The Short Version: In 1985, nothing was bigger than Super Mario. But the sequel proved “too hard” for Western players and so a different game was remade into what we now know as Super Mario Bros. 2 – and this is the story of that remaking.
The Review: Everybody has played Super Mario Bros. at some point. Even if you haven’t actually touched the controller, you’ve played the game – it has somehow become a part of the human collective consciousness. You know the theme music, you know the side-scroll and the mushrooms and the little plumber dude. And maybe, if you know a little more, you know that something was weird about that second game.
Or maybe you don’t know. Maybe, like me, you came of age with Mario 64 and so Shyguys and Bob-ombs were just an understood part of the Marioverse. Maybe you’ve only heard the story now, later, as a part of the oral history of the world – or some healthy Wikipediaing, at least.
So it was that I came to Super Mario Bros. 2, Jon Irwin’s installment for Boss Fight Books. For those who don’t know, Boss Fight Books is like the 33 1/3 series but for video games: an author explores the history and impact of a particular title. Often, this is the sort of thing that might only appeal to hardcore fans – but Super Mario Bros. 2 is an installment that can play to the masses. After all, we all at least know Mario. He is a cultural icon – and learning that his path to the top wasn’t so smooth as it might seem from our comfortable 21st Century vantage point should be appealing to anybody with an interest in how our culture became what it is today.
Irwin’s writing is accessible and engaging from the start: he introduces the game as you might expect to find it knowing little more than that there’s a plumber and he used to have to rescue a princess. There’s a little bit of background on Mario himself – on how he went from being the unnamed hero of Donkey Kong to his own, radically different, starring title – but the book assumes at least a little familiarity and is all the better for it. And while Irwin’s book lacks some of the personal narrative that was found in the other BFB I’ve read (Michael Kimball’s look at Galaga), it makes up for it in describing the crazy behind-the-scenes narrative of Nintendo at the time and how this game came to be.
Lots of people know the story now, of course. The internet is a magical place and even I’d read some of the background at some point or another: the revamped and significantly harder version of Super Mario Bros. that hit Japanese shores as Super Mario Bros. 2 was deemed too hard for American audiences, who were used to things coming to them and being easy. (There’s definitely some shade thrown, quite deservedly, at Western complacency here – who’d’ve thought that, while adults were bemoaning games as ruining the brains of the children, it was those adults who’d actually already done it by just living and providing an example for said children.) So they took another game, a game that was being created based off a Japanese show called Yume Kojō ’87, and replaced the characters with those from the Marioverse. The result was a game that was completely different from anything anyone could’ve expected.
Gone were the Koopas and Bowser, gone was the goal of saving the princess. Now you could play as the Princess! (Irwin devotes a little time to just how revolutionary this was – and, sadly, still is for gaming. For a young girl to get to play as a girl in a videogame almost certainly changed the course of more than a few lives.) Gone was the linear side-scroll – now you could go sideways as well as up and down. Gone were the boxes you bumped – now you had to pull things from the ground. It’s really mind-bending stuff and the game might actually be harder for the fact that you go in expecting X and instead you get 8. It’s not even the same thing, you know?
But there is a joy to this game – and to Irwin’s writing about it – that feels very rare, even in the world of joy that is gaming. Super Mario Bros. 2 was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of game, built with no expectations and then changed to be included in a different canon at the last minute. The impact was huge, of course – many things survived and became accepted parts of the Mario universe – but the idiosyncratic development of the game has never quite been replicated. Irwin’s look at how the developers did what they did, how the freedom that comes from no expectations is the only way to really innovate… it’s cool. It made me want to go pick up Super Mario Bros. 2 (which you can do online here, by the way) and the minute I did, I realized just how strange it was. And that was a wonderful thing. Sometimes, you ought to have your expectations shaken up. It can revitalize, quite wonderfully.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A smart and insightful look at a game whose history, if you don’t know it, is truly fascinating. Everybody knows Mario, but not everybody knows the story of the sequel and this is a great introduction to the Boss Fight series. Irwin does a great job of not talking down to non-gamers while also keeping gamer-types engaged – a tricky balancing act, but one he pulls off with aplomb. And, best of all, you get to learn some stuff: about marketing, about gaming, about culture. It’s everything I hoped this series would be.