In a weird twist of fate, the very first Super Mario Bros game I ever played was series oddity Super Mario Bros 2. Unbeknownst to me at the time – at least for a few years after I first played it, anyway – Super Mario Bros 2 was originally a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic. Starring a turban-wearing character with a passing resemblance to peripheral Mario character Toad (of ‘Sorry Mario, but our Princess is in another castle’ fame), the original game was exactly the same, minus the Mario characters. The reason for this is that the actual sequel – which was released in Japan – was seen as too difficult for Western audiences. Feeling like more of an expansion pack than a true sequel, the Japan-only Super Mario Bros 2 (first released in the West on the SNES compilation Super Mario All-Stars as Super Mario Bros: The Lost Levels) was a punishing exercise in unfair level design. I think the West got the better end of the deal, to be honest.

At the time I first played Super Mario Bros 2, I don’t think I’d even played on a NES; it was on a Nintendo PlayChoice machine in the pub that I first tried the game. The PlayChoice machines were an interesting concept – essentially a NES with multiple titles, they offered a set play time per coin, and this could be used in as many games as the player wanted during the time allowed. To extend the play time, further coins could be entered. Though it was somewhat awkward to be cut off from play when progress was being made, it was a great idea that allowed a number of different games to be sampled at a time. There was an eclectic mix of games on these machines too; the one I tried had The Goonies 2, Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros 2, among others – the other Super Mario games were notably absent.

What struck me about Super Mario Bros 2 when I first played it was how good it felt to play. It was smooth and responsive, with each character feeling very different to play as. The four characters available to use – Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach and Toad – each had distinctive characteristics. Mario was a good all-rounder (the most boring of the choices, in all honesty), Luigi had a higher, looser jump, Peach was able to float after jumping and Toad plucked items from the ground quicker than the others.

Ah yes, plucking items from the ground. I mentioned earlier that Super Mario Bros 2 felt very different to other Mario games and, well – it really, really does. Gone are the floating question mark blocks and instead, there are plants to be plucked straight from the ground. Gone also is the ability to stomp on the heads of enemies – instead, landing on the enemy sees you simply walking on them until you decide to pick them up and throw them, as you would with any other in-game item.

Also missing: Bowser. And the Mushroom Kingdom in general, the game instead taking place in a dream world called Subcon. The bad guy of this piece is Wart, a giant Toad King (not Toad as in the mushroom headed player character – a giant, warty toad) who has cursed the inhabitants of Subcon. Despite the missing elements, there are enemies who made their debut here and continued to appear in further Mario titles – a few examples being Birdo and the Shy Guys.

As previously mentioned, it is definitely an unusual game in the Mario series, but not an unwelcome diversion for a franchise that has relied on the Bowser-kidnapping-Peach premise far too often for my liking. The choice of multiple, unique-feeling characters is inspired and allows players to either find a play style they prefer or to tackle the levels with a number of different options at their disposal. There’s a verticality to the levels that’s missing in the first Super Mario Bros and even in much of Super Mario Bros 3, which is another welcome touch.

The cartoony visuals are a huge step up from the original game too – not to mention the fact that the look and feel of the main cast was really starting to take shape at this point.

The game has aged well – in the way that the Super Mario Bros games tend to; it’s still a really appealing, playable game to play even today and – with it being available as part of the Nintendo Switch’s NES game selection – providing you have an online subscription for Switch, it’s readily available to just pick up and play.

In short, despite being a bit out of kilter with both the general mechanics and the overall feel of the series, Super Mario Bros 2 is nonetheless still a fantastic game in its own right – and one well worth checking out if you haven’t already.

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