On Super Mario Bros. 2

Continuing from Super Mario Bros. 3 is it’s predecessor, Super Mario Bros. 2, which adds the ability to lift and toss enemies and objects—a defining feature of its earliest prototype, and adds many characters into the greater Mario universe, such as Birdo, Pokeys, Bob-ombs, and Shy Guys. According to the Arstechnica article, “The secret history of Super Mario Bros. 2“:

Super Mario Bros. 2’s long, strange trip to the top of the charts in 1988 began with a prototype video game that failed miserably.

The 8-bit classic, which became a massive hit for the Nintendo Entertainment System, grew out of a mock-up of a vertically scrolling, two-player, cooperative-action game, Super Mario Bros. 2 director Kensuke Tanabe told Wired.com in an interview at this year’s Game Developers Conference.

The prototype, worked up by SRD, a company that programmed many of Nintendo’s early games, was intended to show how a Mario-style game might work if the players climbed up platforms vertically instead of walking horizontally, said Tanabe.

“The idea was that you would have people vertically ascending, and you would have items and blocks that you could pile up to go higher, or you could grab your friend that you were playing with and throw them to try and continue to ascend,” Tanabe said. Unfortunately, “the vertical-scrolling gimmick wasn’t enough to get us interesting gameplay.”

The rapid-prototype development process on display here informs Nintendo’s design philosophy to this day. The company doesn’t begin development with characters and worlds: It starts by making sure that game boasts a fun and compelling game mechanic. If it’s not perfect, Nintendo has no qualms about throwing it out.

Soon after he was hired by Nintendo in the mid-’80s, Tanabe sat down with his boss, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto, to look at this prototype together.

“The game was mocked up (so that) when the player climbed about two-thirds of the way up the screen, it would scroll so that the player was pushed further down,” Tanabe said.

The game-design team led by Miyamoto was tasked with coming up with a game that used this trick of programming. But Tanabe and Miyamoto weren’t too hot on the concept.

While the prototype featured two players jumping, stacking up blocks to climb higher, and throwing each other around, the technical limitations of the primitive NES made it difficult to build a polished game out of this complex action. And playing it with just one person wasn’t very fun.

“Miyamoto looked at it and said, ‘Maybe we need to change this up,’” Tanabe recalled. He suggested that Tanabe add in traditional side-scrolling gameplay and “make something a little bit more Mario-like.”

“As long as it’s fun, anything goes,” Tanabe remembers Miyamoto saying.

You may already know the rest of the story. The Mario sequel was originally released in Japan as Doki Doki Panic, starring a wholly different cast of characters. The game released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. 2 was a totally different game, a set of super-difficult new levels built with the original game’s engine and graphics.

That title wasn’t released outside Japan. Instead, Nintendo used Doki Doki Panic, swapping the game’s characters out for the Mario cast. This was the game that Western audiences knew as Super Mario Bros. 2.

Since it was developed by the Mario team, Doki Doki Panic’s colorful world, catchy music and gorgeous artwork fit in well with Nintendo’s star characters. But some purists felt the gameplay wasn’t what they wanted out of Mario: They were used to stomping on enemies to flatten them, not picking them up and throwing them around, a small but fundamental change that gave Mario 2 a significantly different feel.

Although the initial concept for the game had been scrapped, the development of that original two-player cooperative prototype inspired all the innovative gameplay of Super Mario Bros. 2, Tanabe said.

“Picking up blocks was the same thing as pulling out vegetables from the ground,” he said. By the same token, picking up the other player and throwing him turned into picking up enemy characters.

Doki Doki Panic was actually part of a deal with the Fuji corporation, in which Nintendo would produce a tie-in videogame for a media-technology expo called Yume Kōjō, or “Dream Factory.” The mascot characters invented for this expo were the stars of the game.

“I remember being pulled over to Fuji Television one day, being handed a sheet with game characters on it and being told, ‘I want you to make a game with this,’” Tanabe said.

Released in 1987, Doki Doki Panic was one of the biggest hits on Nintendo’s Disk System, a floppy drive that worked with the Japanese version of the NES. Since this hardware was not released in America, many Disk System games were ported to standard game cartridges for US release.

“Because we had to make this change, we had the opportunity to change other things” about the game, said Tanabe. “We knew these Fuji TV characters wouldn’t be popular in America, but what would be attractive in America would be the Mario characters.”

Tanabe’s team made many improvements to the original for its American debut, adding more enemy characters, throwing in some visual nods to the Mario games and greatly enhancing the animation and sound effects.

Because one of Mario’s most notable features at the time was his ability to grow and shrink when he ate magic mushrooms, this was added to the game. But the implementation was not without its issues.

“When the characters got shrunk down to a smaller version of themselves, it was easy to sneak through parts of the level that you weren’t supposed to go through, so we made their heads bigger so they would get caught on those things,” Tanabe said.

The enhancements to Super Mario Bros. 2 were so great that the game was eventually brought back to Japan, retitled Super Mario USA.

According to the IGN review:

American gamers have no skill. That thought, true or not, was what prompted the creation of this game &#Array; the United States’ Super Mario Bros. 2, which looks nothing like the original Super Mario adventure. There are no Goombas here, and no Hammer Brothers. King Koopa’s been dethroned and replaced by a giant, croaking frog. The setting isn’t even in the Mushroom Kingdom any more. But why? Because American gamers have no skill.

That was the perception that kept the real Super Mario Bros. 2 from leaving Japan. There, in Nintendo’s home country, the true sequel was released with Goombas, and Hammer Brothers, and King Koopa himself, but also with an incredible level of challenge. The enemies, obstacles and level designs created for the Japanese Mario 2 were tough. So tough, in fact, that Nintendo feared American players would be too frustrated by them and be turned away from the Mario brand, and Nintendo video games altogether.

The company couldn’t have that happen. So what we in the States got as Super Mario Bros. 2 was this game, now re-releasing on the Virtual Console, originally crafted in the ’80s as a conversion of the much friendlier and easy-to-play Japanese Famicom title, Doki Doki Panic. And no one seemed to care. The gameplay was totally different, the mechanics were altered, the setting and enemies were totally unfamiliar, but even given all of that, this title was still accepted, adopted and loved by Mario fans all across the country.

This time around, the plucky plumber isn’t alone, you can play as Mario, or you can choose instead to control his brother Luigi, the mushroom retainer Toad or the pink-clad princess, Peach. Each of the four has their own unique abilities. Mario is well rounded, with average strength, speed and jumping skill. Luigi is the high jumper, as his leaps carry him up, up and away through taller vertical distances while his legs spin wildly underneath. Toad’s best asset is his muscular power, allowing him to pick up enemies and pluck vegetables faster than the others. And Peach is the best for long-distance gaps &#Array; she hovers in the air after a jump for a few seconds, if you hold the jump button down, and can use that trait to pass over pits that none of the male characters could clear.

The option to play as multiple different characters was novel for a Mario title, and has remained so since the only more modern Mario adventure to allow that many playable characters is the DS version of Super Mario 64. It helped boost the game’s replayability by a factor of four, because sure, you can clear the later levels easily with your own favorite character, but have you ever tried playing through the entire game with each and every one of them?

Another novelty of Super Mario Bros. 2 was, and is, its enemies. Even though it wasn’t originally meant to be a Mario game, many characters making their debut in this title became staples of later series games. Shy Guys and Bob-ombs are the most notable common foes, and the transgendered question mark Birdo is nearly as recognized as Yoshi in many modern Mario Sports and Kart games.

But all nostalgia and historical influence aside, Super Mario Bros. 2 is still a game worth playing on the merits of its gameplay alone. It’s a solid side-scrolling platformer that did lots of new things in an era that was already straying toward copycat cloning of popular conventions. The “pick up and throw” mechanic was fresh, and still feels fun today. The levels were varied and all suitably wacky (you can pull vegetables out of the backs of whales swimming in the ocean in one). And the interaction with in-level items like bombs to clear blocked paths, keys to open locked doors and potions to create portals to bonus worlds all came together to create one great, fun experience.

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One thought on “On Super Mario Bros. 2

  1. Pingback: On Super Mario Bros. | The Progressive Democrat

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