“In Mario games, nothing is anonymous. Everything has a name,” explains Jon Irwin in his surprisingly engrossing history of Super Mario Bros. 2, the black sheep in video gaming’s most popular and enduring franchise. He goes on to describe the cutesy, familiar names the game assigns its enemies, names like Shyguy, Snifit, Bob-omb and Beezo. Indeed, these are the names the player sees when the credits roll over Mario’s snoring face–like many games of its time, the American Super Mario Bros. 2 included no in-game recognition of its design staff, just a roll call of its heroes and villains, as though they were actors portraying themselves in this bizarro ensemble production.
So maybe there is some anonymity in Mario games. Most gamers know the name and face of Shigeru Miyamoto, visionary producer of nearly all of Nintendo’s flagship game series, from Donkey Kong to Star Fox, but Irwin’s account was the first I’d heard of Kensuke Tanabe, Super Mario Bros. 2‘s director. Which is, most likely, as Nintendo intended; as Irwin points out, “Tanabe’s absence suggests a corporate culture of anonymity,” a neutral backdrop against which their “wunderkind-turned-producer-turned-mascot,” Miyamoto, can shine “as some kind of game character made flesh, grinning and swinging a plastic sword.”
I expected a stage-by-stage critical dissection of the game itself, or a trotting-out of SMB2‘s not-so-surprising origin story (it began life as a licensed game called Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, replacing an entirely separate Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2 that was deemed too challenging for the Western market). Okay, so the origin story is a little surprising, but in the age of the Internet, it’s one of gaming’s worst-kept secrets. Irwin’s Super Mario Bros. 2 has a little of that, but the majority of the book focuses on the people on the other side of the screen. Much like the game that inspired it, Irwin’s Super Mario Bros. 2 is an ensemble story.
It makes sense: one of the core tenets of Super Mario Bros. 2, and a feature not repeated until much later in the series, was the ability for the player to choose one of four different characters to take into the level, each with a unique mix of attributes. Mario was a good all-rounder, Luigi could jump, Toad could dig, and the Princess (according to Irwin, the first and last female playable character in a flagship Nintendo title, Metroid excluded, for 17 years)–the Princess was everybody’s favorite, because she could hover, her billowing pink skirts keeping her afloat. Of course, the game’s ending reveals this stable of protagonists to be contained within the still-sleeping Mario’s head, another facet of Nintendo’s Mario/Miyamoto mascot mythology.
Irwin’s narrative centers on an equally colorful cast of characters. There is Howard Phillips, Nintendo of America’s stock boy cum “Gamemaster,” Nintendo’s “filter between East and West.” (Phillips also provides the introduction for the book.) There is Tanabe, whose experimental vertical-scrolling Mario prototype became Doki Doki Panic before being almost seamlessly reintegrated into the Mario canon. There is also Gail Tilden, the brains behind the revolutionary Nintendo Power magazine, the launch issue of which devoted twenty pages to ensuring Super Mario Bros. 2 had a place in the American lexicon.
There’s even a chapter on Koji Kondo, composer for the Mario and Zelda series. Irwin insists that Super Mario Bros. 2‘s tunes never stuck in the American collective unconscious in the same way that Mario 1’s did. That may be true for most, but I’ve got Mario 2‘s saloon-style melody coming through my computer’s speakers as I type this review–“wobbling all over the scale, leaping octaves and embracing arpeggios,” as Irwin puts it–and to my ears, it’s just as rich and dynamic as a chiptune composition can be.
Without this team effort, this near-mystical confluence of market forces, failed experiments and random chance, the modern face of video games might look very different. Birdo, Shyguys and Bob-ombs are now as central to the Mario lexicon as mushrooms and stars. But think bigger–if Mario 2 had flopped, we may not even have had a Super Mario series. “For Nintendo fans,” as Irwin puts it, “the last quarter-century hinges on this game.” Scary stuff.
Of course, the author himself is present in some of these chapters–both his direct observations, replaying the game over 20 years after its release, and the impossible-to-separate events orbiting his life as he writes the book. However, a good Mario game is always about the secrets, about the warp zones, trick quicksand and Yoshi waiting atop the castle. Moments both humorous and poignant characterize this surprisingly human account…but I’ll leave you to discover them yourself.