Outside the mazes, which rely too obnoxiously on trial and error, Super Mario Bros. 2 is a marvel of design. It’s obvious, at every inconveniently placed block, that Tezuka and company knew exactly what they were doing.
Stages are set perfectly to foil you. There’s a particular overpass in World 7 and under it, if you jump down, is a block with a mushroom. If you’re impatient, however, and hop up to get the mushroom, you grow into Super Mario at which point your now-gigantic head strikes the overpass and bounces you into the pit.
Miyamoto’s analogy — games are like a wonderful playground that you return to again and again — is stretched to breaking. I just want to get in, beat the thing, and get the hell out as it explodes behind me.
The “Mario Mania” strategy guide issued by Nintendo Power (circa 1991) says that Mario jumps the same height and the same distance (measured in blocks) in every one of his games: so many blocks if standing, so many more from a walking start, and still more from a running start. Having found that golden ratio so early, the design team had to provide ever more novel challenges for the devoted player.
Here they reintroduce Luigi. He sucks. Or to rephrase: I suck, and Luigi’s not helping. There’s this part in 4-4 where you freefall to the bottom of the screen and then hop from a fall-away platform, through a crevice, to avoid the lava below. With Mario it’s not too bad. With Super Mario it’s hard because the opening’s not much bigger than you are. With Luigi it’s practically impossible, especially after you’ve eaten the mushroom they so helpfully provide. Luigi’s vertical is so ridiculous that what would be a short hop for Mario turns into an inverted-gravity blast-off whose zenith is practically the top of the screen, only this time there’s nothing below to break your fall.
I think I could put together a good highlight film of my numerous deaths. Something about the game encourages impulsive play — not even really the time limit, just that there’s no scrolling back. Have you ever played Arcade’s Revenge for the Super NES? In one of the levels you’re running away from a giant spiked ball that takes up the entire screen. You can run faster than it can roll; unfortunately, the course itself is less a racetrack than an obstacle course. You’ve got barriers you have to break through, enemies to avoid, and perilous jumps to make — and even though you can’t see the ball most of the time, it is a very real presence. In Super Mario Bros. 2 there is always a similar ball just off-screen, and it’s chewing up the level as you go through it. The bricks are crumbling as you run to the right, and you only need to watch a single necessary platform scroll into oblivion to become wary of taking any action that does not move you farther away from the void.
Where successive platform heroes — notably Mega Man — scoffed at physics, Mario and friends have always had a healthy respect for inertia. If Mario’s floating to the right, you can’t tap left and make him stop on a dime; you first have to overcome his momentum, and only then do you have a chance at recovery, that is, if you haven’t already met the pitfall you were trying to avoid. During the split second when the player realizes he’s doomed but can still make a few (futile) corrections, I watched many a friend and classmate lean bodily in the direction they wanted Mario to go. You were Mega Man, for as long as the game lasted. But you were helping Mario, swearing at Mario — and that distinction helped define him as a character and as a mascot.
After making it to and through the long corridor in 8-4, only to die immediately afterward from sheer suspense, I made it back, beat not one but two versions of Bowser, and considered the game redeemed for so perfectly capturing the wonder of exploration.
Next I turned to All Night Nippon, a mishmash of the original, its arcade port, and the sequel, with a few hacked enemies thrown in for good measure. As a hack, it’s noteworthy only because it was licensed. It starts out incredibly easy, with the original’s opening levels and if anything more power-ups, and gradually, as it splices in levels from the sequel, becomes quite difficult, culminating in a version of 8-3 from the original in which the hammer brothers, no longer content to wait while you figure out how to get past them, stalk toward you without provocation. The final level is 8-4 from the sequel, but at that point it’s almost anti-climactic.
And on Doki Doki Panic: as difficult as some of the later stages may be, going into them with 30 lives gives you a certain degree of impunity.