History Counts: Stop Shitting on Super Mario Bros. 2

For those of us who grew up gaming in the 80’s, it really didn’t get much better Super Mario Bros. 2. This 8-bit masterpiece came with quirky features that were generally not considered part of the standard platforming formula at the time, such as:

  • Multiple characters with unique abilities,
  • Various dimensions to explore,
  • New and interesting enemies, and
  • Varying types of world end bosses.

Roughly 2 months after its release, Super Mario Bros. 2 caused such a fervor during the holiday shopping season that 20/20 shot a 10 minute special on it.

For those who can’t watch the video, there’s a group of kids who are excitedly telling reporter John Stossel how to beat Birdo, a guy who traveled over 1,000 miles to get a copy of Super Mario Bros. 2, and a hilarious account of Stossel’s director admonishing him to get a copy for his son.

Bottom line, you simply can’t fake this level of excitement. Super Mario Bros. 2 helped launch Nintendo’s gains into the stratosphere through clever marketing, quality gameplay, and old-fashioned word-of-mouth. So what happens when you mention this absolutely amazing game on social media today?

Much like what happened to Aggro Sky when he started tweeting about No Man’s Sky, a simple mention of Super Mario Bros. 2 on social media today is bound to attract a shit-eating troll or two, who will more than likely point out that:

  1. Super Mario Bros. 2 sucks ass,
  2. it’s a cheap Doki Doki Panic reskin, and
  3. Super Mario Bros. 2 sucks ass.

Yeah. Not a lot of brainpower went into that particular think tank.

This whole debacle has left me scratching my head when my only memory of schoolyard video game discussions in 1988 through 1990 always seemed to return to Super Mario Bros. 2. So since none of these braniacs can form a cohesive reason on why it sucks so much ass, I shall do it for them while reminding you, my fellow Super Mario Bros. 2 lovers, on the “how” and “why” that makes it awesome.

How Super Mario Bros. 2 Became a Thing

By now, it’s common knowledge that Super Mario Bros. 2 is known as Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan, and that the intended sequel was deemed too challenging and confusing to Western gamers. This came after consulting with Howard Phillips, an early employee and spokesperson for Nintendo of America, who gave the sequel a double thumbs down and unwittingly changed the course of history.

My Twitter buddy, Norman Caruso aka The Gaming Historian on YouTube, summed up the sequence of events leading up to the release of Super Mario Bros. 2 quite nicely.

In short:

  • Consultant Howard Phillips gives the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 (Lost Levels) an emphatic “NO”,
  • Nintendo of America founder Minoru Arakawa contacted Nintendo President Yamauchi, asking for “a more accessible Mario 2“.
  • Bogged down with multiple other projects, Nintendo R&D1 began scrambling to find a suitable replacement.
  • Doki Doki Panic‘s development as a “new Mario” made it a viable choice, where they could simply replace the existing characters with Mario characters.
  • Nintendo’s submitted proposal to NoA was greenlighted, and development began.

This seemingly simple choice altered the course of history, made the holiday season of 1988 even more awesome for budding gamers, and solidified Mario as a viable mascot for Nintendo at a time when the video game market was just starting to bounce back from the Crash of 1983.

A different Mario was definitely needed in order to stay relevant, and Doki Doki Panic seemed like the best choice to build on. But why though?

Why Doki Doki Panic?

Simply put, by the time the The Artist Formerly Known as Super Mario Bros. 2 would’ve been localized and mass produced, it would’ve seemed outdated as well as unfairly challenging and otherwise unapproachable. Nintendo needed an idea, and fast…

Using a stalled project that originally started out as a Mario-style engine prototype designed and directed by Kensuke Tanabe, a deal was entered into with Fuji TV in 1987 to use their brand new Dream Factory characters within this new engine, with the help of Shigeru Miyamoto and team. Players would have a choice between four different characters, all with unique abilities, with its true ending only being revealed when all four characters have beaten the final level.

Luckily, with Doki Doki Panic being released on the Famicom Disk System, saving was a possibility, and the game received rave reviews upon its release in Japan on July 10th, 1987.

According to The Gaming Historian, some of these reviews lauded the game’s “Mario” feel, which could largely be attributed to Shigeru Miyamoto’s suggestion to include horizontal scrolling alongside the engine’s vertical scrolling gimmick.

Seeing how the Dream Factory characters are the licensed property of Fuji TV, Doki Doki Panic in its current iteration would have gone down as a niche title based on Yume Kojo ’87, an extended, multi-day event that focused on upcoming show lineups and future tech speculations.

No one outside of Japan would’ve known much of anything about this event, the new engine was at risk of slipping into obscurity, and the license to use the characters was finite.

Knowing this, Nintendo made the fateful choice to remove the Dream Factory characters, add Mario ones, and clean up certain gameplay and sprite elements, thus birthing Super Mario Bros. 2 as North American gamers know it. It was later released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA without fear of legal ramification, since Nintendo designed the engine and owned the Mario characters.

Super Mario Bros. 2 Makes Landfall in North America

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Right-click and select “Open image in new tab” for full-size image. Scans courtesy of Super Luigi Bros.

Since the Internet was not a thing back in 1988, all I and others like me had to go on was printed materials, commercials, and recommendations from friends to see what we should play next. As for the latter, most of what I heard included:

“Dude, you really need to play the new Super Mario Bros. 2!”

“Bowser doesn’t even appear in it! This game is awesome!”

“You can play as four different characters! Even Princess Toadstool!”

Back then, friends and neighbors were very vocal: play Super Mario Bros. 2 or be irrelevant. Nintendo and Super Mario Bros. 2 seemed to be absolutely everywhere I went, and I was perfectly fine with that. I had to play this game, but how?

Playing Super Mario Bros. 2 for the First Time

I was lucky to have a future stepbrother who not only had a copy of Super Mario Bros. 2, but also had a Nintendo Power subscription along with a smattering of Game Player tapes, like the one below previously uploaded at the currently defunct Retro Reality YouTube channel.

This tape goes into detail on basic gameplay tenets and proven strategy level by level, but honestly, Nintendo already did that for you within the game design itself. Instead of inundating players with game-stopping tutorial popups, Mario and party are immediately spawned outside of a door levitating in the sky.

This move effectively showcases the new vertical scrolling mechanic as the character falls, and a casual stroll through the first level introduces players to enemy combat, subspace, and level exploration in a non-intrusive, natural manner.

My 6-year old self had no trouble jumping right into the action and understanding the rules of the game. Mario had no spectacular features, Luigi could jump really high, Toad could run and dig faster than anyone else, and Princess Toadstool (Peach) could float after jumping.

After some haggling around, I decided that Luigi was my main for life, and began my years long attempt at trying to beat Super Mario Bros. 2 with the man in green.

Super Mario Bros. 2 Dominates the Discussion

super mario bros. 2 cover and screenshot

Of course, no Super Mario game would be complete without secrets. The schoolyard chatter was ablaze with what new secrets Super Mario Bros. 2 was hiding. Up until I heard about it, I was under the impression that potions were only good for farming coins, which were used in the bonus round at the end of the level to win 1-ups.

Boy, was I wrong…

Your first warp point is in World 1-3, where using a potion by the vase near the tower will take you to World 4, a land covered in ice and absolutely crawling with these guys:

GIF smb2flurrygif

Multiple other warp points exist in certain vases while in subspace, and my post-toddler mind was absolutely buzzing with all the possibilities and theories. Trying to decipher what was fact, fiction, and plain old misinformation became almost as compelling as the game itself.

Cheats, speculation, trades, and strategy abounded, and continued into 1990, when Super Mario Bros. 3 was released in North America, effectively dethroning Super Mario Bros. 2 as the schoolyard’s hot topic.

Super Mario All-Stars Renews Interest

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In 1993, North American gamers were reintroduced to Super Mario Bros. 2 et al on Nintendo’s hot new system, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System via Super Mario All-Stars. Super Mario Bros. 1-3 were beautifully represented with updated graphics and bug fixes on top the familiar gameplay. Further, there was another Mario game that we hadn’t seen before: The Lost Levels.

Since the Internet was still not quite a thing yet, many of my friends and I believed that this was merely an extension upon the original Super Mario Bros. We had little to no idea that this game was a previously rejected version of Super Mario Bros. 2, and didn’t think much of it beyond that.

Lost Levels proved to be an almost insurmountable task to me and my fellow 4th graders, who found its difficulty unapproachable. Not only were we expected to complete near impossible jumps at times, but also deal with purple poison mushrooms.

We give this power-up two middle fingers way WAY up.

Throw in the fact that the jump mechanics between the brothers had changed, and you have a game that only the most sadistic child could enjoy. Even when All-Stars was red hot, I don’t recall even one of my friends or a single reviewer telling me that they enjoyed playing Lost Levels. We kids were all having too much fun enjoying the updated visuals of three of our childhood staples to really give it the time of day.

Up until the Internet spoiled everything years later, there simply wasn’t any other Super Mario Bros. 2 to North American gamers, and we honestly didn’t want one.

Why You Shouldn’t Shit on Super Mario Bros. 2

I’m not saying that you have to enjoy the game, or that you’re any less of a gamer if you don’t. What we’re talking about here is a crossroads in time that could’ve led to very different outcomes. Mario forever entering into the lexicons of time as a timeless character, or one doomed to be the next Bubsy?

All on its own with no conspiracy horseshit and/or salty purist fanboys to muddy things up, Super Mario Bros. 2 sold over 10 million copies and is one of Top 20 best-selling games of all-time. Not only that, but its legacy has been passed on to future entries in the franchise, all to great fanfare.

super mario bros. 2 wart
Now all we’re missing is Wart!

One example of this is Super Mario 3D World, released in North America for the Nintendo Wii U on November 22, 2013. Not only do you have the choice of playing as Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Peach, but they also retain many of the unique traits that they inherited in Super Mario Bros. 2. Peach can float, Luigi can jump the highest (originally explored in Lost Levels), and Toad is the fastest.

Enemies that were not intended to be permanent fixtures in the Mario series, such as Birdo (Ostro), Shy Guys, and Bob-ombs, are now franchise mainstays.  Even the bonus game in Super Mario 3D World is reminiscent of the one in Super Mario Bros. 2.

The game proved to be so successful in North America that it was released in its native Japan as Super Mario Bros USA, where it was not as well received by reviewers at Famitsu. Much of this was attributed to the prior release of Doki Doki Panic, and should not be considered a knock against its quality.

Despite your feelings on Super Mario Bros. 2, there’s no question about its impact on the franchise. Where would we be if Lost Levels was disseminated as the second entry of the franchise instead of Super Mario Bros. 2? Let’s speculate…

What Could’ve Been

Who would’ve thought that you could play as other characters besides Mario and Luigi? Ever since the release of the original Mario Bros. for the arcades in 1983, Luigi had always been a simple palette swap of Mario that allowed for simultaneous two-player action. This was also the case in Super Mario Bros. in 1985, with no discernible physical differences or abilities between the brothers aside from the color of their overalls.

Lost Levels may have started the trend of tinkering with various attributes to help distinguish Mario and Luigi from each other, but none of it was on the same level as Super Mario Bros. 2. Would Nintendo ever have thought to use anyone else besides the Mario brothers, all with their own unique abilities? How about a narrative that doesn’t involve rescuing Princess Peach for the umpteenth time?

And even more damning: would gamers care by then, even if Super Mario Bros. 3 was released as a beautifully designed game?

Imagine Super Mario 3D World where you’re restricted to playing only as the Mario brothers, endlessly fighting Goombas, Koopas, and Hammer Bros? Would Nintendo even bother developing it by then?

History Doesn’t Lie

super mario bros 2 nuts for nintendo

Despite retroactive critics who lambaste Super Mario Bros. 2 as a cheap reskin of Doki Doki Panic, Nintendo made a wise choice, one that spans multiple generations. Not only did they save the Mario brothers from falling into oblivion, but they also showed us the worlds that they travel in are unique, colorful, and fun to explore freely.

Even new gamers who didn’t grow up with the Nintendo Entertainment System have fun playing Super Mario Bros. 2, a true testament to its ironclad staying power.

Not to mention the countless creative projects that it inspired:

Smooth McGroove

Music by Pedro

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If you haven’t figured it out by now, Super Mario Bros. 2 is wildly successful because it is an amazing game. The kids of 1988 are all grown up now, and have passed that love onto not only their creative projects, but to the children in their lives as well. If the above videos are any indication, I’d say that things are going quite swimmingly.

One of the best resources that you’ll find on the history of Super Mario Bros. 2 was written by Jon Irwin, of which you can pick up a copy here in paperback or for your Kindle. Chockful of sales and insider information, I highly suggest reading it.

As for those who have since lost their original copy, you can pick up a used copy at a local retailer or private seller, typically for under $15, or pick up a digital copy for your Wii U here and call it a day. The images below will take you to the same storefronts.

Super Mario Bros. 2 captivated audiences when it was released, and will continue to do so for generations to come. Below is my complete warpless run of Super Mario Bros. 2 using only Luigi as my way of celebrating this amazing game. Here’s to another 30 years and beyond!

 

Have you ever wondered what a North American gamer would think of Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic? Read my in-depth review here!

Curious how the above video looks so crisp? I used my Raspberry Pi and Elgato Game Capture HD. Read and watch the tech demo here!