FGC #487 Super Mario Bros. 2

This is the second consecutive article about a second Mario game in the year 2020. That’s a lot of twos! So let’s look at two significant things about Super Mario Bros. 2 that appear in this one (1) screenshot.

Mario!  Kinda!

We’ll start with the good

It's good!

This is the best heads up display there has ever been in a Mario game.

What do we have here? Two red dots. That’s your health. And that’s it! That’s all you need to know! It is firmly the belief of Gogglebob.com that every videogame requires an easy, immediately accessible health meter. This helps the player make decisions: you have full health, so do you take some chances? Or are you down to a single hit point, and you play as conservatively as possible? Do you go for that extra heart to keep your boat afloat? Or are you already sitting pretty, so why risk it for something you don’t even need? The choice is up to you, and knowing exactly how much gas is in your tank lets you make an informed decision. Are you getting this, Fable 3? Nobody wants to waste health potions because they can’t tell if that screen filter is supposed to bright or dark red.

Playin' SnakeIn your average SMB platformer, you can tell how vulnerable you are immediately by Mario’s average height and/or ability to hurl flaming balls, but Super Mario Bros. 2 simply has “health”. And that does allow for some interesting gameplay decisions. Are you going to horde that magic potion to find a mushroom? Or is it time to seek out as many gambling coins as possible? Are you full of hearts for the Mouser showdown, or are you going to hold off on opening that door until you’re a little more stable? Options! They’re back! And they all pivot on those simple red dots up in the corner.

And don’t even get me started on how good it is to see four dots up there. Mmmm…

There is beauty in what is not included up there, too. A score has never mattered to Mario, so why even bother? The game is tracking the Subcon denizens you defeat, as you are eventually rewarded with a restorative heart after knocking over enough shyguys, but you don’t need a “kill count” to encourage further carnage (eat it, Super Mario Land 2). And even your cherry collection, the closest thing SMB2 has to gathering coins, doesn’t need a counter when you’re just happy to see the occasional super star. Cherries are not something to be rationed across Wart’s invasion. Just grab ‘em! Cherries are good, and that’s all you need to know about that collectible.

Super Mario Bros. 2’s HUD tells you literally everything you need to know, and doesn’t clutter the screen with anything superfluous. It is a shining example of minimalist design.

So it’s a bit of a shame that excellent design doesn’t apply to the problem with Super Mario Bros. 2…

It's bad!

The issue? There at the top of the screen is the bird-mask gate that is the entrance to World 3-2. And that door at the bottom? That’s the exit. You can see it! It’s right there! You’re just going to have to traverse the whole of the stage backwards to find your way to your eventual goal.

And that’s always annoying.

Complete BSSuper Mario Bros. 1 is a game that scrolls from left to right so relentlessly, the screen literally doesn’t allow returning to the left. Super Mario Bros. 3 may allow backtracking, but you can be sure that your eventual fireworks display is always going to be far too the right. Right is forward, left is backwards, and if you’re not making forward/right progress, you are losing ground on reaching your goal. Easy peasy. There are some exceptions to the rule (usually involving a castle or similar Koopa encampment), but, by and large, you always know where you’re going in a Mario game.

Super Mario Bros. 2, unfortunately, doesn’t have this kind of focus. Right from the first level, there’s a branching path that involves the possibility of sneaking up on Birdo through some demolition, or scaling a vertical beanstalk. Choice is great! But it’s not so great on an opening level where you’re still trying to discover the shape of your goals. From there, we have a second level that requires a detour to find a key, and then another stage that entails some up-and-down just to make your way to a boss. Very rarely is there a SMB2 level that requires simple, left-to-right traversal, and, while the final fortress being a maze is to be expected of a Mario adventure, the second to last level hangs its opening segment on the deception of having to progress left when right seems like the most obvious goal. Right until the end, Super Mario Bros. 2 loves tricking the player into confusion at best, and general time wasting at worst.

And I am not a player that likes to waste his time.

Rarely seen crabI replay Super Mario Bros. 3 once a year (though I may ignore some levels). Super Mario Bros. usually sees a go for one reason or another. But I don’t think I’ve completely played through Super Mario Bros. 2 since the advent of the Gameboy Advance. Why? Because it’s a game that practically forces the player to second guess every decision. Is this the right way? Should I be riding that albatross? Is there a key down this pipe, or another stupid turtle shell? Hell, even pullin’ up plants, the temporary replacement for Mario’s iconic question mark blocks, is a lottery to the uninformed player. Are you going to pull up a helpful vegetable, or a bob-omb that is going to blow after an instant? And if there are a row of plants, where is that magic potion? If you pull it up first, it’ll lead to a bevy of coins, but tugging it out last means you won’t get a cent. And, as someone who doesn’t easily deal with missing collectibles, it poisons everything about the experience.

Oh… oh, God. Is Super Mario Bros. 2 the first Mario collectathon?

Well, no, of course not. It’s not like Wart is locked behind finding every last coin or some other esoteric condition. But Super Mario Bros. 2 does appear to be the first Mario title that experimented with eschewing “courses” for “worlds”, and its position as a the first Mario game to give that a try makes it a harder pill to swallow. Super Mario Bros. 2 is neither fish nor fowl in the war between Mario games where you have to find everything, and Mario games where the entire point is jumping around like an idiot. Dang whalesAs a result, even though it is a very singular experience in the History of Mario, it is also a game that doesn’t perform well in either category. There are too many “secrets” and “techniques” required for this to be a simple “run ‘n fun” platforming title, but there are too many pidgits and waterfalls for it to be a game simply about discovery. It’s a title lost in the middle, and that means it is rarely anyone’s favorite.

But it still has a pretty rockin’ health meter, so it ain’t all bad.

FGC #487 Super Mario Bros. 2

  • System: Nintendo Entertainment System, then Super Nintendo Entertainment System, and then… I guess it didn’t appear again until the Wii? Then it was on everything, though. Does the Gameboy Advance version count, too?
  • Number of players: This was the first Mario game to include Luigi, but not a 2-player mode. Or I’m making that up. But it sounds like a true fact!
  • Doki Doki Remake: Everybody knows that Super Mario Bros. 2 USA was a modified version of Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, a Nintendo game by Shigeru Miyamoto that featured a non-Nintendo license. The heroes of YK:DDP were switched with the Mario staples of Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess, but most of the rest of the game was unchanged. We’ve still got Wart, Mouser, and…

    This is not okay

    They just had to change a liiiiiiil racism here and there.

  • Favorite Character: Growing up, I always relied on Princess Toadstool/Peach. But now, as a mature adult, I apparently prefer Toad. I… I just gotta go fast.
  • Innovation: I may be against how much thinking is required to complete Super Mario Bros. 2, but I am continually impressed by how often the simple concept of “riding” an enemy is used for fascinating gameplay. Soaring across the skies on the back of a bird is pretty straightforward, but who would expect skittering up a tree with a hoopster? And seeing how far you can get while riding on a shyguy is always fun.
  • What’s in a name: Oh! Subcon! As in subconscious, as in the part of your brain that is working when you’re dreaming. I just got that!
  • Floating bubblesDid you know? Clawgrip is an entirely new boss added to the game to replace a third Mouser battle in level 5. It’s obvious that a number of SMB2 luminaries never made it into other Nintendo titles because “SMB2 USA” didn’t have as much cultural clout in Japan, but Clawgrip is on the Mike Jones-echelon of never being seen again. Come on, Nintendo, he’s a giant crab! Nerds love those guys!
  • Would I play again: It might not be my favorite, but it sure is a Mario game. That means I’m sure I’ll give it another go sometime, even if it won’t be for a while. Maybe I can go visit Mecha Birdo…

What’s next? We’re keeping this two-train going! Random ROB has chosen Sonic the Hedgehog 2! Are you up 2 it? Please look forward 2 it!

Sleep well

One Response »

  1. Funny you should talk about the minimalism of Super Mario Bros. 2, ‘cuz Super Mario Advance was the polar opposite even though it was more or less the same game.

    “Here’s a vestigial score counter. Here’s five red coins to collect in every stage.. Here’s a whole line of enemies you can knock over for a 1-UP that is nigh useless in a game with saving. Here’s a ton of upsized enemy counts, rotation and scaling effects, new vase interiors to show off said effects more, giant enemies, and a pile of voice acted dialogue. You think people will get what the Game Boy Advance is capable of from all of this? Better throw in a remake of Mario Bros. done in the same engine with 4-player support just to be sure.”

    Sure is nice they threw in a fifth life point, though.

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