Review: Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Bros. 2

I’ve never owned an NES; the Super Nintendo was my first home console. (Incidentally, the SNES is also the greatest console ever created, but that’s a post for another time). As such, I never really caught “Mario fever” to the extent that some of my friends did; my best friend in first grade could quote the Super Mario cartoon verbatim, which actually got kind of annoying after awhile.

Still, over the years, I’ve gone back and played most of the 8-bit classics in one form or another, either on a friend’s system, or on re-releases, or even on emulators of questionable legal status. Ahem. And one of the games that I made it a point to return to? Super Mario Bros. 2. Which is why I picked up, well Super Mario Bros. 2. I have the feeling it may get a little confusing talking about the game and the book about the game, so I’ll try to make it clear which one I’m talking about.

Super Mario Bros. 2 is another book from Boss Fight Books’ first “season.” In case you’re not familiar with the company, Boss Fight Books is a small-press publisher that runs wildly successful kickstarter campaigns for books on video games. Each book focuses on a particular video game, and, as one would expect, this one’s about Super Mario Bros. 2. It may seem an odd choice of game to focus on, at first, but just why Jon Irwin picked Super Mario Bros. 2 to write a book about soon becomes apparent once you learn more.

Jon Irwin does a great job telling the story of Super Mario Bros. 2- not the plot of the game itself (which, honestly, is as sparse as one would expect from an 8 bit Mario game), but of its production. The story of Super Mario Bros. 2 is really the story of 1980’s era Nintendo.

Coming off of the success of the original Super Mario Bros, Nintendo immediately set about working on a sequel. Only the thing was, the “original” intended sequel (which was later released in a SNES compilation cartridge known as “The Lost Levels”) was deemed too damn hard to sell in America.

And so, looking to get an American sequel out as soon as they could, Nintendo took a game called Doki Doki Panic, re-skinned the characters as Mario & Co and added a few more tweaks, and then released it in the US as Super Mario Bros. 2. And to help promote this sorta-sequel, Nintendo even launched a new magazine, Nintendo Power, with the first issue devoted to promotion and guides for the game.

The clay statues used to make this cover still exist, and were found by Irwin in an advertising studio’s office. Kind of makes me wish the book had photographs.

Again, I never had an NES, and I didn’t get a subscription to Nintendo Power until many years after its debut, but I can’t help but find this kind of video game history fascinating. Irwin lays out the story of Nintendo and of the Mario franchise in a straightforward yet entertaining manner.

Irwin also goes deeper than the history of the game- he also shares some thoughts of his own on replaying it. He’s got some pretty interesting ideas about it, but a lot of them are kind of scattershot- just disconnected little asides that go on for a few pages or so before leading into the next thought. The most notable of these shorter chapters discusses gender in video games- Super Mario Bros 2. was the first Mario game to make Princess Toadstool a playable character, as well as being one of the first few NES games that had a female PC, period. On top of that, Super Mario Bros. 2 has one of video games’ first transgender characters in the enemy of Birdo- though it was played as a gag in the original game, and later Nintendo games have more or less tried to forget about Birdo in general. Gender issues in video games are still a ripe topic for discussion- Irwin doesn’t go too far in depth, since he’s just talking about one game, rather than games in general.

Irwin doesn’t get an interview on the level of Michael P. Williams’ tapping of translator Ted Woolsey for Chrono Trigger. Instead, he touches base with Andrew Gardikis, a former holder of the speedrun record for Super Mario Bros. 2. It’s an interesting peek into the culture surrounding speedrun competitions, and the sort of semi obsessive mindset needed to master a game so completely. The book also has a foreward by Howard Phillips, Nintendo of America’s spokesman during the 1980’s, as well as half of the ‘Howard and Nester’ duo from old issues of Nintendo Power. I would’ve liked to see a little more from him, but what can you do.

As a pocket history of Nintendo, and of the Mario franchise, Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Bros. 2 is a great little read. It’s not quite as good on the analysis side of things, simply because it’s a little disjointed. Then again, I’m comparing it to the other Boss Fight Books title I’ve read, Chrono Trigger, which is about a game with a far more involved plot than whatever Super Mario Bros. 2 was about. I still enjoyed the book, though, and I’ll heartily recommend it to anyone interested in Nintendo history- or really anybody who likes retro gaming in general.

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