Turnip Time: Super Mario Bros. 2
Super Mario Maker has gone a long way to revitalize my passion for classic Mario. Not that I ever really lost any love for those titles, but Mario Maker has really helped me reconnect with why I treasure those games as much as I do. Of course, Mario Maker’s level editor has one glaring omission from the classic Mario cannon: Super Mario Bros. 2 (Turnip Version). SMB2 is the odd-man out of classic Mario, as it is actually a Mario reskin of the Famicom Disk System game, Doki Doki Panic. The “real” SMB2 never made it to the NES as Nintendo of America considered it too hard for the American market. (It’s also just a lackluster game, but more on that later.) But even though we now look at SMB2 as an anomaly in the classic lineup, for those of us who were gaming at the time, the world of Mario was still very new and weird to us all, so the unusual setting of SMB2, the dream world of Subcon, didn’t feel all that unusual given the context of the series. It also wasn’t all that unusual for sequels of NES games to be radically different from their predecessors, which means I don’t think I ever personally thought of it any less for being such a unique game amongst its brethren.
It’s unfortunate that SMB2 was left out of Super Mario Maker, but actually fairly understandable. Not being a “true” Mario game, the mechanics of SMB2 deviate significantly from the rest of the series. In SMB1, 3, and World, Mario interacts with the world primarily by stomping on things and bumping/breaking things with his head as he jumps. Jumping on enemies/objects to attack/break them ended up becoming a fairly standard mechanic in the platforming genre. But SMB2 is fairly unique in that it is a game that is about picking up and throwing things. The levels are filled with environmental objects to grab and toss, like buried vegetables, mushroom blocks, and keys, and the majority of enemies can be snatched up and used as projectile weapons against their allies. While it doesn’t seem like a radical idea, I’ve racked my brain trying to think of platformers that use this mechanic, but while I can think of a lot of games where jumping on enemies is used as an attack (Sonic, Crash Bandicoot), the only platforming series I can think where tossing enemies and objects is a central mechanic is Donkey Kong 94 (and its sequel Mario vs. Donkey Kong) and arguably the Wario Land games.
What I really admire about SMB2 is how well it expands upon the adventure aspect of the original SMB. While I enjoy a good challenging platformer, the thing I like most about the classic Mario games is the sense of wonder and discovery that comes with exploring the levels. While SMB is a game about going forward from one edge of the screen to the other without turning back, the levels in SMB2 are about travelling up, down, left, right, inside, and out. I think my favorite level is World 3-1 which begins at the base of a waterfall that the player must travel upward through. At the top, the player must knock an enemy off a flying carpet which can then be ridden farther upward into the clouds. The game even begins with a long straight fall down through darkness that lands in the world of Subcon. These new degrees of freedom give the world of SMB2 a liveliness that didn’t quite exist in its predecessor.
Beyond just level structure, there’s tons of imagination in SMB2. The world of Subcon is filled with strange and unusual creatures and features. A number of recurring Nintendo characters made their first appearance in this game including shy guys, sniffits, bob-ombs, and pokeys. Easily the most memorable baddie in the game is Phanto, the relentless flying mask that pursues the player as they carry the cursed keys that are required to open the many locked doors that stand in their way. Being chased by that nightmare abomination is probably one of the most tense memories that a lot of gamers have from their early years. And the landscapes and artifacts of the dream realm are almost completely peculiar and unique to this world’s creative vision. Mario and crew journey across the backs of whales in an icy ocean, jump into TARDIS-like vases that are bigger on the inside than they are on the outside, and of course buried in the ground there are the iconic red potions that create doors to the shadowy subspace where power-ups are hidden.
On my recent playthrough of SMB2, I was actually pretty amazed at how unique and memorable each level was. It’s been many years since I’ve played the game, but most of the levels were immediately recognizable to me. I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about original SMB. Outside of 1-1 and 1-2 (which I’ve played thousands of times), the stages of the original SMB just sort of blur together to me. I remember specific types of stages, like the underwater worlds, flying fish bridges, tree tops, etc., but I don’t really remember the fine details of specific levels that well. SMB2 has much more individually distinct stages to explore. In addition to the aforementioned waterfall level, I’m a big fan of the level that is styled after Pitfall with caves that are visible beneath the character’s feet, and the ice level where the character must cross an ocean on the backs of a pod of water-spouting whales.
It’s also cool that the game allows the player to choose between Mario, Luigi, Toad, or the Princess at the beginning of each level. No other classic Mario game really offers that. At best, you can choose to play as Luigi (and usually only if you’re Player 2). The four characters also control differently, and many consider Mario to be the least interesting character. I think most people are like me and consider the Princess their favorite as she can float horizontally for a short moment during her jump. To me, SMB2 is really a Princess Toadstool game. I know the people who market games often have cynical attitudes toward the willingness of male youths to play as female characters, but all my friends at the time preferred the Princess. I also know that many really like Luigi since he has the highest jump, although his movement is slippery and a bit harder to control. I’ve never bothered much with Mario or Toad honestly. Mario is supposed to be the well-rounded character, but he ends up being kind of boring. Toad is slow and can…..ummm…. dig up plants really quickly???
Of course, there is that other SMB2 out there, the Japanese version that is known as The Lost Levels over here. The Lost Levels was first released as a part of Super Mario All-Stars in the US, but I’ve only ever played the English localized 8-bit version available on the North American 3DS eshop. After playing that version, I’m incredibly glad that game never made it to the NES. I’ve found it to be such a joyless game, and I think it probably would have dampened my excitement for Mario back then.
The Lost Levels focuses less on expanding the adventure aspect of Mario and more on greatly increasing its challenge. The game was admittedly advertised on the box as being for advanced players, and while the original Super Mario Bros. could be quite difficult in later levels, The Lost Levels is much harder. And not a fun kind of hard like Super Meat Boy or Mega Man 9, The Lost Levels has a difficulty that is more focused on just trying to screw the player. Remember how amazing it was to discover the warp zone at the end of World 1-2???? Well, The Lost Levels has parts where the player can get trapped in reverse warp zones that send them back to worlds they’ve already beat. The Lost Levels is far from an insurmountable challenge, but in obsessively trying to beat down the player, it strips out all the wonder and thrills that were found in the original. That’s not to say that fiendishly difficult levels don’t have a place in Mario games, but I think the best way they’ve been incorporated is as optional secret content like they were in Super Mario World. An entire game that is nothing but those kinds of levels just loses its charm very quickly.
Ultimately, despite it’s rationalizable exclusion from Super Mario Maker, I don’t think SMB2 is a particularly underappreciated game on Nintendo’s behalf. It was the first game they remade in the Super Mario Advance series, as SMB1 and Lost Levels had already been remade in Super Mario Deluxe. And certain aspects from the game have made their way into the “true” Mario games, such as pokeys and bob-ombs, although the most iconic enemy, the shy guy, has only been featured in spin-offs like Yoshi’s Island. But I do hold out some hope that we might get some SMB2 love in Mario Maker. After Nintendo’s excellent continuing support of games like Mario Kart 8 and Splatoon, I would like to think that it might not be impossible that an SMB2 tileset could arrive in the form of DLC. I personally wouldn’t even really have any objections to paying for a piece of content like that.