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Friday, February 27, 2009

Criminally Overlooked Games: Super Mario Bros. 2

It's no secret to many that I'm a huge fan of Super Mario Bros. 2. For many gamers, it's the black sheep of the Mario series. Screw Attack named it the 9th worst Mario game of all time, because they claimed it was "a lie." You're not stepping on the heads of Goombas, there's no Bowser, and there's a life bar, for goodness sake! What is this?

There's no debating that Mario 2 is very different from the others in the series. It brings to mind another early Nintendo sequel that was just as out-of-left-field, The Legend of Zelda 2. Nintendo was in a very experimental phase, as well they should have been. Gaming had been around since 1961, but modern gaming had only been around for about five years. Franchises barely existed at this point, and the ones that did were games in completely different genres, like the Ultima series.

In other words, no one really knew what a Mario game was supposed to be. At this point, there was Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. and the extra levels that existed in Japan, and that was it. There really wasn't any other indication of what they should or shouldn't do, and no specific formula to follow.

Nintendo of America knew that there was no way they could release the "Lost Levels" in America. Presciently, they decided that Americans wouldn't appreciate a mere level pack, and especially one that didn't add much to Mario. Instead they took a game that had been created by Shigeru Miyamoto, Doki Doki Panic, and reskinned it. According to Wikipedia, Miyamoto actually had more input in this game than he did with the Lost Levels.

So, what makes Mario 2 such a revolutionary step in platforming? First, the graphics were crisper than any other game at the time. Sure, Mega Man helped pioneer crisply drawn, lined sprites, but Mario 2 had rolling logs, moving vegetables, and shifting sands. There was so much going on onscreen with relatively little slowdown, which was a testament to the polish behind it.

The revolution didn't stop there, of course. It would have been a pretty lame revolution if it had. No, it continued with the great twists to the basic gameplay. For instance, the first level starts with you dropping downwards, a no-no in most platform games of the time. After that, the level seems fairly straightforward until you reach the point where you have to climb vines, avoiding ladybugs on the way up, and then fight a weird pink thing by catching the eggs that it spits and throwing them back. That's the first sign that this game is radically different than others in the genre.

To follow it up, the next level has you climbing on top of a magic-carpet-riding bird, throwing him off and stealing his magic carpet. Then, you find a key in a pot, avoid a creepy mask that keeps swooping in on you, break down some barriers with bombs, and once again kill a weird egg-spitting thing. That's all after just two levels.

Here's the point: more than any other platformer to date, Mario 2 provided variety. Nowadays, we take this for granted. We demand that platformers don't just give us a mere obstacle course, but really clever level design and a wide variety of things to do. You can see it in platformers from the Ratchet & Clank series to LittleBigPlanet to Nintendo's own Super Mario Galaxy. That all came from Mario 2.

Another excellent addition to the platforming genre was the different styles of terrain in the game. For instance, the ice in World 4 was actually slippery, something that really hadn't been done much before. Sure, other games might have attempted slippery terrain or quicksand before, but none were as fun as Mario 2, and none made them so intrinsic to the gameplay as Mario 2 did. I mean, one level even allowed you to sink into the quicksand at the beginning and bypass the majority of the level. How cool was that?

Frequently, when people talk about the Mario series, they bring up Super Mario World or the original Super Mario Bros. as seminal games. Super Mario Bros. 2 frequently gets passed over because of its "black sheep" status, in spite of all the innovations that it brought to the genre. Without it, we wouldn't have seen half of the stuff that we see in later Mario games, and platform games as a group would have been far different. That's why Super Mario Bros. 2 is Criminally Overlooked.