Released on: October 9 1988
Available Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Game Boy Advance, Wii, Wii U, Nintendo Switch
Price: Free (With Nintendo Switch Online Subscription)
When I was a kid, I was able to experience the classic NES Super Mario games thanks to the Super Mario All-Stars pack. Super Mario All-Stars had remakes of Super Mario Bros, Super Mario Bros 2, Super Mario: The Lost Levels, and Super Mario Bros 3 (mine didn’t have Super Mario World). I played all of them as a kid and finished all of them (save for Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels. I only beat that one recently.) When I grew up, I found out that Super Mario Bros. 2 originated as a game called “Doki Doki Panic” in Japan and that the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 was The Lost Levels. Japan would get the Mario reskin of Doki Doki Panic later with the release of Super Mario Bros USA. Since I reviewed Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels, I figured I would review North America’s Super Mario Bros 2. Is Super Mario Bros 2 worthy of its inclusion in the Mario series?
Mario was minding his own business when suddenly, he finds a staircase with a door at the end. Mario opens the door to discover it leads to another world. He then hears a voice cry out for help in defeating the mischievous king Wart. Mario then wakes up and realizes it was just a dream. He decides to tell Luigi, Princess Peach, and Toad about his dream. To his surprise, everyone had the same dream. They decide to go on a picnic that day, only to discover a mysterious cave once they arrive. They come to find that the cave has the same staircase and door as the dream. Sure enough, their dream was real. The four of them set off to confront king Wart. The plot is refreshing for an early Mario game. Mario and Luigi usually have to rescue Peach from Bowser, but this time, Peach tags along for the adventure, something I wish would happen more often.
Visually, Super Mario Bros 2 is adequate. Mario and friends are easily identifiable from the background, and so do the enemies. Where I feel that Super Mario Bros 2 fail aesthetically is with some of the stage backgrounds, primarily waterfalls. The NES’ limited color pallet makes waterfalls hard to look at, making those stages a nightmare to get through. In the Super NES remake of Super Mario Bros 2, waterfalls are much cleaner and don’t strain the eyes as much. The worse part is, Super Mario Bros 2 improved the waterfall effect from Doki Doki Panic. Super Mario Bros 2 added more frames of animation to the waterfalls, reducing their strobing effect. While still painful for the eyes, at least it reduces the risk of epilepsy.
One of the myriad defining features of Super Mario games is their iconic music. Super Mario Bros 2 is no exception. Those who are familiar with Super Mario Bros 2 are more than likely thinking of a few standout tracks as they are reading this. The ones I’m thinking of are the character select screen, the main theme, the boss theme, and the cave theme.
Super Mario Bros 2, while still a platformer, is an entirely different experience than other Mario Bros games. The goal of each level is still to get to the end, but it sometimes requires the player to go through a series of doors, and sometimes backtrack to find the end of the level. Each level has the player face off against Birdo. The other significant difference between Super Mario Bros 2 and typical Mario Bros games, is that jumping on enemies alone will not eliminate them. The player can hop on most enemies’ heads to use as a platform. The player has to pick up the enemy and toss them at another opponent to get rid of foes. I imagine this was revolutionary, as later Mario games would include the ability to pick up and throw certain enemies. Riding on enemies’ heads is enjoyable, as they can do most of the legwork to get the player to places they usually wouldn’t be able to reach.
Each level has the player chose their character: Mario, Luigi, Toad or Peach. Mario is the middle of the road kind of guy, not having any significant weaknesses, but also nothing that makes him stand out. Luigi jumps the highest, but his air momentum is slow, and he has the second slowest pick-up speed. Toad picks up objects the fastest but has the weakest jump, and Peach can float in the air but has the slowest pick-up speed. Character selection plays a vital role in taking on a level, as some levels might require the player to make tricky jumps, or have them dig their way underground. I admire Super Mario Bros 2’s character selection, as it presents an extra layer of strategy and playstyle optimization to each level, something that is still impressive today, let alone back in 1988.
Doki Dokie Panic (and thus, Super Mario Bros 2 USA) introduced a lot of enemies that would later become iconic to the Mario series (Birdo, Sniffits, Shy Guys, etc.) One enemy that is exclusive to Super Mario Bros 2 (unless we count the newest Super Mario Maker 2 update) that stands out the most is Phantos. For those who don’t recognize the name, or for the uninitiated, Phantos is a haunted mask that chases the player when they grab a key. Contact with Phantos will deal damage to the player. I love Phantos, as it turns a usually monotonous climbing level into a horrifying mad dash to the locked door. The player might think they lost Phantos, but as long as they carry that key, it will chase the player mercilessly.
Despite my compliments to Super Mario Bros 2, there is a reason I don’t rank it highly as a Mario game.
The lack of jump height plaguing Toad and Peach can be a little off-putting in certain situations. To circumvent low jump strength, players can crouch for a few seconds giving them access to a super jump. As a kid, I didn’t know about the super jump, which meant I started a level and got bested by a platform, I thought, was inaccessible with characters that weren’t Luigi. Super Mario Bros 2’s super jump is common knowledge nowadays, but back then, it truly stumped me.
While I appreciate Super Mario Bros 2’s ambitious character selection, I feel as if it’s a double-edged sword. It does give the players multiple options to tackle a level, but I also feel like it makes Super Mario Bros 2’s level design feel ambiguous. If I take Super Mario Bros as an example, its level design is iconic because it only needs to account for one character: Mario (Luigi handles the same as Mario in Super Mario Bros). Super Mario Bros 2, having four different characters to consider, has to have levels design as such that they have to be possible with every character. While this doesn’t make Super Mario Bros 2’s level design bad, just less personal overall, some levels become an absolute chore if the player picks a suboptimal character.
Super Mario Bros 2 USA is okay. It has excellent music, ambitious ideas, and series defining features. That said, the level design and the NES’ graphical limitations prevent it from standing with the greatest of Mario games. One could do worse than Super Mario Bros 2, but there are better Mario games out there.