues that could be pondered and debated for a long time; longer, perhaps, than the time you'll need to be finished with the game.