Dispatches from an alternative universe!
This article is provided by Goggle Rob of Alternate Universe #724
The original Super Mario Bros. brought the concept of gaming back from the brink of ruin. So it seems only appropriate that, 35 years later, we examine its sequel, the game that crashed the videogame market forever.
Super Mario Bros. was a revelation here, there, and everywhere. When it was released in 1985, Nintendo knew they had a hit on their hands within a mere four months, which wound up being plenty of time for its creators and curators to consider a sequel. What was it about Super Mario Bros. that everyone enjoyed? Running? Jumping? Malevolent chestnuts? Jumping on malevolent chestnuts? Nobody had the answers, but the designers of Mario did have a theory: people wanted more. They had already begun working on arcade versions of Super Mario Bros., and, given this version was thirsty for quarters, it was designed to be more difficult. Could this be adapted to be the official sequel to Super Mario Bros.? Why not! Super Mario Bros. 2 would be a game that assumed you had already played Super Mario Bros. 1 until your eyes popped out of your skull, and, after a licensed optometrist put those peepers back in place, you’d be ready for more Mario challenges.
So, on a metaphorical level, Super Mario Bros. 2 was designed not to start with World 1, but Super Mario Bros. 1 World 9-1. There are no simple “tutorial” words in Super Mario Bros. 2, just militant turtles and twisting mazes. There are new mushrooms that do not grant Mario new abilities, but simply poison the plumber. Super Mario Bros. 2 is not only a game that requires you master Mario’s physics before you even pop the cartridge in your system, it is also a game that requires you memorize the intricacies of its often dubious world. Super Mario Bros. 1 disguised the length of a handful of castles with a looping maze that required a particular path, but Super Mario Bros. 2 habitually leans on warp pipes that will send Mario back to the start of a stage, or even the start of the game. Super Mario Bros. 2 requires dedication from its audience, and it makes absolutely no concessions for a novice player (give or take a secret way to earn a hundred lives within its opening level). You will lose all of your progress often and repeatedly, and only complete knowledge of the game will allow you to circumvent a frequent, inglorious Game Over.
It seems the tipping point for this tale happened when Super Mario Bros. 2 was being exported to America. Howard Lincoln, a man who was responsible for play-testing games for American audiences, felt the game was too difficult, and would not play well with American audiences. He famously said of the game, “Not having fun is bad when you’re a company selling fun.” However, Lincoln’s protests were ignored. While there was brief discussion regarding “reskinning” another title as “Super Mario Bros. 2 USA”, Super Mario Bros. 2 was released as is, with no changes or tweaks made to the abhorrent difficulty of the game. America was going to face down its first poisonous mushroom, and it would not be left in the cold by its Japanese brothers.
And it was a success. Of course it was a success! Nintendo had already set out to make Mario the most well-known mascot since Mickey Mouse, and, back in the 80’s, it looked like they were going to succeed. Yes, Super Mario Bros. 2 was difficult, but it was flanked by The Super Mario Bros. Super Show, Nintendo Cereal System, and Nintendo’s own propaganda rag, Nintendo Power. In fact, many claim the success of Super Mario Bros. 2 could be attributed to its place on the cover of Nintendo Power #1 (famously showing a clay Mario as he grabbed a flagpole in front of a blue Bowser) and spread across the “tips and tricks” contained therein. Super Mario Bros. 2 needed a comprehensive guide if you hoped to conquer it, and Nintendo wisely delivered such in every toy and book store across the country. Before long, everyone was “beating” Super Mario Bros. 2, and it seemed like the gambit of releasing such a difficult game paid off. Sure, SMB2 was “beyond Nintendo hard”, but Nintendo stepped in to help the players, and, ultimately the game itself.
Unfortunately, other games weren’t so lucky.
As was said at the time: so goes Mario, so goes the world. Super Mario Bros. (1) inspired a thousand 2-D platforming clones that all attempted to capture the magic of Mario. Did any succeed? Yes, a small handful did, but certainly no greater than a dozen. Super Mario Bros. 2 had a similar effect on the trajectory of videogames. Where once a sequel would account for new players (what would eventually become known as the nigh mythical “first time gamer”), all new sequels produced decided to follow Super Mario Bros. 2’s trail. This led to a variety of games that all seemed dedicated to murdering the player within the opening moments. Bubble Bobble 2’s starting “Floor 101” combined a million monsters with a timer that could barely be surmounted. Contra 2 led to a generation memorizing its “ten extra lives code” because you’d lose your first three inside of the opening seconds. Rygar 2 utilized every mapping “trick” available to create levels that had extremely poorly defined endpoints, and Gradius 2’s “poison powerups” made acquiring a shield intolerable. Final Fantasy 2 introduced an archaic leveling system that was about as opaque as a behemoth, and Dragon Quest (Warrior in the West) 2 featured dungeons that contained traps upon traps. Even Nintendo wasn’t immune to its own hype, as The Legend of Zelda 2 released with more invisible walls and spongey “green Moblins” than you could shake a stick at. And, to this day, no one has gotten past the first stage of Punch-Out 2 without tool assists. The only sequel that seemed to dodge this absurd difficulty fate was Mega Man 2, but, even there, some said the infamous Quick Man stage seemed like something that was “Super Mario Bros. 2 hard”.
And, God, what was done to Tetris 2 was criminal. It’s no wonder the Gameboy hardly lasted a year.
Though, of course, that was the inevitable end of this trend. Super Mario Bros. 2 was a success, but every game attempting to ape Super Mario Bros. 2 just hammered a nail into the coffin of gaming harder and harder. By the time of the predicted Super Mario Bros. 3 release, sales of Nintendo consoles had plummeted. Sure, this was the system that had Mario, Link, and Kid Icarus, but nearly every game that included a “2” was an awful slog of anti-fun. If this was the direction gaming was going, apparently the general public wanted nothing to do with it. In retrospect, it should have been expected: the Videogame Crash of 1983 was followed six short years later by the Videogame Crash of 1989. Stores stopped stocking videogames at all, and, by 1990, you could no more purchase a Nintendo Entertainment System in America than a pet rock. The fad of “gaming” had faded, returned, and faded all over again within the span of a decade.
And, like E.T. before it, everyone pointed to Super Mario Bros. 2 as the most prominent example of the reason no one wanted to touch a controller ever again.
So what became of gaming after the crash of ’89? There is no shame in not being aware of the last thirty years of videogame history, as the hobby became little more than a niche occupied by some very dedicated enthusiasts. Those that stuck around after Super Mario Bros. 2 demanded more and more severe challenges, and, given they were the entire audience, the gaming companies of yesterday and today were happy to oblige. Nintendo got out of the hardware business after the twin bombs of its Nintendo Entertainment System 2 and Super Mario Bros. 4 (infamously featuring a rideable dinosaur that would, after a set period of time, eat the player), but they are still making games for the personal computer, and the recent Super Mario Bros. 35 certainly seems to be 35 times as challenging as Mario’s original adventure. Other companies from the NES era, like Capcom and Ultra, faded into the ether, but they have been replaced by modern, “indie” developers that attempt to capture the feelings of the original titles like Castlevania 2 (a game that literally asked its players to bang their heads against cliffs). Oddly, it seems the most profitable gaming company in the modern era is a British gang by the name of Rare Limited, as their most recent release, Battletoads 3, is topping the sales charts. Granted, at this point, topping the videogame sales charts is roughly as financially relevant as selling the most model train sets in June, but it is still an accomplishment.
And that’s the world that Super Mario Bros. 2 created. It was a difficult, grueling videogame, and, thanks to its unprecedented success, every other company decided to make games that were more tedious than fun. As we now “celebrate” the 35th anniversary of the first Super Mario Bros. (there is even word President Dean will publically recognize the milestone), please remember that, thanks to one fateful sequel, Nintendo also smothered gaming in its crib.
One poison mushroom is all it takes…
Thank you for the guest article, Goggle Rob of Alternate Universe #724. I’ll be sending over my thank-you article about the failure of HD-DVD in this universe shortly!
FGC #547 Super Mario Bros 2 (The Lost Levels)
- System: Nintendo Famicom originally, but most of the West saw it as part of the Super Mario All-Stars compilation on the Super Nintendo.
- Number of players: It’s just one player, right? You have to choose a brother, but can’t cooperate? That is bad, and the game should feel bad.
- Speaking of All-Stars: The 16-bit remake really did this game dirty. The original NES version clearly has graphics that are an upgrade over the original, “launch” Super Mario Bros. palette. However, the SNES version seems to use the majority of the same assets for both games, giving the impression that SMB2j was little more than an expansion for SMB1. Way to rewrite history, Nintendo!
- Other complaints: No new enemies or “creatures” are introduced for Super Mario Bros. 2, save that lovely toxic fungus. The Mushroom Kingdom has one of the most interesting bestiaries in gaming, so it’s kind of a shame that the likes of bob-omb, shy guy, or dry bones didn’t premiere in this title. I like a goomba as much as the next guy, but Mario is at his best when he’s introducing something more interesting than “Blue Bowser”.
- Mario or Luigi? As a child, I saw as a child, and assumed jump height was everything. Now, as an adult, I prefer a hero that is less slippery, and is not demolished by strong winds. I have matured.
- Other connections: You cannot tell me the same thinking that inspired SMB2j’s ridiculous “spend half the level up above the boundaries thanks to overly powerful springs” level design is not also responsible for (real) Super Mario Bros. 2/Doki Doki Panic’s more albatross riding-based stages. It feels very familiar…
- Goggle Bob Fact: Nintendo Power goaded me into finding World 9 and sending a picture of proof so I could earn a badge of honor for my accomplishment… but I’m pretty sure my dad never properly developed the film, and it may or may not have actually been mailed. Regardless, I do not have a spiffy trophy badge, and my life is all the worse for it.
- Did you know? The A/B/C/D levels clearly reuse stage layouts from earlier in the game, but SMB2j doesn’t otherwise recycle any levels before rescuing a princess. This is in stark contrast with SMB1, which reuses levels constantly starting with World 5’s castle. Or am I just thinking of Super Mario 35…
- Would I play again: I would literally play any other Mario game first. I don’t really believe this game would have crashed the entire videogame industry exclusively because it is bad, but I do believe SMB2j and its hidden blocks/aggravating warps was basically the start of “Kaizo Mario”, and that’s never been the reason I play Mario titles. Sorry, history, I like fun games.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Donkey Kong Country 2 for the Super Nintendo! It’s sequel time, again, so it’s time to see Diddy’s Kong Quest! Please look forward to it!