Super Mario Bros. 2

I have a reputation for being “anti-Nintendo” and “anti-Retro.” Neither is true. The reality is Nintendo was as important to my gaming upbringing as it was to any slobbering fanboy. The Nintendo 64 I got on my 9th birthday in July, 1998 is what solidified gaming as my passion. I think that’s a bit profound, especially given that it wasn’t the first game console I wanted for an important holiday. The first time I asked for anything gaming related, it was the original PlayStation over a year earlier. I loved my PlayStation, but I didn’t truly love gaming until Nintendo became part of my life. What a hater I am.

As for retro-gaming, fine, I’ve probably earned the “anti” perception, even if it’s not true of me. But, in my defense, I’m 29-years-old. I grew up in the 32 bit/64 bit era. The games of the past were just old games to me, nothing more. By time I took interest in gaming’s history, I had developed epilepsy. Those older games relied heavily on strobe effects, which is my specific trigger. But, that really has nothing to do with my opinions on classic games. It’s more about how people from generations before me tend to put them on a pedestal based not on gameplay merit but on what the titles meant to their childhood. It’s something my generation doesn’t really do. Then again, I grew up in the early 3D era. It was a time full of games destined to age as badly as Lindsay Lohan.

Before we continue, shout out to Nintendo. They removed the dangerous strobe effects from the games in the Switch Online NES library. Now, when you die in Zelda II, the screen turns pink instead of trying to give players a seizure as punishment for not surviving their shitty, unplayable, prohibitively difficult Zelda sequel. Why pink you ask? Well, I can explain. You see, when you’re making love to your husband and then hear the horrifying sound of a “snap” commonly associated with a broken condom, you have to pee on a stick to find out whether or not you have to pay a visit to Dr. Coathanger. If the strip on the stick turns pink instead of blue, it means you’re not pregnant. Not pregnant means no life. See, it makes perfect sense!

I’ve always done my best to separate games I consider the best ever with games that are my personal favorites. I would never argue that WarioWare Inc.: Mega MicroGame$ for the Game Boy Advance is the best game of all-time. It’s not. If pinned into a corner, I’d probably say Tetris or Portal have to be up there because I can literally find no fault with them and they happen to be insanely fun. I think the drama mostly comes from people who truly believe that their childhood favorites like Super Mario 1 or the original Legend of Zelda are still the best games of all time and have never been topped. Which is just absurd. They’ve been topped many times. What hasn’t been topped is the blood-dopamine levels your per-pebesecant body generated when you played these for the first time. Your adult body isn’t even capable of naturally creating that much dopamine now. Hence, no game can ever match-up to how those games made you feel. I’m not making that up. That’s the actual science behind it. Well, unless you’re self-aware enough to realize that gaming is better now than it was during your childhood. For all the bitching we do about microtransactions and pay-to-win or too much DLC, gaming today is better than it was then. There is something for everyone now, at affordable prices to boot.

Take a deep breath, classic gamers: it’s alright for some of your childhood favorites to have aged badly. Almost all of mine did! Crash Bandicoot? Unplayable today. My entire 3D Nintendo 64 library? How did I never notice how shitty this frame rate was? Like seriously, who replaced my copy of Goldeneye, a game that gave me hundreds of hours of top-rate multiplayer mayhem with this slow, buggy, low-frame-rate, unbalanced biowaste dumpster fire?

Oh wait, nobody did. Goldeneye was cutting-edge back then. That’s why we never noticed. Games didn’t get more advanced at the time. They’re way more advanced now. That’s why those technical hitches stick out so much more today.

While playing Kid Icarus on Switch Online, I triggered slowdown as the result of having too many characters on-screen no less than five times during the first stage alone. To hell with “true to the originals” emulation. Can’t they patch this shit out?

Here’s the thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most unfair testing standard. Developers of the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, or 2010s mostly didn’t have it in mind. They wanted to sell product and make money then. Most major, tentole releases were based on the tastes and trends of the moment. It’s our industry’s version of a pop quiz. Nobody prepares for it, and yet we should have all known it was coming eventually.

Here’s another thing about the test of time: it’s gaming’s most cruel testing standard. You can factor in historical context or popularity or importance to culture all you want. It won’t change a single thing about how good a game is today.

One more thing about the test of time: whether you like it or not, it does exist and surviving it should be rare. It wouldn’t be special otherwise. And really, the vast majority of games don’t do it. Some games that are considered all-timers are just plain not fun today. It’s a major issue for retro gamers to come to terms with: that their childhood favorites aren’t fun anymore.

I don’t really think Super Mario 1 is fun at all. The same exact formula has been done better so many times. I didn’t like New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS either, and I got that the day it came out. I thought it was really boring. But I’d much rather play that installment in the franchise than the 1985 Super Mario. It controls better, has more stuff to do, has better level design, more replay value, and just is better on its own merit than Super Mario Bros. 1. It’s not even close, really. For those 80s gamers reading this and feeling their blood pressure spiking, I don’t know what else to tell you. It’s true. Old games were not made to be good thirty years later. Yes, it’s unfair to think they could hold up, but it’s downright delusional to think they should hold up.

Here’s one that retro fans SWEAR holds up. Well, change that. They swear Tecmo SUPER Bowl holds up. But we won’t see that one again anytime soon because it costs something like two trillion dollars to license the term “Super Bowl.” That’s why so many people call it “The Big Game” in advertising or other works. But, let’s face it, “Tecmo Big Game” sounds lame as fuck. My suggestion: Tecmo can just change the S to a D and re-release it on Switch online. Seriously, would anyone care if they called it “Tecmo Duper Bowl” instead. Wait.. really? You would? It’s literally the same game with a different name. Oh wait, I forgot you retro types lose your shit over having Mr. Dream in Punch-Out!! instead of Mike Tyson.

But there are some exceptions.

Take Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s still, to this day, my favorite 2D Mario game. Kind of. You see, up until this last week, I’d never played the NES port of it. I first played it in 2001 when a steroided up version of it, Super Mario Advance, was a launch title for the Game Boy Advance. And really, that version of it is the version that I hold up as my personal favorite 2D installment in the Mario franchise. Now cue the inevitable know-it-all fanboys who want to show off how deeply knowledgeable they are by pointing out that it’s not a real Mario game. Yes, yes, we all know about Doki Doki Panic. Yes, we all know there’s a different Super Mario 2 in Japan. Well, Japan sent the real Super Mario 2 to Nintendo of America. NOA said “this sucks, give us a better game.” Case closed: US Super Mario 2 is the real Super Mario 2. You fanboys can have your unplayable, anti-fun ROM hack of Mario 1. It’s all yours.

Super Mario 2 is a genuine gaming rarity: it’s every bit as fun today as it was in 1988. No matter your gaming background. No matter what order you play the Mario series in. Age does not factor in at all. Maybe the port you play does matter, but having just played the vastly inferior NES version, a major step backwards from the remake I played when I was 12, yeah, no, it’s still fun regardless. Besides, Mario Advance is actually just as much a port itself from the Mario 2 in Super Mario All-Stars. And ideas like having more hidden stuff or the bosses taunting you was borrowed from BS Super Mario USA Power Challenge, a game for the Super Famicom Satellaview. Have a look.

The step backwards from Mario Advance to Mario 2 isn’t merely graphical. There’s no score. There’s no super coins to find. There’s no Yoshi eggs. Instead of a Robo-Birdo for the boss of the World 3, it’s just a pallet-swapped Mouser (in fact, Doki Doki has a third Mouser as the boss of world 5 instead of Clawgrip the crab). The most consequential change is if you die on a stage, you’re committed to using the character you just failed with instead of getting to re-pick. That’s brutal. I had buyer’s remorse selecting Luigi in level 5 – 1, but I was stuck. And finally, you can actually see the reels of the slot machines and use timing to win the lives. In the NES version it really is just luck. But using the Switch Online platform, I didn’t need luck. Just save states. I’m guessing that strategy wouldn’t work at a real casino. “Uh.. hey guys. Pause. Load state. I want to try that hand again. Let’s start at the flop. I checked when I should have raised. Give everyone the same hands as before. Now remember everyone, pretend like what just happened after the flop didn’t happen. Why are you calling security?”

There’s no point in doing a traditional review of Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s older than I am. It’s gotten its feedback. But, I’ve been a bit obsessed with it as of late. It seemed like a game that defied conventional wisdom. It should have aged as badly as every other NES game, because it has a lot wrong with it. There’s blind jumps that are completely unfair. Luigi is grossly over-powered to the point that you can bypass large sections of stages just by using his charge jump. Peach is nearly as bad, though at the cost of her being significantly slower at picking things up. A running Luigi jump clears as many blocks. A big part of why these balance issues exist is because Doki Doki Panic didn’t have a run button. Levels weren’t designed around running jumps. That’s why you can circumvent large sections of the game. So why did they add such a feature? Because you could hold B to run in Super Mario 1, and they wanted at least one mechanic from the original Super Mario Bros to carry over to the not-sequel that became the sequel. B-Running was chosen, and in doing so, they inadvertently nerfed nearly half the game.

The flash from the bombs is gone in Super Mario 2 as well. Thankfully when I tweeted about this the majority of classic gaming fans were happy for me and didn’t go all Star Wars fandom “rape my childhood” for Nintendo having done a couple very minor graphical changes that most non-epileptics didn’t like anyway. I think one person complained about the “slippery slope” of changing graphics in a game that came into existence by changing a previous game’s graphics.

And yet, Mario 2 is still a masterpiece. I’m writing these words over thirty-years after the game released in the United States. How the fuck did Mario 2 escape Father Time? I spent over a week studying the levels and the history of the game. I talked with fans who were around at the time it came out. For most Mario fans, Mario World is the one they still hold in the highest esteem, with Mario 3 close by it and Mario 2 left completely in the dust. And I get that. Mario 1 was probably the game that made them want an NES in the first place, and Mario 3 was the first direct-sequel to it. It took the franchise back its roots with question mark blocks, power-ups, end-goals at the end of levels instead of killing a Birdo and walking through the door. It’s what they wanted Mario 2 to be. Mario World doesn’t have as wide a variety of power-ups, but it makes up for that with (mostly) superior level-design, better innovations (Yoshi and the idea of having an item on reserve), and better balancing.

I’m not hating on Mario 3 or Mario World like I do Mario 1. In fact, I’d put them in the pantheon on platformers. They’re so good that it’s a no-brainer, really. But both have felt the ravages of time a lot more than Mario 2 has. Mario 3 has a lot of cheap design, under-utilizes some of the more fun power-ups (especially the Hammer Bros. suit), and most damning: a few of the worlds are actively boring (especially world 2, the desert) or just plain crappy (world 6, where the ice stages are). Mario World is a lot better, but also gets interrupted somewhat frequently with more basic, bland stages that feel like filler. And I think the auto-scrolling areas of both Mario 3 & World can go fuck themselves. With the exception of one incredibly cheap blind fall in Mario 2, its flaws have a lot less impact. It didn’t just age better. It practically didn’t age at all.

Of all the memorable moments in Super Mario 2, this is my personal favorite. It was just so unexpected. “Holy shit, the door is trying to kill me now!” My personal choice for the best surprise boss fight in gaming history.

And I know why: because it was never done again. The original Mario formula has had multiple chances to be re-worked. Super Mario 3, World, New Super Mario, and so forth. Not to mention the countless games that Super Mario 1 inspired. On the other hand, Mario 2 was pretty much never done again. The closest any game apparently ever came to it was an unlicensed game based on Bible characters for the NES. Sure, it was remade, but that’s different from being completely rebuilt. We’ve seen lots of games built on the foundation Mario 1 poured. But, thirty years later, there’s still only one Mario 2. It never got a direct sequel. Its primary mechanics never carried over to another major game. It defies aging on the basis of never having been attempted again. And that’s strange, because we’re talking about one of the single most important games ever made. Even StarTropics got a sequel, for fuck’s sake. Kid Icarus got a couple! Excitebike got a 3D remake! Mario 2 outsold them all combined and was still a one-off. Some of its characters became Mario staples, but its gameplay never resurfaced again. Even though almost everyone likes it, if not loves it. Weird.

So actually, Mario 2 is even more exceptional than you first realized. Think about it: the NES was scorching hot in 1988, when it released. Fans were clamoring for the sequel to Super Mario Bros. As popular as the NES was, it wasn’t quite solidified yet. For all the world knew, it was a brief resurgence of an otherwise passed fad: video games. If Mario 2 had sucked, or had outright bombed, it absolutely could have cooled Nintendo’s jets and put a grinding halt to their momentum.

And then gamers get Mario 2, and it’s so fucking weird. A complete departure from the original. No question mark blocks. No fire flowers. No Goombas or Koopas or Bowser or any enemies from Mario 1. No flagpole. No killing enemies by jumping on them. The coins work completely different and aren’t just scattered around stages. Everything is built around picking up and throwing stuff, with only a few cursory nods to the original, like the star or the mushroom. It’s a Mario game in name only, with westerners mostly oblivious to its origins as a reskinning of a completely unrelated game based on mascots for a glorified Japanese state fair being put on by a television station.

You kill Wart by feeding him vegetables. He hates vegetables. Which is why he placed a fucking vegetable generator in his throne room. Like, seriously, have we considered he never returned because he’s too dumb to sign the contract?

Everyone knows the story of Nintendo risking everything when they launched the NES in North America, offering an insane no-risk deal to stores in order to get them to carry the console. That move deserves the recognition it gets, but I wonder why nobody looks at Super Mario Bros. 2 in the same light. Because it certainly was a huge risk for Nintendo. If fans had rejected Super Mario 2, imagine what a catastrophe it would have been. Especially considering that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link released around the same time and was an even more polarizing departure from the original game in its series. Early Nintendo adopters could very easily have decided that Nintendo wasn’t giving them the type of games they were asking for and moved on to other things. It seems absurd now, but it was definitely on the table back then.

Thankfully, Super Mario 2 was so good on its own merit that it continued to sell even after word-of-mouth that it was nothing like Super Mario 1 had a chance to take hold. Ten million copies on the NES were sold. You don’t get sales like that on name value alone. And Super Mario 2 as an entity onto itself was so viable that a remake of it was chosen to be the Mario launch game for the Game Boy Advance. It was thirteen years later. Thirteen! Thirteen years ago today, George W. Bush was still President and nobody knew who Barack Obama was. That’s how fast the world changes, and yet, Super Mario 2, thirteen years-old, was still good enough to be a flagship launch game for a major platform. I’d never argue against Super Mario Bros. being the reason there was so many Nintendo Entertainment Systems in households in the 80s. But in major way, Super Mario Bros. 2 is what assured there would continue to be Nintendo devices in American households into the 90s and beyond. Yes, it’s the “weird one” in the series. But it’s the one that I most tip my hat to. Against all odds, it holds up better than any “real” Mario game. To paraphrase an old adage: man fears time. But time fears Super Mario 2.

Super Mario Bros. 2 was developed by Nintendo
Free to Play with a Switch Online Subscription

Interested in Super Mario Bros 2? Boss Fight Books has a book detailing its history by Jon Irwin. Check it out here for $4.99.

indie-gamer-chick-approvedSuper Mario Bros 2. is Chick-Approved, but as a non-indie is not ranked on the IGC Leaderboard.

 

My Ten Favorite Games Ever – Part 4

Continuing from Part 3, these are my personal ten favorite games ever.  Not the best games ever made, or even games I want to play again.  But the ten games I had the most fun playing the first time I played them.

Banjo-Kazooie

Age I was: 9

Last attempt at playing it: ten years later at age 19, when it was released on XBLA.

Would I ever play it again: No

Crash Bandicoot and Crash Bandicoot 2. Those were pretty much the definitive games of my formative years as a gamer.  Sure, there were lots of oddball games between those.   The original Rayman I enjoyed.  Bubsy 3D I did not.  At age 7, it was my first clue that not all games are created equal.  But while my experience playing a PlayStation kiosk lured me into asking Santa Claus for one for Christmas, I wasn’t quite to the point of tracking down every new release and having actual anticipation for upcoming titles.  And then I played Banjo-Kazooie at Toys R Us, and everything changed.

July 11, 1998.  My 9th birthday.  A brand new Nintendo 64, a controller that looked like a tumorous raptor-claw, and Banjo-Kazooie.  All mine.  How much did I love Banjo-Kazooie?  I didn’t even open the other game I got that day, Mario Kart 64, until a month later.  Banjo owned the rest of my summer.  I spent hours hunting down every music note, honeycomb, nook, cranny, and just being in awe of how much bigger this was than anything I had played before it.  This wasn’t a roped-off parade route, like Crash.  This was a full-fledged world that was alive and breathing, and it was mine to explore.

Banjo wasn’t the last game to wow me like that.  I had similar feelings the first time I explored Hyrule in Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or raced a Killer Whale in Sonic Adventure.  None of which I feel hold up today, but that first time through each will always hold a special place in my heart.  Platformers didn’t become special again for me until long after that.  Super Mario 64, which I played for the first time immediately after finishing Banjo-Kazooie, was hugely disappointing for me.  The world seemed less alive, less vibrant, and duller.  But that made sense.  It came out years before Banjo, and even Shigeru Miyamoto wasn’t totally satisfied with it.  He wanted to keep refining it, until Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi outright told him “it’s good enough, we need to get this into manufacturing!”

Nuts & Bolts was just alright for me. Some of my readers are shocked that I didn’t like it more on account of my childhood love for Banjo. I don’t get the logic of that at all. It’s like saying I like peanuts, and therefore I’ll like peanuts even if they’re fifteen years past the expiration date.

Mario 64 not “doing it for me” was perfectly logical.  So how come Donkey Kong 64 or Banjo-Tooie didn’t “do it for me” either?  Or for that matter, Super Mario Sunshine or Sly Cooper or countless other very good platformers?  Even after experiencing a couple “holy shit, this is amazing!” moments in Sonic Adventure (a game I concede is an atrocious piece of shit, but I was blinded at the time by the shiny new hardware) or my first time playing the Game Boy Advance ports of stuff I missed like Super Mario Bros. 3 or Yoshi’s Island, nothing ever quite approached that month spent playing Banjo-Kazooie.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Isn’t that how it should be?  Those moments of pure gaming nirvana, where you know you’re playing something uniquely special that makes you feel different than all other games do, shouldn’t those be rare?  For you it might have been Mario 3 or Chrono Trigger or Link to the Past.  For me, it was Banjo-Kazooie, and that’s just because of the generation gap.  If I had felt the same way after Tooie, or Mario 64, or Donkey Kong 64, or Blinx, or Vexx, or Billy Hatcher, then that original moment isn’t as special.  I enjoyed all the games I just listed, some very much so.   But only Banjo-Kazooie made me feel awesome in ways that defy description.  And I can’t get that feeling back from playing it again.  I tried not too long after I finished Banjo the first time.  I tried again when Banjo got a nifty HD port to Xbox Live Arcade.  It’s just not the same game for me anymore.  Like Shadow of the Colossus, I have nothing left to get from it.  At one point, I chalked it up to platformers not meaning as much to me as they did when I was a kid.  I still enjoyed them, but my gaming palate had grown and I liked other genres now.  I figured nothing would ever make me feel like Banjo-Kazooie did.  And then I played this..

Super Mario Galaxy

Age I was: 18

Last attempt at playing it: I never went back and played the original again, but the sequel was a glorified expansion pack and it hit when I was 21, so there you go.

Would I ever play it again: No

Mario doesn’t mean the same to me as he does to you.  That doesn’t mean I think Mario games are somehow inferior to your perception of them.  In general, they’re pretty fucking awesome.  But my childhood wasn’t spent counting down the days until the next game with Mario would hit the shelves.  That’s why I can’t get even remotely nostalgic about Super Mario 3, nor can I stand hearing people try to justify The Wizard.  Super Mario World wasn’t a benchmark title for me.  It was just the second game in the series to be ported to Game Boy Advance, and it was really fun.  Mario 64 was that game that let me down after Banzo-Kazooie, but I didn’t hate it or anything.  I just don’t think it’s a game that transcends time.  New Super Mario Bros. was that weird title that felt like the gaming equivalent of a bunch of frat boys trying to recreate their glory days and coming across as sadly quaint and pathetic.  I guess I’m really weird, because my favorite Mario up to this point had been Super Mario Advance.  You know, the remake of Super Mario 2.  The strange one that only became a Mario game because Shigeru Miyamoto went on the rag and decided he wanted humanity to suffer, making the real Mario 2 so brutally difficult that nobody could possibly like it.  Yea, I’m talking about the vegetable pulling one where NOBODY actually used Mario.  They either used Luigi or the Princess, and they probably warped past the ice world because that shit was fucking horrid.

I didn’t have low expectations for Super Mario Galaxy.  I thought it would be fun, just like Mario Sunshine had been, and that I would enjoy it for a couple of days, finish it, and think nothing of it.  So imagine my surprise when I totally melted as I played it.  It was awesome.  And it did what no game had done for me since Banjo: it turned me into a nine-year-old again, and kept me that way the whole play-through.  It was magical.  It really was.

The amazing levels, crazy gravity, fun objectives, and that sense that everything you were experiencing was something new and unique.  You’ve seen stuff like Mario Galaxy before.  It borrowed elements from previous games in the series liberally.  But they had never felt quite like this did.  It was utterly amazing.  The goals were always short and focused, so that they never grew tiresome, and worlds had just enough objectives to feel like they knew exactly how long it would all take to get boring and stopped just short of it.  There were plenty of surprises, legitimate challenges, and moments where you had to sit back and admit that this is as close to perfect as a game can get.  I don’t put Nintendo on a pedestal.  Quite frankly, I think they’re pretty overrated.  That’s mostly because they weren’t single-handedly responsible for my entire catalog of childhood memories like they were for so many gamers.  And while I don’t think the Wii is the abomination that so many hold it to be, it certainly won’t go down as one of my favorite systems ever.

But Mario Galaxy?  It will be special to me forever.

I’m really not a big fan of Yoshi. I don’t see what it adds to a game besides unneeded complexity and annoyance. It doesn’t help that my first encounter with him was Yoshi’s Story for the Nintendo 64. Even at 9 years old, the game was so pitifully easy that I actually spent hours staring at the box trying to figure out where the fine print that says “For Ages 2 – 4” was at.

But let’s not kid ourselves: When Mario Galaxy 2 hit, it was a very good game that simply couldn’t recreate the magic of the original.  The uniqueness had worn off, and the sense of wonder was gone.  It was more of the same.  Which is fine, because the original was so good.  But once the magic is gone, it’s gone.  That happens so much with me.  Even if a sequel is clearly the better game, the originals always stick with me more.  I really enjoyed Arkham City, but my memories of Arkham Asylum are much stronger.  I’ll reminisce about God of War before I think back to that great time I had with God of War III.  And these aren’t even the games that I hold to be the best.  It’s rare when I say a sequel actually is better enough that I’m certain to remember it first.  After discussing it with friends, only two games stuck out: Uncharted 2 and Pikmin 2 (though Assassin’s Creed III might win a spot).  Being 23 years old contributes to that somewhat, because I didn’t play most of the great franchises in chronological order.

I think why Mario Galaxy means so much to me is because it ended the cynic in me who felt that gaming would never get as good as it was when I was 9.  Obviously if playing Banjo-Kazooie on XBLA at age 19 couldn’t make me feel the same way that playing Banjo-Kazooie on Nintendo 64 at age 9 did, nothing would.  That was wrong, and I should have known better.  Of course I could feel that way again.  It just wouldn’t come from the same source.  It came from Mario Galaxy.  And you know what?  Some day I’ll feel that way again.  A game will come along that reverts me back to a smiling, giggling nine-year-old.  Do you know what else I know?  It won’t be Mario Galaxy.

Final part coming next with my two favorite games ever!

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