By now we all know the story of Super Mario Bros. 2: concerns about the Japanese sequel to the original Super Mario Bros. kept it from release in North America and Europe. Different reasons have been given over time, from the game being too difficult to it simply not demonstrating enough creativity to keep gamers interested, but the end result is that the Western world received a Mario sequel that was actually a retooled version of the Japan-only title Doki Doki Panic. The Japanese sequel eventually saw release as Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels — and that concludes your history lesson for the day.
With that interesting path to release out of the way we're free to concentrate on the game itself, and we're happy to do so, because it holds up brilliantly.
Super Mario platformers are famous for certain conventions: stomping enemies, hitting blocks to obtain items or reveal secrets, collecting 100 coins for an extra life, battling Bowser, rescuing Peach, and so on. Super Mario Bros. 2, however, features none of these things. For that reason, among others, it stands out as a significant outlier in the natural evolution of the series.
This is something that may turn gamers off, but we hope it doesn't. The world of Subcon might obey very different rules than the Mushroom Kingdom, but the adventure it holds is no less fun.
You don't kill enemies, for instance, by stomping them or roasting them with fireballs. Instead, you can stand on them — without taking damage — and pick them up with a press of the B button. You can then carry them around and throw them at other enemies, knocking them both cold. It's a significant departure, but it's one that leads to some interesting strategies, and it also sets up inventive set pieces — such as the digging puzzles, where enemies follow you down through the sand — that couldn't have been done in the other games.
Pressing B also allows you to pick vegetables to throw at enemies. This might not sound very exciting, but in 1988 it was a concept so promising that the game's box art consisted of nothing more than Mario with a beet in his hand. When's the last time you bought a game that advertised itself with a picture of the main character holding a vegetable?
You can also pull other things from the ground, such as bombs or potions. The potion, when thrown, creates a door that you can pass through in order to pull coins out of the ground and, hopefully, find a mushroom that will give you another hit point.
These represent a further departure from the other Mario platformers, as there's a level of foreknowledge you'll need in order to find all of the mushrooms. Early on you can simply drop the potion immediately and collect your reward, but later on you'll have to carry it to a very specific location somewhere else before dropping it. If you place the door in the wrong place, the mushroom is gone for good. That's a far cry from simply waiting for the next ? Block to come along!
This also contributes more to the unique strategising of Super Mario Bros. 2. Using some of the potions correctly actually represents a kind of logic puzzle. For instance, you may know that the mushroom will appear beneath those bombable blocks, but you don't get bombs after passing through the door. This means you'll need to bomb it ahead of time, which means finding and placing the bomb before finding the potion you need. It's not something you're going to know right out of the gate, but it's a reason to keep playing and experimenting. Of course the restore points on the 3DS version make finding the mushrooms a bit easier — simply set one before tossing the potion — but anyone attempting to seek them out the old-fashioned way has quite a job ahead.
Perhaps the biggest deviation from the rest of the series is the character select screen. Before every level you're able to choose your hero. Mario, as always, is the balanced option. Luigi can jump the highest. Toad can pick things up the fastest. And Peach can use her dress to hover if you hold down A. It would have been nice to have areas where one character shines more significantly than the others, but there's very little in the game that's inaccessible to everyone, meaning you're likely to just gravitate toward the character you enjoy using the most.
Worlds are three levels long, with interesting boss fights dotted throughout. A limited number of continues will help you along, but if you run out it's right back to the start of the game for you. And since Super Mario Bros. 2 offers far more of a challenge than its cutesy exterior belies, you may be playing through that first level a lot.
This is a game we hope more people discover soon. Its unique approach is worth experiencing for itself, but its fantastic graphics have aged wonderfully, with the characters looking crisp and cartoony — and while its soundtrack is limited, it's absolutely on par with the best music from any game in the series. It's a fun and memorable adventure, and it's worth playing just to be chased around by the key-guarding Phanto, which is still one of Super Mario's spookiest experiences. Your morning commute just got creepier.
Super Mario Bros. 2 is mainly remembered for the things it does differently from the other Mario platformers, but taken on its own merits it's a fantastic game. 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. It's a great deal of fun and is far more challenging than its reputation suggests, and it's a title we're always glad to see more gamers discover.