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The Japanese Version of Super Mario Bros. 2 is Maddeningly Difficult

“The Lost Levels” Like You’ve (Probably) Never Seen Them

The Japanese version of the Super Mario Bros. 2 title screen. In this image: Mario stands outside a small castle, while a winged Koopa Trooper turtle bounces towards him. Subtitle: The Original Lost Levels

Hot on the heels of our popular dive into The Legend of Zelda franchise, we now jump, stomp, and dive into the most iconic and popular video game franchise ever, the Super Mario Bros. series. Each week, we’ll take a unique look at each game in the series, and discuss aspects you may not have considered. This week we look at the Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Famicom, a maddeningly difficult game that is in many ways an anti-Nintendo game.


Chalk It Up To Mario Madness

Maybe it was all a dream. Maybe there never was an adventure where the brothers Mario went off to some dreamland called Subcon, to fight an obese frog, with his friends. Maybe none of that happened—even though Shy Guys were still a thing afterwards. Oh well, best not to think too deeply on all this.

I assume even now when people think of Super Mario Bros. 2, they still think of Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad all having the same dream about pulling veggies out of the ground, fighting egg-producing champion, Birdo, and seeking Wart—the one-time-only Big Bad of the Mario franchise. I’m paraphrasing the plot, but the part about them all A Nightmare on Elm Street-ing the same dream is true.

While some are aware the sequel we got in America was actually a reskinned version of a Japanese game called Doki-Doki Panic, except with Mario characters replacing the original playable characters, that’s only part of the story.

There actually was a true sequel to Super Mario Bros., and it was only released in Japan. It was deemed too hard for Western audiences and was even rejected by Nintendo’s official president of mirth, Howard Phillips (the bow-tie guy from Nintendo Power!), for simply not being fun to play.

While some may think they’ve played The Lost Levels via the SNES version from Super Mario All-Stars, they haven’t gotten the full experience Japanese gamers got back in 1986.

The original version is something altogether different.

It’s the Same, but Different

Super Mario Bros. 2 looks a lot like the original game. Sure, the shrubbery is teased out a little bit more, and the clouds all have these silly grins now, but this is still Super Mario Bros. If you look at the start screen, the level format, the Koji Kondo score, it’s all the same.

Mario still runs and jumps just like he did in the last one, which means he doesn’t have his helpfully-tweaked, 16-bit-remake moves that provide a bit more margin for error. Nope, these are good old fashioned original-recipe Mario controls. I don’t know about you, but I still have no idea why sometimes I’ll bounce off something and shoot 50′ into the air and sometimes I just go ploop and barely get any height at all.

“Uh, hold the button in.”

– some speedrunner reading this, talking out loud like some know-it-all

“I’m holding the button in, Hypothetical Speedrunner Know-It-All!”

Whatever, it doesn’t matter. The point is, this version of the game is a bear to control and the people who designed the levels knew that. At every turn this game is trying to sucker you into a trap. It’s trying to subvert your every expectation and lure you into certain death. Then, the game tries to make you feel like it’s your fault when honestly, the game often does not exactly play fair.

Maybe Howard Phillips was on to something. The game puts you into unwinnable circumstances where you have no chance of success without psychic knowledge or blind luck. Then the game punishes you and basically tells you it’s your fault. Merciless unfair gameplay and possible emotional manipulation? I’m not the fun police, but that doesn’t sound like a good time to me.

This game was marketed as a game for “Super Players” in Japan and was designed to be a sort of Hardcore Mode, or whatever they call the really tough modes in games I’m not good at. I played this game for the first time when it came out on the WiiU. I had played through the Super Mario All-Stars version on the SNES, and I remember not having too difficult of a time. This, of course, was because that version had a lot of little helpful tweaks the original game doesn’t, such as being able to adjust your jumps on the fly, as the SMAS game uses the same basic physics as Super Mario Bros. 3. Like Ms. Jackson says, it’s all about control.

First World Problems

Usually, the first few levels of a game are spent getting the player acclimated to their surroundings. Even in a sequel, where the assumption is the player knows the basics from having played the previous game, you usually get a slow drop into a warm bath reintroduction to the game world. Not so in Super Mario Bros. 2. The opening game of the level is on par with a late level in the original. You got your poison mushrooms, both above and below in so-called Bonus Areas, which were considered safe zones in the original.

In Super Mario Bros. 2, mushrooms can be poisonous.
Are those clouds smiling? What’s there to smile about? These Scarface mushrooms are made of poison!

Right from the jump, you get the vibe that this game not only doesn’t come with training wheels, but it’s also offended you would even suggest such a thing. Where Super Mario Bros. was all about establishing clear rules and testing your knowledge of those rules, SMB2 is more like a pop quiz with all trick questions. Or would you prefer an analogy where I compare swimming lessons to your dad just tossing you into the lake? My point being, NES era games had a difficulty curve, yes, but they all obeyed certain rules of fairness. This game cares not for such rules.

Some subversions are not troll jobs. Take World 1-2 for example, which features multiple Warp Zones. You can jump over the exit wall (akin to SMB) and proceed to a Warp to World 2, but there is also a pipe you can go down that leads you to a sub-subterranean section, where a Warp Zone takes you to World 4 instead.

This is a clever move as it expands on an idea from the first game. Any Mario gamer worth their salt knows of the Warp Zones hidden over the exit in World 1-2. What they don’t immediately think is that there is another potential step to discovering something even better. The game rewards you for thinking outside the box, which is a mindset this game doesn’t always hew closely to.

Kaizo Mario and the Super Mario Maker Effect

No, we’re not gonna talk about Super Mario Maker, in fact, we’re not gonna talk about Super Mario Maker at all, we’re gonna leave that game out of this.

[Author proceeds to talk about Super Mario Maker]

I mean, it’s hard to talk about SMB2 without thinking of the Super Mario Maker series a little. There are so many little “traps” this game sets for you; it’s hard not to see the person behind the level design snickering and laughing when you waltz right into a precarious situation and have an “Oh [expletive-of-choice deleted]!” moment.

Super Mario discovers a poison mushroom and has a hard time running away from it, due to a block in his way. The game designers did this on purpose.
Mario discovers a poison mushroom and runs into a tricky obstacle trying to avoid it.

While not “unfair”, the level design is often deceptive, cruel even. Were it not for the rewind feature I had access to playing this game via Nintendo Switch I probably would’ve just watched a long play of this game online to refresh my memory. Far too often you are caught midair in a situation that spells unavoidable death. Usually, I would rewind the game and discover that to successfully progress, I would have to come to a full stop and slowly inch forward to trigger certain off-screen hazards. Or to reveal a turtle I needed to jump on at just the right height to bounce to a tiny platform (Ah! But not so fast that you overshoot the tiny platform, or slip off!). I would certainly be turned off playing this having to repeatedly play through levels just for another, singular chance at success.

There is an early Mega Man vibe to the deaths in this game. You have to die a lot of times to learn the layout of the level, recognize the patterns, and then retry. That vibe doesn’t mesh with what we know Mario games to be. Sure, as the series progressed, later levels (and more so, post-Bowser levels, Star Roads) up the difficulty and offer a challenge for gamers of all skill levels, but there is a gradual uptick in that difficulty, whereas here it’s more like this game is less a sequel to the original game, and more like mean-spirited DLC.

Mario considers jumping from one pipe to the next, but a wall above may lead to his doom if he hits his head and falls into the pit below.
You see the wall. You know what the risk is. You know what will probably happen. But you leap nonetheless.

Kaizo Mario is a well-known unofficial mod of Super Mario Bros. where the levels made are intentionally maddening. Mario Maker content creators have run with this idea, and there have been some truly inspired levels made because of it. However, there are still unofficial rules one must abide by.

I suppose the best example of not playing by the rules of fairness would be having Mario go down a pipe that, unbeknownst to the player, drops you into a room of spikes. Does Super Mario Bros. 2 make such callous choices? Not exactly

Welcome to Praw Zones, Where You Go Backwards

So there’s this Warp Zone. When I encountered it during my playthrough for this article, I chuckled. “Oh yeah,” I said to myself, “I remember this.” I smiled and held down the L and R triggers on my Nintendo Switch and went back in time right before I made that fateful choice.

It’s in World 3-1. The location: A pipe, one that leads to a secret area mind you. A place one could only find by being curious and thorough, both admirable traits in a video gamer. It’s something that is usually rewarded, whether it be with coins or a power-up. It almost certainly never leads to a Warp Zone that sends you back to the beginning of the game!

OK, maybe I’m over-blowing this whole thing. It’s not as if you aren’t given a choice. If you don’t want to go back to the beginning of the dang game, you can always let time expire, or hop into the conveniently placed pit in the corner of the Warp Zone. “Choices”.

That’s not even the half of it. If you don’t take the pipe, there is also a trampoline near the end of the level that launches you in the air. If you push right and keep pushing, you will proceed over the end level flagpole and find yourself arriving at the same pipe that leads you to the Warp Zone that sends you back to the beginning of the game. So basically, there are two ways to be punished for doing something most games would reward you for accomplishing.

In World 3-1, Mario discovers a Warp Zone. Unfortunately it leads back to the beginning of the game.
Eat your heart out, Super Mario Maker content creators. Nintendo is the Original Gaming Troll.

That is some Jigsaw bull right there, where your “choices” almost always somehow involve maiming yourself before ultimately dying anyway.

“Hello, Mario. For years you’ve circumvented channels in order to cheat time. Now, time will cheat you. Before you is a pipe. Enter the pipe and you’ll return to the beginning of the game. If you choose not to, you can always jump into the bottomless pit that I intentionally placed there. Or, you can let time itself kill you. You have 279 seconds…live or die…make your choice…”

Oh, brother. Speaking of flawless, not-forced-at-all segues…

The Luigi Factor

Luigi was just a palette-swapped version of Mario in the original game, but in SMB2, he actually acquired some trademark traits that would continue throughout the series. In this game, and in the US version, Luigi has a better vertical leap and has less traction than Mario.

Luigi stands in the doorway of the mini castle, looking back at the end level flagpole he just jumped over.
Flagpole Skipper

After completing the game as Mario, I restarted as Luigi and found it to be an interesting and smart choice to make since his move set unique. There are many situations where jumps are difficult for Mario, whereas Luigi can reach them without much difficulty. However, those same jumps were often two singular blocks hovering in midair over bottomless pits, so Luigi is much more apt to reach the landing, but not stick it.

While Mario can only jump over a few flagpoles, Luigi can overshoot a bunch of them. Again, no promises you’re going to want to see what’s beyond the normal exit. That sort of positive reinforcement happens later in the series.

I personally love Luigi as a character and am currently playing the exceptionally fun Luigi’s Mansion 3 on Switch, but I’ve never been a fan of playing games as him. He’s too slippery. To each his own, Luigi just hits a little different.

Random Acts of Cruelty

Playing Super Mario Bros. 2 with an open mind, and a preexisting knowledge of what it’s like will go far in enjoying the game much more.

Mario spots a Question Mark Box surrounded by Bullet Bills
Risk vs. Reward is a recurring theme. This block contains a Super Mushroom, but could just as easily contain a Poison one.

World 2 brings back janky trampoline jumping, only now you’re required to execute jumps with airtight precision in life and death situations. You will die.

The game also introduces gusts of wind in certain areas, making already frustrating jumps just that much more maddening. Death is inevitable.

And let’s not forget World 8-1, that has you discover a hidden area that leads to a Warp Zone back to World 5. Notice the lack of a bottomless pit. You’ll have time to think about what you’ve done this time.

Super Mario, in World 8 discovers a Warp Zone that will send him back to the beginning of World 5.
“So is it more or less cruel without a pit?” I guess would be the question.

The Ending

Defeating Bowser at the end of World 8-4 will lead you to a door. Inside, Princess Toadstool, still her ginger-haired self, rewards you with a clumsy poem, and a potential mild seizure from a flashing screen where all 7 Mushroom Retainers return to celebrate your accomplishment.

Princess Toadstool says, "Peace is paved, with kingdom saved. Hurrah to Mario, our only hero. This ends your trip, of a long friendship."
Welcome to Friend Zone.

7 Mushroom Retainers (only 6 pictured) say "Thank you Mario!" as they blink in and out over Mario and Princess Toadstool.

We Present You New Worlds

World 9-1 start screen. With one Mario the game gives you a challenge. Screen reads: We present Fantasy World. Let's Try "9 World" with One Game.
Bypass all Warp Zones, and you are rewarded access to “9 World”.

Beating Super Mario Bros. 2 will net you some fairly decent rewards for such an old game. Playing through the game without using Warp Zones will net you a trip to World 9, where you will play through 4 extra levels. The challenge of these levels is actually not too steep, and the final stage 9-4, is basically a curtain call, where you swim through the level as all the enemies in the game pass by. The blocks in the level spell out “Arigatou!” in Japanese, or “Thank You!”.

World 9-4 sees Mario "swimming" in the air as the level blocks spell out "Thank You!" or "Arigatou" in Japanese.
Before I looked up what the blocks were spelling, I just assumed (based on the tone of the game) that it spelled out “Bad End. You Sicken Me.”

If you beat the game eight times (if that’s something you’re into), you can access four whole bonus levels from the start menu by holding in the A button and hitting Start. Levels A, B, C, and D play very similar to the other levels in the game but are a healthy mix of fun levels peppered in with the more rage-baiting ones.

Every time you beat the game, a star will be added to the title screen of the game, and you can – and should – use Warp Zones.

In some ways, Super Mario Bros. 2 has more of a replayability factor than the original. The challenge is frustrating, but for those gamers that relish such things it’s a welcome change from the original game.

I would say this game is worth a playthrough. You may not beat the game, depending on your threshold for pain, but you will find it to be a unique experience. The game is currently available for the Nintendo Switch Online to anyone with an active membership.

And use the rewind function, no judgment.

Lost Musings

  • Previously, we looked at the influence of the original Super Mario Bros. and its masterful level design.
  • Takashi Tezuka, who worked on the original game, took over the reins of this game, while Shigeru Miyamoto worked on a little game called The Legend of Zelda.
  • Mentioning Howard Phillips, the bow-tie clad Nintendo Fun Club president, has got me thinking, ‘What happened to Nester?’ Remember, Nester, the wild-haired, wisecracking sidekick from Nintendo Power?
    I suppose once Ness from the Mother/Earthbound series became well known, there was no room for him.
  • Next time, we will travel to Subcon and explore the American Super Mario Bros. 2, which began the NES tradition of making direct sequels wildly different from the classic games they followed up.

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Written by Johnny Malloy

Johnny Malloy is the Managing Editor of Gaming at 25YearsLaterSite, and is a crafty arranger of words.
A gamer since childhood, he enjoys indie games and considers The Binding of Isaac to be a subversive masterpiece. He has also written an extensive series of articles about the Castlevania series.
He enjoys writing fiction, be it screenplays, scripts, or novels. His favorite TV shows are Twin Peaks, The Leftovers, It's Always Sunny in PA, and Workaholics.
He has one of those faces. Sorry about my face. It can't be helped.
He's @mistercecil on the Twitter. Follow him if you like wild tangents and non sequiturs.

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