While the success of Super Mario Bros. was swiftly followed by a sequel in Japan, the western hemisphere was mercifully spared it. However, the upshot of this was that the Super Mario franchise in the United States was without a second game for about a year and a half. But since Japan already had its sequel, and Nintendo didn't much feel like developing a brand new Mario game from the ground up for just one region, it decided instead to take the Japan-only title Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic and convert its Aladdin-like characters to Mario ones.
At the beginning of the game, and the beginning of each stage thereafter, you can choose to be Mario, Luigi, Toad, or Princess Peach. Mario is the most well-rounded character, with decent speed and jumping and strength. And I guess that's to make up for the fact that Luigi jumps the highest (and kicks his legs in a ridiculous manner as he does so), solidifying his aerial superiority over Mario from The Lost Levels. He's weak though, and not terribly fast. They just couldn't let Luigi win, could they? Peach is weak and slow and doesn't jump too terribly high, but she can hover for a short time, which is pretty useful. And Toad, well. Toad is just a beast. Gone are the days of getting kidnapped by Bowser and tied up in a little brown sack praying not to suffocate before Mario can let him out. Now Toad has some biceps of his own to flex, and he's also really speedy (though his leaping isn't too good).
The mentioning of "strength" might seem a little weird, so let me clarify. Or maybe more accurately, let me further confuse. Mario 2 is full of vegetables. Littered with them. Everywhere. Every level has a bunch of little leaves sprouting from the ground which can be plucked up, revealing some type of vegetable. It might be a radish, or a turnip, even a pumpkin. Then the plucker brandishes the food overhead before flinging it away, killing whatever it strikes. Huh? Jumping on enemies doesn't even kill them anymore. Instead you just sit on top of them as they move around, and can pluck them up too, throwing them at other enemies. So when I say Toad is a beast, what I mean is Toad is the most adept at manhandling enemies against their will and using them as living projectiles to murder their allies. I guess he just snapped after all that kidnapping. He's like the Hulk now. You don't wanna mess.
Sometimes though, you won't get a vegetable when you pluck. Sometimes it's a bomb. And sometimes it's a flask with a bubbly red potion that poofs into a door when it hits the ground. Walking through this door transports you to a negative dimension where you can collect coins and mushrooms to increase your life (indicated by the red hexagons on the left side of the screen). I could try to make some sort of joke or even give an explanation for how it all works or why it's in the game, but you know what? It's not worth it. I don't understand it at all, and I honestly believe I'm better off for it. If I could wrap my head around it, I'd be a little worried.
Actually, you know what? This whole game is just totally loopy. Featuring not a single returning enemy from the first Mario games, the areas of Mario 2 are instead filled with things like shyguys (little robed dudes with hockey masks) riding around on ostriches. Sure. There are POW blocks, taken from the Mario Bros. arcade game, that can be thrown and will obliterate everything on the screen when they are. There are hopping cats dressed up like ninjas. There are vases everywhere which can be entered, and apparently they've got some sort of magic crap going on, because these are the roomiest pieces of pottery I've ever seen. There are entire deserts down there. What?
Doors are a big part of the game too. Especially locked ones. That need keys. That are guarded by floating deadly masks called Phantos. The locked doors are, without exception, not optional. You must enter them to complete the level, and every key is guarded like this. It doesn't seem that bad maybe, but upon picking up the key one of those masks will start chasing you until you finally unlock and enter the door requiring it. It will chase you through other doors, across screens, anywhere. It is invincible. It is heinous. If you drop the key it will leave you alone until you pick it up again, so at least there's that. But it's legitimately frightening, which I guess gives it a weird sort of charm. When did Mario 1 ever make you feel afraid for your life?
The game is a bit shorter than its predecessors, featuring only seven worlds instead of eight, and only three levels per world instead of four (except the seventh and final world, which contains but two levels). That said, the level design is clearly superior here, although as the rest of the game, totally non-sensical in the Mario context. What's a plumber doing in the middle of a desert or hopping on clouds in the sky? Nevertheless, there are a lot of little bits of design throughout the game that will make you go "Huh, that's neat." Such as one stage in which you start directly over the exit, but the exit is underground and you're above ground. So you navigate the level on virtually the same screen, but it takes some time to get back there...all to a spot that was like 10 feet away at the outset. Many areas also have screens that scroll horizontally. That is, leaving the left side of the screen causes you to emerge from the right, and vice versa. This mechanic is used a few times throughout the game in pretty cool ways.
Less enjoyable here as in any game, I present the ice world. This is, in a word, inexcusable. The ice here is more treacherous than perhaps any game before or since. Adding to the pain are the little creampuffs with eyes that waddle at you. Oh, I know what you're thinking. What sounds more harmless than waddling creampuffs? Unless you've played this game, you have no idea what it's like. There are also flying monkeys with pitchforks who swarm you. Add to that the fact that you have to navigate around whale blowholes spouting water that hurts you unless it's blasting up your dress (despite enemies walking through with no problem)...all to get to a rocketship at the end of the area. Really? A rocketship? That makes sense guys. That's context-appropriate. Even beyond Mario stuff, even if you look at the content of Doki Doki Panic, where is there room for a rocketship? It's Arabian! There aren't Middle Eastern space programs!
Almost every stage ends as bizarrely as they play out, too. There's some sort of dinosaur type creature that spits eggs out of its blunderbuss of a mouth. To defeat the creature, for some reason named Birdo (despite its mislabeling in the game's credits), you have to leap on the eggs it spits at you, grab them out of the air, and chuck them back at the being. As the levels progress, Birdo changes color from its original pink, indicating its higher difficulty as it learns to spit fireballs in addition to eggs. Eventually it won't even spit eggs at all, instead having to be vanquished by little blocks that vaguely resemble mushrooms.
When Birdo dies, it will leave behind a crystal ball (at least that's what I think it is) that causes the disembodied head of a giant bird of prey attached to the wall to open its mouth. To exit the level, you allow yourself to be eaten. What. The. Hell. It doesn't really strike me as much of a reward to be ingested by some sort of enormous feathered beast, you know. If given the choice, I'd rather have a high five. Or like, a flagpole or something where I could raise a banner indicating my victory. What happened to that guys? I tried to rationalize it by thinking that maybe the bird's body is just offscreen and it carries you from world to world as some sort of big organic vehicle. But after getting eaten, you get to spend coins you collected from that level's negative zones in a slot machine. So either my theory is incorrect, or there is a casino inside this bird. And at that point I'm not even sure which I'd prefer. Color me stumped.
The difficulty isn't too bad, and there are plenty of nifty little shortcuts to skip over areas or entire levels if you're clever and curious enough to find them. But at World 7 it really ramps up on you. Vases start to appear that infinitely spawn enemies out of them unless you plug them up with a block. This is really just nasty on 7-1, where shyguys incessantly emerge from a pot in clouds that are right atop one another. In order to progress you've got to zig zag down the clouds, because jumping will land you on a higher cloud; it takes you backwards, essentially. But you can't dodge these shyguys without jumping, and if you try to tank a hit and just run into them, it's unreliable too. It's downright rude.
The last level takes things to a whole new level, though. Erm...yeah, just roll with it. Finding the right spot to potion yourself up a pretty red door in order to find those elusive life-giving mushrooms is out of control here. There are conveyor belts all over the place with those spawning vats of enemies atop them, often bombs. The key you have to get to proceed is in the stomach of a Birdo, whom you also fight on a conveyor. When you finally reach the eagle head thing, collecting the crystal ball just makes it angry, and it starts swooping all over the place trying to beak you to death. Then you finally reach Wart, the big frog thing guy with a vegetable-spewing pipe organ in his royal chambers. He belches at you, and you've got to force-feed him veggies till he chokes and dies. YEAH. And it wasn't until actually fighting him that I got around to asking that most simple of questions: why? Why am I fighting this guy? What did he do? No princesses are kidnapped...finally...and I don't see any oppressed citizens anywhere. What's the deal? After defeating him you unplug some concrete from a hole and these unidentified flying critters come out, but that's really all I have to go on. Motives be damned.
But you know what? They couldn't leave it like that. The developers must have realized that this whole game was one giant LSD trip, even for Mario. So they made it a dream. Yeah, like unimaginative third graders who can't figure out a legitimate ending to their stories about cows rebelling against neo-Marxist special interest groups, they went the whole "It was only a dream" route. It's offensive. I felt like I was making a difference in this fantasy world, and you robbed me of that. But hey, at least it sort of justifies how almost nothing Mario related was in this Mario game, right?
The silver lining in all of this? Super Mario Bros. 2 is fun. It's so stupid and so crazy, but the level design is fantastic and you really don't ever get tired of seeing Luigi's dinky little feet kicking around every time he jumps. And when bombs explode, they actually say "bomb." Awesome. I recommend it, but don't get emotionally attached. It's all a lie.
Bottom Line: 14/20