Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Super Mario Bros. 2 - Subconscious Memories
Some dreams are real: Why the game's true origin isn't a game-breaker.

By the time the year 1989 was nearing its end, I had already become a full-fledged Mario Maniac. I'd spent months getting to know Super Mario Bros. and its delightfully blocky world, slowly being enveloped by the game's every pixel as it stomped its way into my psyche. Yet there were other factors also contributing to my emerging fanhood. Concurrently, I was also being overcome by a deluge of new video games, since my brother, who didn't really become a big enthusiast for the system until years later, had spent the previous months picking up older NES titles from bargain bins and otherwise soaking them up at discount prices; it was another of his peculiarities--he was always buying games and toys for which he had little use seemingly for the sake of it. While the very introduction of these weird, unfamiliar games into my rapidly growing library became an important, fondly remembered milestone in my early days of console ownership, and I eventually did find appreciation for these many enjoyable titles, my short-term focus was now on one game in particular: Super Mario Bros. 2, which had managed to fly below my radar but was coming back into focus due to a certain movement that was looming.

Like any other 12-year-old at the time, I was naturally caught up in Mario Mania. Super Mario Bros. 3, which I of course highly coveted, was right around the corner, and Nintendo's hype machine was doing its job to suck me in. The problem: I didn't yet own Super Mario Bros. 2, the undervalued middle child! How could I be a member of the club with this transgression on my record? I remedied the situation by putting it down on my Christmas list for that year and finally got a hold of it during what was another NES-rich holiday season.

Since I had effectively been playing games on the NES since 1986, I was already up on all of the trends surrounding it even if it would be more than two additional years before I'd have one of my own. I certainly didn't miss 1988's build to Super Mario Bros. 2, since I had at least three friends who were anticipating its release, and I was quite familiar with Mario due to my experiences with his arcade exploits, Donkey Kong for the 2600, and some limited interactions with Super Mario Bros. I missed the game's appearance on the iconic first-issue cover of Nintendo Power (which I did come to own thanks to a 1990 back-ordering spree), however, and also what I imagine was a groundswell of excitement that only a console owner could feel, but I was right there at my friend Dominick's house the week his parents bought it for him. As strange as it sounds, I actually spent more time playing Super Mario Bros. 2 than I did the original (which was omnipresent and had the three previous years to itself), so I was already highly knowledgeable about it by the time it arrived in our household that Christmas.

I wanted it in my collection not because I was a copycat buyer (well, I was for a while) but because I enjoyed playing it, and I liked its unique dream-world aesthetics; I was a fan of how they altered the original's formula and included distinctive gameplay elements like vegetable-plucking, enemy-tossing, and the option to choose from one of four variably powered heroes. It had a more-relaxed vibe (no timer and a potential for up to four units of health, essentially) and allowed me tread along more carefully, whereby I was able to better absorb the game's largely new content and take my time in exploring whatever lay beyond its mysterious red doors, be it the solving of a bomb-placing puzzle and or a tense Phanto chase. Also, the characters looked much better--closer to the artwork's interpretation--which gave the appearance that this was some next-level stuff. It didn't matter to me at all that it wasn't a more-faithful refinement and continuation of its predecessor--there was, at this point in time, no such thing as a "normal" sequel, which would come to infer "more of the same." In an era when companies weren't afraid to be more creative, the gaming populace was treated to wonderfully divergent sequels like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Castlevania II: Simon's Quest, Eggerland Mystery 2, and Donkey Kong's unheralded pair of follow-ups.

I didn't even mind that the game's plot was situated in a dreamworld and that the whole ordeal was exclusively Mario's nighttime fantasy; there was nothing consequence-free about traveling through Subcon's whimsical world and working toward what was one of the most memorable endings in video game history, even if it was just to listen to the emotive, contemplative credits theme. Super Mario Bros. 2's vibrant, sometimes-haunting musical score and unmistakable art design set it apart from its predecessor while its identifiable "Mario" elements created a much-desired link. There was no brick-breaking or Goomba-stomping, but it had enough nods to the original--and enough of its spirit--to feel like the genuine article, whether it was a quick trip down a warp vase, climbing a series of vines, plucking up a red turtle shell and using it to mow down a whole new assortment of enemies, or a detour into subspace with its truncated-but-welcoming rendition of the iconic Super Mario Bros. overworld theme.

It would be some time before I was confident enough in my skills to take on the full challenge of Super Mario Bros. 2 with the likes of Mario or even Toad, so I stuck mainly to the super-nimble Luigi with an occasional sprinkle of Princess Toadstool, whose floating ability also had a way of breaking the game. Mario, I thought, was supposed to be the "safe" choice, equipped enough to handle all manner of platforming perils with maybe a little trouble when dealing with the game's longest jumps; instead, his role seemed to be that of the mustachioed crash-test dummy, excelling at absolutely nothing while plummeting into one bottomless pit after another because he was uncontrollably fast and too heavy plus the spacing, tempo, and general level design seemingly weren't planned with him in mind. At least Toad could net you large amounts of coins in plant-heavy subspaces. So, no--I had no problem letting Mario ride the bench for this one. 

Besides--I needed the services of the limber Luigi because I always played it straight through; where the original demanded a speedy pace that almost encouraged the use of warp zones, I never felt compelled to use Super Mario Bros. 2's warp vases, since doing so always struck me as cheating myself out of experiencing its varied platforming sequences, which included jumping to and from whales' water spouts, riding a series of Albatosses, crossing a long chasm with help from a Birdo egg, mounting a wheeled Autobomb in order to traverse a long spike pit, and using the environment around me to defeat the game's five exclusive bosses. Part of the fun was combing every inch of each stage, discovering the shortcuts and dropping potions anywhere I could in pursuit if mushrooms, which were placed in proximity at first but later deviously hidden several screens over, usually placed on narrow platforms or behind bombable walls. It's true that the game was comparatively short in terms of stages--checking in at 7 worlds and with three stages per world and only two in its final stanza--yet it felt longer due to its more-meticulously-designed challenges, even if I had the tendency to use Luigi's super jumps to bypass a lot of them.

Though I memorized the enemy placement and could always remain in full motion, skillfully jumping and crouch-sliding my way through storms of enemies (like stage 4-2's charging Beezo brigade with fiendishly complementary Flurries), there would always be small mistakes, like trying to land atop a Pokey, spasmically overshooting, and instead becoming sandwiched between two of the spiky varmints. Also, killing myself by accidentally diving into a pit to obtain a floating heart never failed to miss the point. Before I trained my eyes to carefully read and manipulate the 1up-doling slot machine minigame, I was always short on lives by the time I reached Wart, whose boss battle was more involved and just as intense as any of those I had against Bowser, if not for the fact that ultimate failure meant that the game was truly over, since there were no continues. Even after years-long periods of not playing it, I would somehow come to file the game in my mind as "easy," but I realize, now, that there was a reason I became so proficient at dodging Wart's poisonous bubble spew.

Super Mario Bros. 2 was simply another high-quality video game for a system that was quickly becoming home to many of my new favorites. Like others of its ilk, we enjoyed repeatedly running through it mainly because it was great fun but also to reenact our trademarked silly stunts and byplay, which included building mushroom-block barriers around brightly lit doorways, trying fruitlessly to kill the Mouser in stage 1-3 with a star procured one room earlier, displacing ladder parts with mushroom blocks, and trying to figure out what a "contributor" (which we pronounced "contra-buter") was. Its unique ideas and more-open structure lent themselves to other memorable events, whether it was riding on magic carpets, using mushroom blocks to build a defensive wall against Tryclyde, or our trying to find shortcuts based off of oft-told schoolyard rumors.

Sometimes we'd each take a stage and mix up the character-selection, forcing ourselves to use all four heroes successively from left and right. Other times, we'd attempt no-mushroom runs. No matter our process for approaching Subcon's challenges, it was during these many play-sessions where we compiled years-worth of memory-making moments. As time went on, and I saw less and less of childhood friends, I would still revisit the game but usually for a special reason: I was always about associating games with certain days, seasons, or holidays, and for Super Mario Bros. 2 it was any quiet, warm summer day when no one else was home and the sun would refract through my room's shades to create a prolonged washed-out brightness--a nostalgic atmosphere reminiscent of those that so immersed me when I used to share the game with my old pals.

Also lost to the years was a bit of the game's mystique. As certain events transpired (namely the release of the Mario Mania Player's Guide and the announcement of Super Mario All-Stars) and its origin was revealed, it became increasingly clear that the masked-goon-filled, stripe-platformed Super Mario Bros. 2, whose dreamworld we so enjoyed touring, was in fact not a "real" Mario game. By the time the Internet became prolific, every dink with a keyboard was equipped with the knowledge of the fact and ready to shout derisively that Super Mario Bros. 2 was a reskinned port of a Japanese game called Yume Koujou: Doki Doki Panic, which was a collaboration between Nintendo and Fuji Television and certainly something to be reviled.

I understood why Nintendo did what it did--why the company felt it had to fill a gap with something resembling a "part 2" where there would otherwise be none. Truthfully, though, I was never at all bothered by it. For one, it's not like Doki Doki Panic was some farmed-out, afterthought of a product; it was produced by the venerable Shigeru Miyamoto, after all, and the legendary game-music composer Koji Kondo was also involved! In fact, it even began life as a prototype for a game to be called "Super Mario Bros. 2"! How could it not be "real"? It was a product of fate that it eventually morphed into a Mario title, and thank goodness it did, much like a hero suddenly appearing to fill a void in the absence of another. I'm happy it exists, and though Nintendo typically ignore its impact, I'm glad that the company sometimes pays tribute to it by canonizing its enemies and including them in other games (Shy Guys being a recurring villain in the Yoshi-themed titles, for instance, and others like Pokey, Bob-omb and Ninji becoming standard foes).

As it stands, Super Mario Bros. 2 represents another lesson that went unlearned for a long time: People actually like it when you mix up the formula, give them new and interesting worlds to explore, and provide them more options. Why did it take 26 years before we saw another game with Super Mario Bros. 2's ensemble of playable characters? Will we ever again see a Super Mario Bros. title where they take us to a new world, with radical new gameplay mechanics and a whole new set of villains, even if it's all just a dream? While Nintendo doesn't like to directly acknowledge the game, I hope the higher-ups understand its message of how something new and different can be just as enrapturing as the tried-and-true and maybe the key to increasing the sales of the now-stagnant 2D Mario games. They can view it from this angle: Even if you try something new and it fails, it'll at least make it that much more exciting when you return to the original formula, like it did back when Super Mario, Zelda, and Castlevania took quick detours before reaffirming their roots. Nothing but highly useful customer feedback can result from taking the chance.

After my high school days ended, it was a long time before I returned to Super Mario Bros. 2; though I picked it up sporadically through the years, it wasn't until around 2004 when I reestablished a workable routine for it (I give it a go once every, say, three years). Somehow, I continue to make the mistake of misremembering it as "easy" and find out how wrong I am when an unaccounted-for, berserk Spark suddenly picks me off or I fudge a jump during the Trouter-hopping sequence in stage 5-1. However, it's still always fun to return to Subcon and try my hand at clearing the game with characters and combinations I once avoided, whether it's a single-character run with Mario or Toad or an equal-participation group effort. I regret that I never gave the GBA version, Super Mario Advance, a fair chance (since I was never that big a fan of the Game Boy Advance, despite my fondness for its Castlevania and Metroid titles), but I'm thinking that it's about time I give it a second look, if not just to experience a bit more of this never-again-repeated divergence.

People can argue whether or not the North American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 qualifies as a "real" Mario title or even a "real" Super Mario Bros. 2, but we can justify it like this: The original Super Mario Bros. was so utterly groundbreaking, so monumental in how it permanently changed the industry, that it required two direct sequels--not one but two games called "Super Mario Bros. 2."

And the video game world is better off because of it.

1 comment:

  1. Any hate directed at SMB2 is certainly undeserved. I have a very fond memory of renting this game one day after having a bad fall from my bicycle. Although I do remember reading "Mario Mania" and concluding that Nintendo had somehow "stolen" Doki Doki Panic from another company to make it into a Mario game.

    What's interesting to me nowadays is playing Doki Doki Panic, which I recently acquired for my Disk System. The way the game is designed makes a bit more sense: It's possible to save, and the player can select any stage he or she has already beaten (a bit like Super Mario All-Stars). However, you must choose your character at the beginning of the game and progress through using only that character; the true ending is unlocked when the game is beaten with all four characters. Thus it makes a bit more sense that the Mario analogue character has no real abilities: He's effectively the hard mode.

    Also, rather than a dream world, Doki Doki Panic actually takes place inside a book, which makes the pause screen's "page" design make more sense.

    Finally, one odd detail about DDP is that it lacks a "dash." Holding "B" does nothing - this was added into SMB2 to give it some continuity with the previous titles.

    You may already know all this, but I find it interesting nonetheless :)