Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Head to Head: Super Mario Bros. 2

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Ask anyone who grew up playing NES games and they will tell you that Super Mario Bros. 2 was somewhat of an anomaly.  It is completely unlike the other games in the series, complete with an Arabian theme, veggie-pulling, the option to select one of four protagonists, and Bowser (King Koopa) is nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately for Nintendo it blended right in with sequels to various other popular franchises in the console, including the radically different Zelda II: Adventures of Link and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.  As a seven-year-old gamer back then I shrugged it off and said, “why not?”  It may shock you to discover that the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is not actually the intended sequel to the original Super Mario Bros., nor is it in Japan.  The true Super Mario Bros. 2 is better known as Lost Levels in America and our Super Mario Bros. 2 began life as the game Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! and based on a Saturday morning cartoon in Japan and was later re-worked, improved, and re-released as Super Mario Bros. USA.  Both versions of Super Mario Bros. 2 are as different as two games can get and thus warrant a head to head.

The “Real” Super Mario Bros. 2

In Japan the Famicom (NES) was released in 1983 as opposed to holiday 1985 here (and only to a select few near FAO Schwartz stores or in New York City).  This is why many of the launch games on the NES didn’t seem quite as consistent as Super Mario Bros., which came out in 1985 for both regions.  In Japan the Famicom had a more established market whereas Nintendo was still testing the waters in America, so when Super Mario Bros. 2 hit Japan in 1986, there was some hesitation to port it over to our market.  First of all the game was solely a Famicom Disk System (FDS) title, so to bring it to the US required re-working and conversion to cartridge form, something titles like Metroid and Legend of Zelda would later do but required more money and work.  Additionally the game had an aggressively ramped up difficulty that still challenges longtime platforming fans today and I can personally attest has a brutal difficulty.  While Shigeru Miyamoto and Takashi Tezuka, creators of the original, were in charge of this game it still feels like a rushed sequel that re-uses assets from the original and creates the ultimate obstacle course.  In many circles, the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is considered a rom hack, which is a term used when an individual creates new levels using original assets by hacking an original game’s rom (basically the program).  Technically that is exactly what this game is and in screen shots it almost looks like a fake game.  When it was tested in America, gamers slammed it for being so difficult it wasn’t fun and Nintendo quickly scrapped all plans to convert Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES, opting instead for an alternative version.  In the US we finally got to see what all the fuss was about when the game was renamed to Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels and included in the Super Mario All-Stars collection on SNES.  Not surprisingly, it was criticized even then as a frustrating and pointless addition by the general game-playing public.  Still, it looks and feels much more like a Mario game than the version we got here.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA)

Since we were already a few years behind Japan, it became necessary to either skip Super Mario Bros. 2 altogether, which was pretty much not an option, or to create an alternative version.  Fortunately this was in 1987 just as a licensed Japanese game from Yume Kojo, a popular cartoon series, was releasing on the FDS.  Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! was originally to be a game about two cooperative players throwing each other around a world in order to overcome enemies and platforming puzzles.  Early conceptual gameplay proved to be unpopular and eventually Miyamoto’s EAD team (Entertainment and Development) received the project and created an action platformer where four different protagonists traversed an Arabian world (as seen in the cartoon) with the ability to pick up and throw everything from projectiles to enemies.  As for NOA (Nintendo of America), the fact that the game was created by the same team as Super Mario Bros., complete with composer Koji Kondo, it seemed like an easy translation to America for Super Mario Bros. 2, especially because we wouldn’t recognize the popularized enemies from Yume Kojo.

It’s important to note that Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic! is not just a palette swap for Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA). Since it only released on FDS in Japan, both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Doki Doki Panic! are difficult games to emulate because they never released on Famicom and thus require special files and emulators.  Additionally the sound design and graphics of Doki Doki Panic! are much lower in quality to that of the revamped Super Mario Bros. 2.  Since the FDS had built-in memory for saving games, Doki Doki Panic! required that you beat each level with each of the four protagonists in order to complete the game.  As each character beats a level, it would get checked off on the main menu until all levels were complete.  Imagine trying to tackle some of the more complex levels in Super Mario Bros. 2 with each of the characters, quite a chore.

For the American release Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad replaced the four selectable characters.  When you first start playing the fact that jumping on enemies no longer kills them is odd, but once you’re a few levels in it becomes second nature.  There are still 8 main worlds, warp zones, and touches like the invincibility star (which was originally in Doki Doki Panic! as well) kept it close enough to a Mario game to sell the transition.  Nintendo Power also launched its first issue with coverage on Super Mario Bros. 2 to explain the differences, which were consistent with the drastic changes to most of Nintendo’s sequels.  It released in holiday 1988, nearly two years after Nintendo’s initial boom in America so most of us were itching for a Mario sequel.  Despite some people claiming the game was too easy, I loved it.  It was just different enough and with the four selectable characters had plenty of replay value to keep me happy.  It was so popular in the US that it was eventually ported back over to the Famicom, with the now defunct FDS system making Doki Doki Panic! harder to find and play, and released in Japan as Super Mario Bros. USA.  Technically if you don’t have an FDS in Japan, this is the only version of Super Mario Bros. 2 to release in a cartridge, so its possible that it’s the only Mario 2 you have.

Imagine if we had only received the original Super Mario Bros. 2 in the US and never even saw Doki Doki Panic! – I’d bet that few gamers would find it to be as essential to a retro collection as the US version is today.  Not only that, but the themes and concepts that began in our version continued over into other side story Mario games and even on the portable front.  Either way, the story of how Super Mario Bros. 2 was so drastically different is one that every gamer should know about, even if you’re only hearing about it for the first time here.  Super Mario Bros. 2 (Lost Levels) and Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) can be found together in any version of Super Mario All-Stars as well as on the Virtual Console so don’t hesitate to pick them both up if you’re curious.  Only five minutes with the Japanese version will prove to you that sometimes the import version isn’t always best.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 13, 2012 at 1:10 pm

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