This is not to suggest that SMB2 completely addresses the feminist criticism of video game culture. She is, after all, a princess adorned in a full pink dress (not the preferred attire of female adventurers, I suspect), and her abysmally slow speed at lifting objects does suggest a physical deficiency which I suspect a fit young woman wouldn’t actually have, certainly not in comparison to an ambulatory mushroom, or a semi-obese plumber. That said, her signature ability makes her by any measure the most versatile and dynamic of the characters, and that’s an unqualified statement that I don’t think can be made about a female character in a video game for a great while after, provided there are also male characters able to be chosen.
The game consists, like its predecessor, of eight levels with three stages in each. The wide array of climates and landscapes you traverse is what puts the artistic sense of adventure on a plateau that the original Super Mario Bros. doesn’t quite reach. While the original focused on just four basic types of environment (overworld, underworld, aquatic, and fortress), both the variety and design in SMB2 is ratcheted up. You play through crisp, beautiful overworlds with distinctive, jutting plateaus and hills, as well as perilous towers, deserts, pyramids filled with sand, sheets of ice stretching above wintry seas, and hanging vines climbing straight up into the clouds, incorporating true cross-screen vertical platforming in a way the first game could only ape. I really cannot overemphasize how much credit the design team for this game deserves. Even today, it remains utterly delightful.
A whole slew of new enemies were introduced in this game as well, many of which despite being conceived for the Doki Doki Panic version of the game, have nonetheless entered the Mario canon. I would go so far as to say that these enemies rank even with, and in some cases exceed the quality of those that came before. The humble Koopa Troopa, to be clear, is a series mainstay of the highest order. I cannot in good conscience, however, say that the Goomba is a more interesting or evocative villain than the Shy-Guy, which prevalent as they are I’d still like to see a great deal more of in the continuing Mario franchise. The same applies for the bosses, and mini-bosses; Mouser and FryGuy are both memorable and unique foes, the former being deserving of, I think, a great deal more attention and longevity than he seems to have had. And, of course, one can’t forget Birdo, the recurring foe that tries to halt you from level to level. Birdo is a groundbreaking figure, being (so far as I can find) the first transgendered character in video game history.
After Mario (or Luigi, or Toad, or Toadstool) defeats the final boss of the game, the frog king Wart, it is revealed that the events of the game were nothing more than a dream. Which brings me back to that concept of lucid dreaming. I happen to think that the trope of a protagonist jolting awake in his bed after a strange or arduous event is almost always a cop-out and a waste, but in this context I think it’s well-served. This is entirely because while the game doesn’t give you any iron-clad indication that this twist awaits, once it’s revealed the preceding worlds and foes do seem a great deal like what a hero like Mario, fresh from his first victory over King Koopa, might dream about. I grant this is a hugely subjective analysis, but it’s one I stand by. The unique and peculiar distortions of how the Mario experience was before, versus what it becomes here, is a very convincing riff on the idea of where Mario’s subconscious might take him. The even stranger, more fanciful adventure he wishes he’d had, with all his friends there having it along with him.
Of the three classic Mario games for the NES, I’d guess many purists would rate the original as their favorite, and many pragmatists would choose the third, undeniably the most expansive and polished of the lot. In fact, I’ve read any number of protests stating that to refer to Super Mario Bros. 2 in the same manner is fallacious, because of its initial release under a different title, with different characters. I’m sympathetic to this, I admit, but in the end that argument leaves me cold. Regardless of its somewhat convoluted origins, this is indeed what Nintendo chose to send over to the States as the standard-bearer of their flagship franchise, and the conversion only heightens and tightens the enjoyability and central themes of the game. For my money, this is the best Mario game available on the Nintendo Entertainment System. If by some wild chance you haven’t yet played it, I beg you to do so at your leisure.