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Super Mario Bros. 2: The great American Mario sequel

I began my retro-video-gaming quest two and a half years ago with Super Mario Bros. To celebrate this, my 100th review, I've chosen Super Mario Bros. 2, one of my all-time favorite NES games.

Super Mario Bros. 2 is a reskin of the Famicom Disk System game, Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic. Howard Philips, the PR face of Nintendo of America in the early days, rejected the Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 ("The Lost Levels") for American release because it was too difficult. Mario's creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, helped develop Heart-Pounding Panic. Its creative use of both vertical and horizontal side-scrolling made it the ideal candidate for a Mario sequel. This was a stroke of genius, as it is far superior to the Lost Levels. Its deviations from the Mario formula should not be held against it, because there was no Mario formula back then!

Among the many differences from the original Super Mario Bros. is the fact that, at the beginning of each stage, you choose whether to play as Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Princess Toadstool (known as Peach in Japan). There is no two-player mode. Each character has pros and cons. Mario is the all-rounder. Luigi has an enormous jump that is hard to control (similar to the Lost Levels!). Toad moves quickly and has a short jump. The Princess is the best character because she can float by holding down the A button when jumping. In Heart-Pounding Panic, seeing the true ending required you to beat all 20 levels with each character (progress being saved to the disk). The lack of saving on the NES cartridge saw that feature dropped, so there's nothing to stop you from selecting the princess every stage. At the end of the game, it shows you how many times you used each character.

All the characters can do a power jump by crouching (hold ↓) for a couple seconds, then jumping (press A). This technique is needed to cross a few large gaps. Characters can pick up enemies by jumping on them (which doesn't hurt them) and then pressing B. Enemies can be thrown at other enemies. This sometimes rewards you with a health-recovery heart. Each stage your character begins with two bars of health. If you drop to a single bar of health, you shrink down à la Super Mario Bros. This was one of very few changes made to make the game more Mario-like.

The unusual aspects of the game are why I love it. The combination of horizontal and vertical scrolling makes for some great levels. I adore the cute cast of enemies, from the mask-wearing Shyguys, Snifits, Tweets, and Beezos to the egg-shooting Birdo. Fun fact: Birdo was originally described as transgender ("A boy who thinks he's a girl"), though later printings of the manual removed this. The game's strange plot has always fascinated me: Mario has a dream about a stairway leading to a door. The next day he sees this stairway and door while on a picnic. The door transports him to the world of Subcon, "the land of dreams." He must rescue the peaceable fairy-like beings of Subcon, whom Wart has imprisoned.
Super Mario Bros. 2 has excellent level designs. It lives up to or even exceeds the high standards set by the original. This is in large part thanks to the creative use of vertical spaces. Stages are large, with different sections connected by red doors as well as vines and ladders. Some doors are locked. When you find the key, Phanto, a circular flying enemy that looks like the phantom of the opera, gives chase. You can toss the key to make him fly off screen, but he reappears as soon as you pick it up again. Often there are multiple routes to get to the end of a stage, including hidden shortcuts. For example, in the first stage, instead of traversing the vine-climbing segment, you can jump over a waterfall to find a shortcut. Secrets may be found by going left where you'd expect to go right or falling down into a fake pit that leads to a lower area.

Instead of pipes, levels are full of vases that can be entered by pressing ↓. Most contain a single screen with a Shyguy and plant/item, though some house larger areas. A few stages even contain sand you have to dig through by pressing B. Shyguys and bullet-shooting Snifits make these segments somewhat challenging. Levels don't involve puzzles per se, but they can get maze-like, especially the final stage. The levels are very fun. Some get tricky but never excessively hard (let alone "NES hard"). The hardest may be 5-1 because it requires jumping between leaping fish. Players who are struggling should stick with Princess Peach—I mean Toadstool! 

Stages contain cherries to collect: every five cherries causes a Starman to appear, which makes your character briefly invincible. Stages are littered with the tops of vegetables growing out of the ground. They can be pulled up and then thrown at enemies. Sometimes a vegetable turns out to be an item: a potion, bomb, POW block, Koopa shell, 1-up mushroom, or stopwatch. Bombs blow up after a few seconds. They can be used to destroy certain blocks. The stopwatch temporarily freezes all enemies. The POW block (from the Mario Bros. arcade game) destroys all enemies on screen. The Koopa shell glides along destroying all enemies until it hits a wall. You can also ride it!

Throwing a potion creates a door to a dark silhouette area called Sub-space. Sub-space mirrors whatever was on screen at the time. Your character remains here for only a few seconds. In two locations per stage, Sub-space contains a Super Mushroom. Picking it up fully heals your character and augments their health meter for that stage by one. In addition, plants pulled up in Sub-space yield coins, but only for the first two times you enter it per stage (to prevent spamming coins). In levels 1-3, 3-1, 4-2, and 5-3, entering a certain vase while in Sub-space causes you to warp ahead one or more worlds. 

After each stage, you spend the coins you collected at the Bonus Chance slot machine. The best possible spin, three cherries in a row, awards five extra lives. A single cherry on the left grants one life. You can amass lives by using potions wherever a large number of plants are found. Toad is best for this because he pulls up plants the fastest.

There are 20 levels: three each in the first six worlds and two in the seventh. Because the stages are so large, the game takes longer to beat than the original Super Mario Bros. After a Game Over, you can continue on the first level of the current world (as in most NES games).

Each world has a boss at the end: Mouser (twice), Triclyde (twice), Clawgrip, Fryguy, and Wart. Clawgrip, a rock-tossing crab, was created specifically for Super Mario Bros 2. This is a significant improvement, as he replaced a third fight against Mouser. All the boss fights involve throwing things. You throw Mouser's bombs back at him. With Triclyde, a three-headed hydra, you throw mushroom blocks. You can use three of them to build a wall to protect yourself from his fireballs, then safely toss the rest from atop it. Fryguy is difficult because, after you hit him with three mushrooms blocks, he explodes into tiny, hopping fires that must be smothered with blocks.

The final boss is Wart, a gigantic toad who resembles Jabba the Hut. He shoots harmful bubbles out of his mouth. Despite his hatred of vegetables, a machine in the room shoots them into the air! Grab them and chuck them into his mouth right before he blows bubbles. 
Super Mario Bros. 2 has excellent graphics and music. The music may not be as iconic as the original's, but it's good. The game's somewhat negative reputation is not deserved. You can make the case that the original was better, but Mario 2 is stil one of the very best NES games (the same situation as with Zelda II). And we shouldn't underestimate the impact of Mario 2, which introduced Shyguys, Birdo, and Bob-Ombs. They were all featured heavily in Saturday morning cartoon, The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, albeit under the command of Bowser! I would love to see Wart make a re-appearance in a game one day!
Grade: A+
Linked Reviews
"The character design is fantastic. A wonderful soundtrack rounds out this absolutely dreamy sequel."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 5/5

"Its colourful, cartoonish graphics hold up brilliantly, the soundtrack is unforgettable and the four playable characters and hidden goodies make for a varied experience every time you play."
— Philip J. Reed, Nintendo Life, 8/10

"SMB2 offers greater diversity in graphics and gameplay than the original, making it a great bridge game between the other NES Mario titles."
IGN, #18 of Top 100


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