For anyone who has played more than a singular Super Mario video game, there is no easy answer to the question of which game might be your favorite or even “best.” The standard of quality is so damn high, that basically any answer is a correct one.*
* Anything other than “The Lost Levels,” anyway.
This should not be news to anyone, of course. Nintendo’s No. 1 mascot achieved his status for a reason, and that reason was absolutely his impecably designed games. I feel reasonably confident in saying that people were NOT clamoring for a fat plumber in overalls with an appetite for magical mushrooms to serve as their own personal hero/savior.
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It was the game play that inspired the devotion, and finding holes in that game play in any particular iteration of Mario’s adventures is a pretty silly endeavor.
Yes, none of these games is perfect. But the sum of positives is so much larger than the negatives, it’s fairly pointless to dwell on the latter.
By now, most people have heard the backstory to Super Mario Bros. 2, so I’ll save us some time with the short version: “The Lost Levels” was actually the sequel to Super Mario Bros. in Japan, but it was trash deemed too difficult for American audiences, so the folks at Nintendo adapted a different game, “Doki Doki Panic” and pasted Mario characters over the original character sprites, made a couple of other small changes, and boom, Super Mario 2 was born.
It went on to sell a bagillion copies, so obviously they did something right here.
Where it all starts, at least for me, is that aforementioned game play. Super Mario 2 controls vastly different from its predecessor. Where the original game incorporated a fairly straightforward jump and squash dynamic, the sequel expanded upon that with a grab and throw mechanic. Mario 2 also added a vertically scrolling component, opening the game up into a much more creative endeavor for the gamer.
Do I go this way, or do I go that way?
Where do I find the key?
Should I pull this plant out of the ground, or this other one; which will provide me the better benefit?
The game was riddled with these kinds of questions at every turn. And the answers were never the same. On one level, you might need to ride an enemy across an otherwise impassable area, and on the next, you might be navigating a series of doors and locks and keys in a David Bowie-worthy labyrinth.
Boss battles weren’t immune from this kind of problem solving, either. Whereas a Birdo might launch eggs at you that you can return fire with on Level 1, on a different level, the eggs will be mixed with fireballs that only harm you. Or Birdo will shoot only fireballs at you. Or it will be a different boss altogether.
None of it ever looked quite the same, which was of course the point. Variety is the spice of life, you see, and this game embodied that. To wit, Super Mario 2 also offered the player four playable characters, each with distinct traits and strengths that would affect one’s success.
Toad was quick and could pick things up quicker. Princess could float jump over longer gaps, Luigi could jump higher than the rest, and Mario, well, he was just decent at everything.
Touches from the first game made their way here, including 1-up mushrooms, coin accrual for bonuses, and even warp zones. But this game was still in nearly every way a drastic departure from 1. A whole new slate of enemies were here to torture you. A whole new, better, more cartoonish look helped spring things to life. And of course all of the game changes mentioned above added freshness as well.
This game, at the time of release, blew my friggin’ mind. All these years later, it has held up, thanks to its strength in design. All aspects, from the controls, to the level layout, to the character behavior, to the beautiful visuals … it all added up to be a game-changer in the industry in nearly the same huge way SMB1 was.
So what makes it worth playing today?
If you read this series chronologically, in which I prioritize the games I feel most strongly about, this becomes the Super Mario game I recommend people experience before any of the others.
In a way, that’s true. It’s certainly the one I admire most. Though I do think if you go down the road of wanting to play many/most/all of the Mario games, it’s probably best to go in order, because they’re pretty much all (at least most of the early ones) pretty accessible and worthy of some of your time.
But if going in order doesn’t much matter to you, or even if it does, this is a true highlight and worthy of anyone’s time. Whereas Super Mario Bros. is one of the most important and influential games of all-time yet notably ancient, Super Mario Bros. 2 has a more cartoonish polish to it, is a galactic leap forward in terms of the technical risks it takes, and it did things with the characters and story — in particular, making the Princess an active participant (and more than that, a badass) — that were well ahead of their time.
I can go back to this game easily at any point in my life and not get bored with it. And among Mario games, it will probably always be my favorite.
In other words, play this game.
Dave’s Score: 10/10
Check out the whole Retro Gaming Essentials list here!
How to play
- Original hardware (NES)
- Super Mario All-Stars (SNES)
- Super Mario Advance (Game Boy Advance)
- Virtual Console (Wii, WiiU, Nintendo 3DS)
- NES Classic Edition
- Nintendo Switch Online