In this modern age, as we are afforded broadening control over nuanced and previously opaque matters of our minds, bodies, and the rigors we submit them to, a great amount of ink has been spilled on the idea of controlling our dreams. “Lucid dreaming,” as it’s generally called. The hope that we could harness our subconscious mind as it spins its visions, dictating to some extent what would play out. I fully appreciate this desire, and I think it springs from a place of independence and autonomy — those who value the ability to think whatever they wish may want to extend this domain into the wild, weird world of their dreams. Even people who live lives that many might find already sufficiently adventurous, wonderful, or thrilling.
It is this very idea that makes the surrounding world (perhaps too suggestively called SUBCON) of Super Mario Bros. 2 so enticing, and qualifies it, I think, as an artistic master stroke that far outshone other games of its era. For the uninitiated: SMB2 was released in America on September 1st, 1988. Its production history was rather convoluted — it was, in its final form, a very limited re-tinkering of an earlier Japanese platformer called “Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic,” or as we Americans would say, “Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic.” It was not, however, always meant to be this way.
The core mechanics of the game, imagined somewhat more ambitiously, had originally been conceived to be the momentous Mario sequel we know today. Technological limitations stymied the project in its infancy (it was originally meant to utilize cooperative multiplayer, allowing one player to pick up and throw the other, a gameplay mechanic that would be realized decades later in games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii). But even after Doki Doki Panic had been released, Nintendo realized that what they’d served up to the Japanese as a Mario sequel (now available as “Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels”) was just too damned hard for we dunderheaded westerners. So, they restored the old plan, pared down a bit, just for us.
From the start, the peculiar and delightful twists on the classic Mario style are abundant. The first moment you take control of your character, you are dumped out a door in midair, and fall down a screen before landing atop a hill; a vertical transition never even attempted in the original. The colors are deep and lush, and contrast against each other in a thick way that stylistically dwarfs its predecessor. This is also true of the flagship theme of the game, a joyful, uptempo jazzy tune that keeps time as you work your way through the game’s outdoor levels. The music on the whole is superb, but there is painfully too little of it. As enjoyable as it is, it will invariably become repetitive by the game’s end, and in my estimation a mere two or three additional, unique background tracks could have fixed this. Perhaps easier said than done for a game of this age, but it is nonetheless a disappointment.
This is also the first (and would remain the only for some time) Mario game to present playable characters beyond the eponymous brothers. Joining them are Toad, quick and squat to the ground, and Princess Toadstool (as she was called then, so shall I call her now). The appearance of the Princess is, I’d suggest, quite notable. It was just a game earlier that she served no purpose but motivation as a rote “damsel-in-distress” archetype, but here she is perhaps the most dynamic and skilled of all the options available. Each character has different strengths and weaknesses: Mario is balanced, Luigi can jump like mad but is slow to lift objects, and Toad just the opposite of that. Toadstool, however, is the only character with a pseudo-magical ability; she can hover and drift at the apex of her jump for about two or three seconds, which despite her extremely slow speed at lifting objects makes her, to my mind, the game’s undisputed MVP.