Super Mario Bros. is one of the greatest video games of all time, by any metric. Its success led to a string of popular sequels: Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World. But looking back at the early titles in this legendary game series, one of them is a little…off.
While Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World built on the formula laid down by the original, Super Mario Bros. 2 is just weird. All of a sudden, Mario is moving up and down as much as he is left to right. He’s picking up enemies instead of jumping on them. Bowser’s nowhere to be seen. It just doesn’t feel like a Mario game. What happened?
Well, the reason that Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn’t really feel like a Mario game is because… it isn’t actually Super Mario Bros. 2.
You heard me. The Super Mario Bros. 2 that we over here in North America grew up playing is actually a Japanese game called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic. The story of what we came to know as Super Mario Bros. 2 is a long and complicated one that could only have happened in a world before the internet—when rabid video game fans were almost completely in the dark about the development of their favorite games. This meant that companies like Nintendo could pull off some truly bizarre stunts—as they did with Super Mario Bros. 2.
The two, completely different versions of Super Mario Bros. 2 have everything to do with the great video game crash of 1983. That year, video game revenues hit $3.2 billion. By 1985, they were down to $100 million—that’s almost a 97% drop. It seemed for a while like video games might be dead.
But of course, games weren’t dead—they’re still going strong, and that’s thanks in large part to our friend Mario. The first Super Mario Bros. was an enormous success, and it was one of the biggest factors in reviving the floundering video game industry. The game was bundled with the Nintendo Entertainment System (the Famicom in Japan) and the consoles flew off the shelves. The video game industry was saved—but so close to the catastrophic crash of 1983, companies were still a little…nervous.
This brings us to Super Mario Bros. 2… the real one. The one that North Americans wouldn’t recognize. When it came time to make a sequel to the original Super Mario Bros., its original creator—and industry legend—Shigeru Miyamoto was busy working on another project (a little-known title called The Legend of Zelda). That meant that the torch got passed to a man named Takashi Tezuka. Tezuka has worked on some of the greatest games of all time, but he’s no Miyamoto, and his version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was… a lot.
Tezuka went into development on the game with the mindset that players had completely mastered Super Mario Bros. In his eyes, it was time to put those skills to the test. His levels were far more advanced than what we saw in the first game. He added new features, like changes in weather. He even drew from the dreaded Vs. Super Mario Bros., an arcade version of the original game that was specifically designed to kill players so they would pump more quarters into the machine—the very capitalist reason why so many games from that era were notoriously difficult.
The resulting game was hard. Like, really hard. Like, tear your hair out hard. It would eventually make it over the Pacific under the name Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels, but when it first came out, Nintendo of America took one look at this ludicrously difficult game and said: “No way.” Remember, they were ecstatic that Super Mario Bros. had saved the industry, but they weren’t about to test their luck by delivering a sequel that made American audiences want to throw their consoles out the window. They kindly got back to their Japanese counterparts and said: “Make us something easier.”
It may seem like a big ask for Nintendo to throw out a complete game and start from scratch, but fortunately, they didn’t need to. Before the days of the internet, American audiences had almost no way of finding out what was happening in the Japanese market. So, Nintendo had an idea—take the popular game Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, slap some classic Mushroom Kingdom flair on it, and call it a day. It seems crazy—but it worked like a charm.
Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic was a good game, albeit an odd one. Named after the sound of a beating heart (doki doki), it was created to tie in with Japan’s Yume Kōjō 87 festival, a kind of Japanese Carnivale. The festival’s mascots, Imajin, Lina, Mama, and Papa, became the game’s four playable characters, and it all took place in an inexplicable Arabian Setting. But most importantly: it was significantly easier than the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2.
Doki Doki Panic was already quite colorful and shared some mechanics with Super Mario Bros., so it wasn’t too much work to make it a Mario Game. Imajin became Mario, while Lina, Mama, and Papa became Luigi, Peach, and Toad, respectively. Some Mario staples like shells and the ability to run by pressing the B button were thrown in, and presto change-o: You’ve got a Mario game.
While the North American Super Mario Bros. 2 was well received, it definitely stands out in the grand scheme of things. While it had the characters we all love, it still just didn’t really feel like a Mario game. Some fans like to discount it because of that fact—some don’t even consider it a true Mario game—but it still had an enormous effect in shaping the Mushroom Kingdom we’ve all come to know.
Without Doki Doki Panic, the world of Mario wouldn’t have such staples as Shy Guys, Bob-ombs, Pokeys, or Birdo. It was the first game that made Luigi taller than Mario, and its inclusion of Princess Peach made it one of the first games to feature a female playable character. It eventually did well enough that it was released in Japan as Super Mario USA, and re-released on the Gameboy Advance as Super Mario Advance. Nintendo even (sort-of) explained away its incongruous gameplay by pulling a Dallas and having the entire game take place in Mario’s dream.
The company later got back to basics with Super Mario Bros. 3—which was actually released in both Japan and the US this time—and it has been hailed as one of, if not the best Mario game ever. For 3, the developers returned to Mario’s left-to-right roots, building and elaborating on the original game’s core mechanics to create a masterpiece that many fans today view as the true successor to Super Mario Bros. After all, 2 was just some strange dream, wasn’t it?
So that’s why Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn’t really feel like a Mario game. It’s really a completely different game wearing Mario’s clothing. As for why Mario is carrying a carrot on the game’s cover art, even though carrots don’t appear anywhere in the game?