Friday, March 25, 2022

Super Mario Bros. 2 (JP) - Thoughts

If you've ever wondered what a "proper" Super Mario Bros. sequel might look like (one thoroughly scrubbed of its Doki Doki quirkiness) then behold—your monkey's paw wish has been granted! Released less than a year after the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 on Famicom Disk System was the true successor to the platforming classic, the sequel the West was sadly robbed of. Or at least, that's what die-hard fans would grouse, before finally getting their mitts on the Lost Levels version of the game in the All-Stars collection. Nowadays you won't find too many folks urging others to play—let alone purchase—Super Mario Bros. 2 in order to complete their Super Mario adventure. And with good reason too: Super Mario Bros. 2 is a lackluster expansion pack of levels designed to be as rude as possible.

Before the proliferation of romhacks, Super Mario Bros. 2 carried an intriguing promise: it quite literally offered more Super Mario Bros. There are more levels, more hazards, more secrets, more enemy types, and even more characters—well, one more character. Luigi finally differentiates himself beyond his white painter overalls, leaping higher and further than Mario at the cost of his brake speed. He's a cool addition that transforms the Mushroom Kingdom into a low gravity ice rink, making the game a tad easier due to his ability to reach numerous ledges Mario otherwise struggles with. However, his inclusion oddly replaces the 2P option—which isn't that big of a deal, as I can hardly imagine more than one person per household actually wanting to play this game.

Early on (ie the third item box of 1-1), you'll be clued into Super Mario Bros. 2's new tenet: trolling. Poison mushrooms are a "power-down", bottomless pits are now ubiquitous, and there are hidden warp zones that can send you backwards through the game. Expect frequently tight gauntlets of piranha plants and fire bars to test your reaction time, as well as the occasionally hammer bro you can only bypass with a risky leap. But the worst offenders have to be the hidden blocks and repeating mazes, which will terrorize you as early as 2-2 and 3-4 respectively. It's funny that two decades before amateurs could flood Mario Maker with belligerent kusoge, Nintendo was playing the original offender, gleefully toying with its audience.

Super Mario Bros. 2 may be billed as a game "for super players" but that's a touch misleading; 2 isn't a challenging game insofar as it's a rude one. That doesn't mean it's not difficult—it most certainly is—but like Battletoads, the largest hurdle is the amount of rote memorization required to beat it. Power-ups are not only few and far between but are commonly hidden, making the game's trickiest stages (primarily World 8) feel impossible until you sniff them out. Likewise, the game isn't shy about throwing blind jumps at you—especially whenever the super spring is involved, meaning you'll have to intuit where you are offscreen. Perhaps what clinches Super Mario Bros. 2 as more "rude" than "challenging" is the paltry amount of lives you have to beat it with... unless you know of the (intentional!) 1-up trick at the start of the game.

Despite Super Mario Bros. 2's obsession with screwing you over, the level design actually ranges from "okay" to "pretty good." Stylistically, the stages are hewn straight from the first game: you have underground levels (with more pits), tree top levels (with more pits), castles (with more pits) and annoying underwater sections (with more pits and now koopas!) Because of this, I don't remember entire stages as well as their troublesome sections, like the brutal koopa hops of 4-3/8-1, the fake dead end of 5-1, the Groundhog's Day loop of 5-3/7-2, the stratospheric leaps of faith of 7-3, and the insidious secret exit to 8-2. Ironically, the common element between these sections is that they contain one of more of the aforementioned trolling devices—repeating mazes, hidden blocks, and blind jumps.

That's why I don't think Super Mario Bros. 2 is necessarily bad for including anti-player gimmicks—it's just that they'll chip away at your patience with a diamond pickax every time they're used. If you're more resistant to tilt and enjoy repeatedly running levels in the pursuit of perfection, then great! There's a good chance you'll like Super Mario Bros. 2 more than its admittedly tame predecessor. But my problem is that "trolling" is all 2 really brings to the table. Sure, there's Luigi and super springs and wind and more aggressive piranha plants... but none of those dynamically change the way you play (well, besides Luigi). Audibly, visually, and mechanically, you're essentially playing the first Super Mario Bros again, but this time with a pitiful "new" coat of paint and a penchant for cruelty. As an adolescent I dragged the American 2 for being too different, but now near my mid-30s I find the sameness to be the most disappointing thing about this sequel.

To its credit, Super Mario Bros. 2 does add in a couple of bonuses for skillful players: namely, World 9 and Worlds A-D. I like World 9 as a hyper-difficult achievement, granting folks that beat the game on a single continue only one life to make it through a surreal, underwater-only series of stages. What makes it work for me isn't just the inverted palette but that it feels like a goofy victory lap rather than a punishing final challenge. Worlds A-D on the other hand, are a fine inclusion (they're a smidge harder than the regular stages) but they unfortunately hinge on the player completing the game eight times. I could understand maybe beating it as both Mario and Luigi once, but requiring quadruple that amount is just tedious busywork. One could argue it offers good practice for making it to World 9, but I was able to get there on my third attempt as Mario—all the other five runs did was solidify my opinion on Super Mario Bros. 2 even further.

On one hand, I admit that it is pretty cool playing what is essentially the earliest Mario romhacks ever made, especially by the "casual-friendly" Nintendo. But on the other, I judge Super Mario Bros. 2 so harshly because players nowadays are spoiled for choice. There are plenty of good hacks for purists that want something similar but more creative (Super Mario Unlimited, New Mario Bros) as well as hacks that allow you to better show off your Mario mastery (Super Mario Forever/Frustration, Rohrleitung Gate). The best reason to play Super Mario Bros. 2 over anything else is to learn about a forgotten relic in history, a kind of "what if Nintendo turned nasty?" And even then, I'd suggest playing the (improved) All-Stars first, whereupon you'll quickly realize Howard Philips was right—not having fun is indeed, bad.

When I claimed that Super Mario Bros. 2 was literally "more" Super Mario Bros., I neglected to add that it's more obnoxious, more difficult, and way more tedious. The game plays with physics in interesting ways via Luigi and the wind mechanic, but all that really amounts to is needing a finer degree of precision—and a lot more memorization—to master it. Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn't offer a new dimension of freedom like 3 does, nor a compelling new playstyle like with the American 2. Its strength lies solely in its mischievous level design, and even then you have to have a high tolerance for stupid deaths if you wish to see the end. When viewing the Super Mario Bros. franchise as a whole, I don't think you can argue that 2 deserves any spot other than the rock bottom.

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