The Strange, Superior Sequel
Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)
We last covered The Lost Levels which, in Japan, was Super Mario Bros. 2, the official sequel to the original Super Mario Bros.. For modern audiences, is something of a letdown to be sure, a game that feels like a hard mode "expansion pack" or one of the first "kaizo" rom-hacks. When taken in the context of the whole series of games, from Donkey Kong, an iterative update to the series feels perfectly in line for NintendoSince 1983 (with the release of the Famicom gaming system in Japan), Nintendo has proven to be a gaming company dedicated to finding what gamers want, even when the gamers don't know it themselves. From dual-screen systems, to motion controls, to convertible home console/portable consoles, Nintendo regularly proves that the weirdest innovation is exactly what the gaming community needs., but that's not really what the rest of us probably wanted from a sequel.
Thankfully, when it came time to port Super Mario Bros. 2 to the United States, Nintendo of America said, "no, thank you." That original game didn't move the series far enough forward while, at the same time, being hard-as-nails even in the "Nintendo Hard" era. The Western branch of the company wanted something different, so Nintendo's Mario Team (led by Shigeru Miyamoto) went to their vaults to see what they had kicking around. What they came up with was a port of a different, unrelated platforming game: Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic, and game that, up until then, hadn't made the move over to Western shores.
Doki Doki Panic (aka Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic) had a rather odd development history. Created by Nintendo in support of the Fuji TV-sponsored "Yume Kojo '87" event, the game was created by the Mario Team but, originally, didn't feature any Mario characters within it. Instead it was a kind of riff on the classic Arabian Night tales, with a family of four (Papa, Mama, Daughter, and Son) getting sucked into a storybook that they have to explore and fight their way out of. Since this was a game for a very specific event, one that American audiences wouldn't have cared about at all, the game was shelved after the festival. A weird one-off that, at the time, wouldn't have seen the light of day again. But then Nintendo of America wanted a new title and why bother putting in new effort when an old game made by the Mario Team could be recycled?
So, yes, the Super Mario Bros. 2 that we know in the west is little more than a rom-hack of a different game given the Mario. That helps to explain why so much of the game is so different from a classic Mario game. When you paste this game in between Super Mario Bros. and the eventual Super Mario Bros. 3, it stands as the odd man out with different mechanics, different worlds, and a whole other boss to take out. This was Mario featuring in his own Gaiden story, given full production values and the spit and polish you expect from Big N.
In the game our four heroes, Mario (replacing Papa), Luigi (replacing Mama), Princess (replacing daughter Lina) and Toad (in place of son Imajin), are sucked into Mario's dream (or this all takes place in Mario's dream to begin with) and have to battle through seven worlds (and 20 stages) to escape the dreamland and get back to the real world. Each of the characters play a little differently -- Mario is a basic all-around character; Toad lifts items the fastest, Luigi has a long, arching jump; and Princess can jump and hover in the air -- and smart use of all four (selecting one to play through each stage) is required to optimally get through the whole game. Exploration and experimentation are the name of the game.
The changes to the characters aren't the only difference, though. This game played very different from the Mario title(s) we saw before. This is evident from the very beginning when our selected hero starts in level 1-1 and, instead of running rightward they're immediately set to fall down a mountain. This game features vertical scrolling as well as horizontal and, unlike the previous game(s), there's no "ratchet scrolling" -- you can freely move in any direction you want without the screen stopping you once you've gone too far. This game is very freeing and the possibilities opening by this are fantastic.
It's also a very weird game that defies the basic expectations of the series. In Super Mario Bros. (as well as the later titles) when you jump on an enemy they die. Here, though, you can jump on enemies and they continue along with their business as if you aren't there. Only by pressing the B button do you end up lifting them, and then you can use the enemies as projectiles against other enemies to kill them. You can also pull plants out of the ground by their roots, giving you additional ammo (and finding special bonuses in the process). Hell, even coins are different here, used for gambling in a slot machine at the end of each stage. Everything you know about Mario is thrown out the window here.
For fans looking for a very traditional game, the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 provides anything but the traditional experience. This game is considered the odd-ball of the series, held up with Simon's Quest and The Adventure of Link of evidence of the fact that NES sequels would defy all conventions of the predecessors. Of course, in this case that's because, technically, this isn't a Mario game. Sure, it is but it isn't, and any opinion fans have of the title are colored by its weird history.
Personally, I really enjoy this game. I love all the weird touches the game through in -- the rocket ships you can pull out of the ground to transport you to the upper areas of some stages, Birdo who spits her own eggs at you to try and kill you, the whales that are just hanging out in an ice stage to act as water-spout platforms -- such that this game doesn't feel like a staid and standard sequel to what came before. The game evolves and revolutionizes what to expect from a Mario game, making you expect more from everything that comes after. Mario, after this, had to be more playful, more experimental, just to be able to carry on after this wild and weird title.
That said, Super Mario Bros. 3 was essentially released at the same time as Super Mario Bros. 2 USA; it took so long for a proper sequel to come out in the West that the third game was delayed by two years before it was officially ported over seas. The Mario team couldn't have been influenced by the USA sequel, but there's still that same level of experimentation in the third Mario title -- open level layouts, weird and wild power-ups, and the ability to not only land on enemies but also pick-up-and-carry some of them. Without knowing how the team went from one project to the next, I have to think that the Mario group rather liked the work they did on Doki Doki Panic and let their creativity continue after that game. It might explain why that Japan-only title was selected to become the next U.S. iteration of the series.
And the fantastic U.S. sequel did go on to influence much of the series to come. Mario and Luigi would eventually split off into their own series, and even Princess Peach would eventually get her own title. In games like Super Smash Bros. and Super Princess Peach the powers that the characters showed here (different speeds, different jumps, and Peach's floaty jump) would be used again, officializing the way each of these characters play forever. And then there's Super Mario 3D World which, due to the inclusion of all four of the same heroes there -- Mario, Luigi, Princess, and Toad -- feels more like a sequel to Super Mario 2 USA than even Super Mario 3D Land.
The company has revisited this title a few times over the years. Due to its success in the West the game was back-ported back to the Famicom under the name of Super Mario USA. The game was of course included in Super Mario All-Stars (and it had its Japanese name in the Japan-version of that collection), and it was given a loving 16-bit make over as part of that title.
The All-Stars version was later revisited again as part of the Super Mario Advance line. This was the first game in that series for Game Boy Advance, and it features a number of additional enhancements, such as more power-ups, hidden red coins, and an added "Yoshi Egg Challenge" to encourage players to go through the game more than once. And, the biggest change, is the fact that now you are encouraged to play through all the stages as each character in the game (this is actually similar to how the original Doki Doki Panic handled the characters as you couldn't change out heroes after each stage as you could in the U.S. game).
It's interesting, then that this game has lived on as long as it has. It's clear the company has a lot of love for Super Mario Bros. 2 USA. It's supplanted the official sequel, The Lost Levels, for most fans and acts as the natural continuation between games one and three in the series. Yes, it's an odd-ball title that, if you know the history, feels nothing like a Mario title... and yet, how many games in the series really play the same? This series is all about evolution, pushing boundaries and changing expectations. How else do you explain Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island where you're playing as the egg-throwing dinos trying to save Baby Mario? Or what about Super Mario Sunshine with its emphasis on spraying water over basic running and jumping.
No, when viewed as part of the whole series, Super Mario Bros. 2 USA is a natural sequel and a perfect fit for the series. It's strange, it's wild, but it's a lot of fun and shows Nintendo's creativity through and through. Whatever its origins, this is one of the best Mario titles around, only supplanted by the third title as one of the best Mario games Nintendo ever produced. And it certainly blows Japan's official sequel, The Lost Levels, right out of the water. Not bad for a game made for a festival that was never meant to come to the U.S. at all.