Will the Real "Super Mario Bros. 2" Please Stand Up?

This week, Nintendo released "New" Super Mario Bros. 2. But "Old" Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't what you think it is. Here's the odd story of how Nintendo crammed Mario into places he was never meant to be.

Super Mario Bros. 1 (1985)

To start this saga, we have to go all the way back to the original Super Mario Bros. (or SMB for short). SMB on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) defined a generation of side-scrolling arcade games -- its fluid graphics, fun soundtrack, and extensive gameplay gave NES fans a benchmark against which to measure all future games. And because it was bundled with the NES console in the US, tons of people owned copies and played them. (The "B side" of that bundle cartridge, Duck Hunt, didn't get nearly as much play.)

SMB's gameplay was not heavily plot-driven. While there was a general sense that Mario and his brother Luigi had to save Princess Toadstool from the evil dragon/turtle Bowser, it wasn't really explained why Bowser had kidnapped her in the first place, nor what he planned to gain from the crime. Regardless, gameplay was fun, and simple game mechanics (jumping and running) combined with clever level design made the game challenging. After playing a few rounds, I don't think I ever asked myself why I was fighting flying turtles, gobbling mushrooms to grow up, or eating flowers in order to throw fireballs -- the whole situation was sufficiently trippy that a sensible plot wasn't necessary.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (in Japan, 1986)

In Japan, Nintendo released a version of "Super Mario Bros. 2" that was a very clear sequel -- it looked very similar, using the same game engine and the same characters, along with exactly the same plot. This game is now known to US players as "SMB2j," and a version of it was eventually released in the US as "Super Mario Bros.: The Lost Levels." But as a kid with an NES in the States, I never knew about this one. Most US players have never heard of SMB2j, although we probably would have bought and played it if it had been available. So let's dig in.

SMB2j cart

In SMB2j, there is no 2-player mode. You must choose to play either Mario or Luigi from the start. The differences are subtle: Luigi can jump higher and has a little less traction on the ground. In many cases, the game mechanics are slightly different -- jumping off of bouncy objects (such as turtle shells) was tweaked, adding more lift to the jump. (Don't ask me why jumping off of a turtle should give you a boost in the first place -- just eat a mushroom and it will eventually become clear, man.) This extra turtle-lift was necessary because the level designs often used extremely long gaps, requiring a mega-jump to clear them. SMB2j is also much nastier with its Piranha Plants (those flowers, sometimes spitting fireballs, that emerged from pipes) -- in SMB2j they continue rising out of the pipe even if you're standing next to it, making your game life a lot more difficult. And remember the Hammer Bros., those weird helmet-wearing turtles who throw an infinite stream of hammers at you? Well, in SMB2j they advance towards you, making it harder to sidestep them. In general, SMB2j is a wicked-hard version of SMB, with all new levels.

The other major changes are the introduction of wind on some levels (which pushes the player left or right, even while standing -- making platform jumping a huge challenge) and the introduction of poison mushrooms that looked a lot like power-up and 1-up mushrooms. Touching a poison mushroom hurts Mario or Luigi much like touching an enemy, and further reinforced what camp counselors have been telling kids for years: there are good mushrooms and bad mushrooms.

To give you an idea of what SMB2j looked like, here's a roughly nine-minute speedrun. Note how similar it is to SMB, just way, way harder:

So why didn't Nintendo release SMB2j in the US? Nintendo felt it was too difficult for the US market. Rather than alienate casual players, Nintendo delayed releasing an SMB sequel for two years as it worked on Plan B.

Super Mario Bros. 2 (in the US, 1988)

SMB2 boxThe search for a US-friendly SMB sequel made a false start: initially, Nintendo designers developed a prototype vertical-scrolling SMB-style game in which two players cooperatively jumped up a long tunnel of death, rather than the SMB style of running left-to right and avoiding chasms of doom. The prototype was canned early on, for two reasons: the NES hardware couldn't really handle simultaneous two-player mode with all that jumping, and Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto didn't feel that the vertical-scrolling gameplay was particularly fun (especially in one-player mode, where you couldn't bounce ideas -- and bodies -- off that other player).

So Nintendo turned to Doki Doki Panic, a game that was also designed by Miyamoto and developed by the original Mario team. "Doki doki" is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a heart beating, hence the common translation of the game's Japanese title "Yume K?j?: Doki Doki Panikku" as "Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic." Let's just call it DDP for short.

DDP, while clearly a Miyamoto joint, was a very different game from SMB. While it was a side-scroller like SMB, it eschewed the stomping-on-enemies aspect of SMB, focusing instead on pulling vegetables out of the ground and throwing them at enemies. There was also no "fire flower" equivalent, which had been a favorite part of SMB -- the fire flower had allowed you to become Fire Mario and throw fireballs at enemies. In DDP, no fireballs were allowed -- just vegetables and the occasional fruit. There was no Bowser; instead you fought various animal bosses, ending with the evil frog king Wart, who could only be defeated by force-feeding him a large number of vegetables. The graphics and enemies were vaguely similar to those in SMB, with one extremely notable exception: instead of throwing turtle shells at enemies, in DDP you threw blackface heads and (at least in concept art) African ceremonial masks. Lots of art changes were made when DDP was adapted for the US market, but removing this racially charged sprite was a particularly good choice.

On the bright side, DDP had a fascinating new game mechanic: the ability to choose among a family of four different players, all with different abilities. You could choose to play Imajin (later Mario), a well-rounded character with no special abilities and no special weaknesses. Or you could pick Mama (later Luigi), who could jump high and hover at the top of the jump just a bit. My favorite was Lina (later Princess Toadstool), who could jump and hover for long distances -- great for zipping by a bunch of complex jumps on the ground. Finally, you could be Papa (later Toad), who was really good at throwing things. Allowing the player to choose a character changed gameplay, and meant that each level could be defeated in many different ways (as a Princess Toadstool player, my main tactic was avoidance).

DDP boxAside from the gameplay and art differences, the overall vibe of DDP was super weird -- and a lot of that carried over to SMB2. The game was envisioned as occurring in an Arabian dreamworld, where many characters are masked (DDP even included masks looking suspiciously like the members of the rock group KISS), a lot of action occurs at night, and you finish each stage by stepping into the mouth of a creepy head embedded in a wall. Of course, it can be argued that this is no weirder than the mushrooms/castles/turtles trip of the original SMB. But the overall concept was less clear, partially because of the DDP-to-SMB2 adaptation -- in the original DDP, a family was trying to rescue two children held hostage by Wart. In SMB2, Wart was more of a generic bad guy, who created masked minions using a Dream Machine and generally just messed up the world of Subcon (it's no accident that the game takes place in the Subcon(scious), and at the end -- spoiler alert -- is revealed to be Mario's dream, possibly the result of eating too many turnips just before bed).

Coincidentally, the DDP-based SMB2 came out in the US the same month as Super Mario Bros. 3 came out in Japan. US players didn't get to enjoy SMB3 until two years later, though a sneak peek appeared in the Nintendo-themed movie The Wizard.

Here's a peek at what DDP looked like before it was SMB2-ified:

You can also read up on the differences between DDP and SMB2, including screen-by-screen comparisons.

Let the Circle Be Unbroken: Super Mario USA

After the US release of SMB2 (aka Doki Doki Panic with special sauce), the game was actually released back into the Japanese market as Super Mario USA. And that's how a Japanese game that was too hard (SMB2j) begat a remade Japanese game with Americanized art (SMB2), which finally became a Japanese game again...with an all-American name (SMUSA).

Further Reading

For more on Mario, check out IGN's History of Super Mario Bros.. Also relevant are the super-extensive Wikipedia pages on SMB and SMB2.

You can also buy SMB2j on a cartridge, assuming you have an NES to play it on.

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A New Stranger Things Video Game Is in the Works
Netflix
Netflix

The world of Stranger Things is ready to get the proper video game treatment. TechRadar exclusively revealed that the hit sci-fi series from Netflix will be coming to consoles, courtesy of Telltale Games. Though details are scarce, this seems to be the beginning of a working relationship between the two companies as it was also announced that Telltale’s popular Minecraft: Story Mode game will soon be brought to Netflix as a “5-episode interactive narrative series,” according to the site.

Though Minecraft will be experienced through Netflix itself, the Stranger Things game will be a traditional console/computer release. If you’re unfamiliar with Telltale, its brand of games tends to favor a branching narrative experience that emphasizes player choice over button mashing. These point-and-click adventures usually don’t have a standard release schedule, either; instead, they’re split up into parts and distributed episodically for download. The games are usually released on consoles, including the Nintendo Switch, as well as PC, Android, and iOS.

While the highlight of Telltale’s work is widely considered to be its Walking Dead adaptations, they’ve also found success with other blockbuster franchises like Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, and its latest effort, Batman: The Enemy Within. There’s no word on whether or not the Stranger Things cast will be involved in the game, or if it will follow the established Telltale formula. In a statement to TechRadar, a spokesperson for the developer said, “we're excited to reveal details on these projects later in the year.”

This might not be the end of Netflix’s foray into the video game world. While the company has no plans to enter the market itself, TechRadar did find a job listing at Netflix for a Manager of Interactive Licensing who will "use games as a marketing tactic to capture demand and delight our member community (ex: Stranger Things: The Game)." May your dreams of a Narcos economic simulator game be realized.

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10 Surprising Facts About Fallout
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Bethesda
Mike Windle/Getty Images for Bethesda

On the surface, the pervasive violence, nightmarish difficulty, and dark humor of the Fallout series should have relegated it to niche status. But it’s that exact combination (along with the ability to have your very own handheld nuke launcher) that’s helped it become one of the most acclaimed series in the gaming industry over the last 20 years.

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where mutants, cannibals, and raiders descend upon you in waves, the Fallout franchise has come to define the modern role-playing game, from its first iteration at Interplay Entertainment to its modern installments at Bethesda Softworks. As gamers anticipate the next entry in the series, Fallout 76, take a look at 10 facts about this iconic series.

1. IT’S A SPIRITUAL SUCCESSOR TO WASTELAND.

Before Interplay’s original Fallout came out, the studio already visited a war-torn nightmare of a world in 1988’s Wasteland. In this RPG on the PC, players took on the role of the Desert Rangers, a team tasked with roaming what’s left of the Southwest United States while battling any warring factions they came across.

When Interplay couldn’t pry the rights to Wasteland away from distributor Electronic Arts for a sequel, director Timothy Cain and his team crafted a brand-new IP that focused on mainly the same nuclear-scorched principles. Though a number of titles were batted around—including Vault 13—the team eventually settled on Fallout, which was a name suggested by Interplay head Brian Fargo.

2. THE POST-APOCALYPSE WASN’T THE FIRST SETTING DISCUSSED.

Fallout is defined by its setting—the war-torn streets, smoldering husks of civilization, and retro-futuristic vibe all helped make this franchise stand out from its competition. But this world wasn’t Cain’s first idea. According to a feature article on Polygon, Cain originally toyed with the type of traditional fantasy RPG that had defined the genre during the 1990s. The next idea was to let you play as time-traveling dinosaurs, which is obviously never a wrong choice. Eventually, though, the team settled on the post-apocalyptic theme that has stayed with the franchise ever since.

3. THEN THE WHOLE THING WAS ALMOST DERAILED BY D&D.

Though the team finally nailed down the world, it didn’t mean Fallout was a sure thing. At one point during production, Interplay got the rights to release games based on the Dungeons & Dragons franchise, and the company wanted to scrap Fallout and move the team onto the more traditional RPG title.

In an interview with Polygon, Cain said he actually had to beg the higher-ups to allow him to continue with his game. The same thing would happen again when Interplay wanted Cain to reconfigure the game into a multi-player RPG to piggyback off the success of Diablo. Again, Cain’s vision prevailed.

4. THERE WAS ALMOST A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT FALLOUT 3.

After the success of Fallout 2 in 1998, Black Isle Studios—working under Interplay—began prepping a third installment, codenamed Van Buren. Like the first two installments, this one would be an isometric RPG in the Wasteland where the player takes control of an escaped prisoner who winds up attempting to stop (or help) a rogue scientist’s plan to “purify” society via an attack from an orbital nuclear missile system.

The project was canceled, and soon Black Isle Studios would be axed and the Fallout property would land at Bethesda. However, a tech demo of the original Fallout 3 did land online a few years back.

5. THE GAMES ARE STACKED WITH SCI-FI EASTER EGGS.

The Wasteland is littered with more than just burned-out buildings and scattered remnants of humanity; it’s also home to Easter eggs and homages to nearly every major sci-fi property in existence.

In the original game, for instance, players can stumble upon a familiar blue callbox that disappears into thin air—a callback to the TARDIS from Doctor Who. There’s also the sight of a post-apocalyptic wanderer traveling the wasteland with his dog from Fallout 3 that is an unmistakable homage to the Mad Max series. And if you stumble upon a refrigerator in the desert in Fallout: New Vegas, look inside—you might find the skeletal remains of Indiana Jones as a nod to the infamous nuke scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

And that’s just the beginning. If you take your time to really explore the world of these games, you’ll find shout-outs to Planet of the Apes, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Jaws, Star Wars, and countless others.

6. FALLOUT 3 HAD ISSUES IN AUSTRALIA AND INDIA.

When Bethesda took control of the series for 2008’s Fallout 3, the studio retained its high level of violence, profanity, and all-around sacrilege. So it was only inevitable when governments started to take notice.

In Australia, the game was faced with a ban due to the fact that the player could use, and get addicted to, morphine. Instead of losing this sizable market, Bethesda changed the name of the drug to the fictional “Med-X” after the Aussie government took issue with a player getting addicted to (and possibly even glorifying) a real drug. This change wasn’t just reflected in Australia but in every region, turning Med-X into part of Wasteland lore.

The controversy continued in India, where the game simply wasn’t released at all because of issues stemming from “cultural sensitivities.”

7. FALLOUT 4’S SCRIPT TOTALED 13,000 LINES OF DIALOGUE FOR THE MAIN ACTORS.

In previous games in the series, the main characters never spoke; they were voiceless protagonists in a world of fully-voiced supporting characters and villains. But in Fallout 4, Bethesda took away that ambiguity in favor of fully voiced heroes. They hired both a male and female voice actor for the job, depending on which character the player chose to create, and for its first foray into the voiced realm, the studio made their leads pretty talkative.

According to the game’s director, Todd Howard, each actor had about 13,000 lines of dialogue, which were recorded over the span of two years. That number goes up exponentially when you look at the game as a whole: One estimate put the total lines of dialogue for every character in the game combined at somewhere near 170,000.

8. THE SERIES BOASTS AN IMPRESSIVE CELEBRITY VOICE CAST.

Though the main characters are usually mute, the world of Fallout is populated by a roster of celebrities who have lent their voices to everything from super mutants to wannabe crime bosses. Most recognizable among them is Ron Perlman, who narrated the intros to Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3, Fallout Tactics, and Fallout: New Vegas. He’s become a fan favorite part of the story over the years with the opening lines, “War. War never changes.”

There’s also Liam Neeson as the main character’s father in 3, which also featured Malcolm McDowell as the president. And then there’s New Vegas, with Matthew Perry (an ardent franchise fan) as Benny and Wayne Newton as a radio DJ. Throughout all the games, you’ll also hear from the likes of Danny Trejo, Brad Garrett, Dave Foley, and Lynda Carter, who also wrote and provides the vocals for original songs in Fallout 4.

9. FALLOUT 4 EARNED $750 MILLION ON LAUNCH DAY.

The franchise was more of a critical success than a commercial one during the Interplay years, but once it made its way to Bethesda, it managed to hit sales marks that were previously unseen for the series. Fallout 3’s launch week saw 4.7 million units shipped, for a total of $300 million worldwide. Fallout: New Vegas saw similar success, bringing in over $300 million in its first month.

Well, Fallout 4 basically doubled those numbers within its first 24 hours on the market. The $750 million that the game made on its November 10, 2015 debut was a record at the time for the biggest entertainment launch of the year and one of the biggest single-day video game feats of all time.

10. FANS ARE CREATING NEW FALLOUT GAMES.

Bethesda has always been a haven for modders, those tech-savvy super fans that dive into a game’s source code to create something wholly original within the original title. A lot of these mods fix graphical issues and other bugs, while others add new characters or a dose of absurdity to the game, like the mods that turned all deathclaw enemies into Thomas the Tank Engine or Macho Man Randy Savage.

Some of these mods go well above and beyond, turning into full games in their own right, set in the Fallout universe and created by fans. There’s Fallout: Cascadia, which is a mod project that puts the series in Seattle; Fallout 4: New Vegas, which recreated New Vegas with 4’s upgraded engine; and Fallout: New California, an ambitious New Vegas mod that features all-new characters and stories.

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