Super Mario Brothers 2 by Jon Irwin
Boss Fight Books, 2014; 170 pp
Reviewed by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Among the many delights to be had from Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Brothers 2 (Boss Fight Books, October 2014) is the following joke. Get it ready for your next dinner party.
Q: What are Mario’s overalls made of?
A: (to the tune of the “Mario Sub World” bassline) Denim-denim-denim. Denim-denim-denim.
That this joke could live a life off the page is a testament to the deep cultural resonance of the Mario franchise, particularly 1985’s Super Mario Brothers, 1988’s Super Mario Brothers 2, and 1990’s Super Mario Brothers 3, all platform games for the original Nintendo Entertainment System, the gateway to the gaming world for children of the 70s and 80s. Mario is Nintendo’s first, and perhaps best-known, mascot, and the basic narratives of these games—Mario on a merry hero’s quest to save Princess Toadstool in both SMB1 and 3—is common knowledge for gamers. The truly devoted, however, will recognize Super Mario Brothers 2, in which the Mario team fights to save the dreamland Subcon from the villain Wart, as the trilogy’s outlier, distinctly different in style, tone, and design from both its predecessor and successor. In this slim volume, Irwin delves into his own player experience as he details in swift, entertaining style the complicated origins of SMB2.
Irwin reveals what many players have long suspected – there was, in fact, a ur-version of SMB2 released in Japan in 1986. It was quickly deemed too challenging to ever be successfully marketed in the U.S. “The Japanese Super Mario Brothers 2 was hard,” Irwin declares. “Nails-from-diamonds hard. Organic Chemistry hard. “Call your doctor if it lasts four hours” hard.” Nintendo Japan feared that Western players, “so used to winning,” would find a game they could not possibly conquer tedious. After all, perhaps the greatest pleasure derived from SMB1 is its inarguable sense of progress. “Your goal is simple,” Irwin writes. “Run to the right until you can run no longer...at their core, all past and present Super Mario titles have one thing in common: even the basic act of moving through the game-world feels good, satisfying. Mario has a momentum that feels somewhat realistic, insofar as a rotund dwarf in overalls can leap off the back of a walking turtle with any semblance of realism.”
The solution: Nintendo redesigned the existing Japanese release Doki Doki Panic – roughly translating as “heart-pounding panic” – inserting Mario as the game’s protagonist, and set it up for release in the U.S. In Irwin’s hands, the game’s evolution from the Middle Eastern-themed Doki Doki to Mario’s second wind becomes a quickly-paced saga of the challenges encountered on the game’s journey from NES Japan to the west, richly peopled with “Nintendo’s creative madmen in their infancy, experimenting with form and function.” That SMB2’s origin story has, until recently, been kept relatively quiet only adds to the intrigue of Irwin’s findings. This is fitting; he muses, “Playing a Mario game is about finding secrets. To uncover that which remains hidden: this is the Mario player’s true goal.”
In revisiting the game, Irwin confirms what most remember about SMB2: the Doki/Mario hybrid is sneakily difficult, arguably the most difficult of the NES Mario games. The old rules that served SMB1 players – for example, that game’s offering of mushrooms, or a “power-up,” that bring strength or extra lives – no longer apply. “You soon learn the result of capturing this power-up is not power, but death. Your tiny man stops, mid-air, peering out at the screen, legs akimbo, and then falls down, sliding not below the ground, as we one day will, but in front of it – one of the main reminders that this is no simulation of living but a world built for play and challenge, one with only a passing interest in the laws of nature.” SMB2 was also, in a word, sinister, in a way other Mario games were not – the dark warp zones, the flying bullets, the dreamy landscape lent the playing experience a certain, innovative creepiness. It is, as Irwin aptly describes, “a Cronenbergian nightmare.” Mario must traverse a perilous landscape not of pipes or cool-bricked underground sewers, but a slightly wonky dream world of vases and magic doors. Among the game’s villains: an oversized transsexual bird named Birdo who projectile-vomits poison eggs, and Phantos, masks that come alive with horrible speed when Mario grows too near. For an audience that had been playing PONG and Frogger less than a decade before, such nuance in a game was trailblazing.
But Irwin’s most compelling revelation is that of the personal investment of the player not merely to the game, but to the act of playing the game. “Each world I push through,” he reflects, “rekindles some long-buried moment, a fleeting euphoria or forgotten surprise dredged up from years of layered memories. To play an old game is to deal with personal tectonics; there’s both the obstacles onscreen and a bank of long-forgotten memories.” To many, SMB2 is Proust’s Madeleine cookie – the particular combination of sight, sound, and motion can conjure visceral recollections, long-abandoned chambers of thought. Christmas morning, the voices of relatives in the next room, the smell of the NES console itself, lifted cool and new from the cellophane. It’s not such a stretch for one to view SMB2 as an extended metaphor for the travails of memory itself: disquieting, filled with ghosts, but not without the sweetness of discovery, of small victories.
Super Mario Brothers 2 is a product of Los Angeles-based Boss Fight Books, which specializes exclusively in writing about gaming. Boss Fight has found substantial support in crowd-sourced funding, an indication that work like SMB2 is fulfilling a reader need. The development of a body of work discussing the cultural zeitgeist of gaming, from design and aesthetics to emotional resonance and impact, has developed only relatively recently. It is a new and important conversation to which SMB2 thoughtfully and meaningfully contributes.