As pretty much everyone knows by now, the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2 started out as an entirely different game in Japan. Nonetheless, it has become a classic entry in the Mario series, adding many elements to the canon including Shyguys and the skillset of the four playable characters. And while it is a major departure from the first Super Mario Bros., it is a very good game in its own right.
The only major play mechanic in SMB2 that has any basis in its predecessor is that you can jump on enemies. However, instead of defeating them, you can simply ride on top of them, or pick them up and throw them at one another. The most jarring change between games are that there are no blocks to distribute items or coins; instead, all items are pulled from the ground like vegetables (and many of the items are vegetables).
SMB2 has relatively few levels, only 20 spread over 7 worlds (compared to SMB1’s 32 levels over 8 worlds). Warps are available, but they are fairly well-hidden and don’t take you very far. If you’re going to complete this game, you will actually have to play most of it. Like many games of its time, you get two continues before a final game over.
One of the defining features of the game is the ability to choose from four different characters. This is not just an aesthetic choice, as each character has specific strengths and weaknesses. Luigi, for instance, is very slow to pick things up, but he jumps incredibly high and can often skip large parts of levels as a result. The princess famously can float, which can be very helpful when trying to make a precision landing. SMB2’s play control is a little looser than its predecessor, and landing on a single block can be problematic, so this is quite helpful.
The game gets excellent mileage out of its core mechanics of carrying items and riding enemies. You’ll find yourself building stacks of blocks to jump off of, jumping between flying birds acting as platforms, and being chased while carrying keys from screen to screen. Most stages end with a recurring boss who spits eggs that you need to jump on (while in motion), grab, and throw back at them. It surprises me that we haven’t seen more of this sort of thing. The world bosses in particular can be a lot of fun, offering a number of variations on basic combat.
Also of note is the use of “subspace.” You will find potions that create doors (for some reason) that lead to a mirror image of the world. This has two purposes: it’s how you increase your life bar in each stage, and it gives you chances for 1UPs after completing the stage. The game is actually pretty stingy with 1UPs, with no points or collectables, so this is your primary method of getting more lives. Unfortunately, how many you gain is based on the whims of a slot machine. Still, the subspace mechanic is interesting because you’ll want to try to figure out where the life increasing mushroom is hidden, but you need to balance that with finding coins for extra life chances.
Not all of SMB2’s mechanics are as well-considered as these, unfortunately. There are a number of incidental powerups that tend to be more trouble than they’re worth. For instance, once you defeat a certain number of enemies, a heart will float up on a random part of the screen. This heart restores life, but quite frequently it will appear somewhere you can’t reach, such as within a wall. Invincibility stars have a similar issue, though they appear more predictably. These flaws are minor but can be frustrating when you’re down to your last hit or last life.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said for Super Mario Bros. 2 is that even though it’s wildly different from every other game in the Super Mario series, it feels like it belongs. At its core, this is still a solid platforming game. It has some wild mechanics but it’s challenging and a whole lot of fun.