If loving SMB2 is wrong, I don't want to be right.
How do you follow up the best platformer ever made? Easy: just come up with an even more fantastic and colorful design! It’s next to impossible to execute this kind of plan successfully, but in the case of Super Mario Bros. 2 (SMB2), that is precisely what Nintendo did.
As with the first SMB, the soundtrack launches a major charm offensive right off the bat. The sound effects are terrific – every plucked vegetable registers a big, juicy “shploop!” – and the musical themes bounce along, going from happy-to-whimsical-to-Egyptian-to-frantic-to-happy whenever it’s appropriate.
But of course, the gameplay is what matters. This time around, there are four different playable characters, each with different attributes. The utility of the different characters in different situations (and on different levels) gives the game an RPG-like quality that wouldn’t show up again in a Mario game for many years.
The greater freedom to move around and explore environments will also appeal to your inner roleplayer. While SMB2 is, in many ways, another “run-to-the-right” game, there are just enough occasions when you have a choice about how to proceed to make the game world more interesting than that of SMB1.
Lack of challenge was a damning charge in gaming circles back in the late 1980s, and some did point the finger at SMB2. This was not completely unwarranted; SMB2 really is a somewhat more forgiving game than its predecessor. (It took me years to beat SMB1 without cheating, but only months to beat SMB2.) Still, I would put SMB2’s low difficulty in the plus column. Gaming was still a rather cliquish and arcane pastime in the 80s; the emergence of more casual games like SMB2 went a long way towards mainstreaming the hobby.
Finally, the between-stage gambling segments were a clever innovation. They break up the pace and add some variety to the proceedings. They don’t seem purely luck-driven, either; proper timing leads to greater success, which leads to more in-game rewards (one-ups).
There is only one real problem with SMB2: the lack of a password or save function. I don't care how forgiving a game is in its difficulty, if you can't turn off a game of this length and return to it later where you left off, it's a design flaw.
Aside from that, the most frequently cited "problem" with SMB2 turns out not to be a problem at all. Some cranky gamers simply cannot appreciate the fact that SMB2 is a departure from the first game in so many ways. They claim it is a not a true sequel, being too different in terms of gameplay mechanics and too easy to beat compared to the first. According to these nattering nabobs, Nintendo really dropped the ball on this title.
The popular explanation for all this – repeatedly endlessly by snobbish Japanophiles – is that Americans were too lazy and stupid for the “real” sequel released in Japan, which copied the design of the first SMB and upped the difficulty level. I couldn’t disagree more. Nintendo was extremely wise to expect that discriminating American consumers (even children!) would turn up their noses at more-of-the-same.
The result was SMB2—a breath of fresh air that helped keep home video gaming from getting stale and losing its post-crash momentum. And while it is certainly true that SMB2 is not as difficult as the first SMB, that really doesn’t make it any less fun to play. At any rate, the naysayers who don’t like SMB2 can simply skip it and go play the excellent Super Mario Bros. 3 instead.
The Bottom Line
With Super Mario Bros. 2, Nintendo’s designers broke the Big Rule: Don’t tamper with a perfect formula. And what did their audacity get them? Only the most surprisingly good sequel to a platformer ever made. If you like this kind of game and haven’t played it yet, you simply must do so.