It feels like everyone and their dog knows about the history of Super Mario Bros. 2 and Doki Doki Panic, but I know that's not the case. I don't remember where I first heard of that tale, but my first game of Super Mario Bros. 2 would have been the SNES remake in Super Mario All-Stars - I don't think I've ever played it in its NES form, so we must rectify that at once.
The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that this is not a screenshot of Super Mario Bros. 2, but a well made 2048 port for the NES, hidden away in a file called Super Mario Bros 2. Sneaky. I didn't get to 2048 - never have - but once that distraction was over, I got my glasses on and looked for the proper ROM...
The first thing you notice is that it is both definitely a Mario title, and yet clearly not. It's strange yet familiar in its feel. Welcoming, but unnerving.
You start by picking one of four characters, Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Toadstool, each having their own little peculiarities. Mario plays much like Mario, but Luigi is better at jumping, and the Princess can glide for short distances, but is weak at throwing objects.
Steady on there, Cavil, what do you mean 'throwing objects'? Precisely that, good sir. Instead of satisfyingly squashing an enemy underfoot, if you jump on them in Super Mario Bros. 2, you ride on their back. You can then pick them up, hoist them above your head and run around with them as a single use weapon, throwing them into enemies later in the stage.
If you've grown up avoiding Super Mario Bros. 2, you'll know this mechanic having used it with Koopa shells later in the series. For all that's slightly off with the presentation and gameplay here, it has managed to introduce elements into the series that have stuck around for good - and for those who don't know of Doki Doki Panic, this is quite a feat for a game that had a splash of Mario coloured paint applied to it before being released in the West.
Regardless of origin, the game plays about as I'd expected. It feels like Mario, and the different characters are different to control. Not only do you have to get used to the speed of the game as a whole, but you have to get used to the speed of each character too. You'll find slightly different ways to approach a situation depending on who you pick, and those variances will come with different ways of messing up too - forgetting how far Princess Toadstool can glide, for example, before landing face first into an enemy.
It's tricky to know when something I notice in Super Mario Bros. 2 is what I'd call a frustration or not. Everyone has their preferences, their likes and dislikes. I didn't have too much luck in progressing through the NES version, so tried the SNES remake out too. I'd played it briefly in my childhood, but it wasn't a go-to game by any means, so I was still very much trying to find the groove for the most part.
I got further, though, and the game shows off its verticality soon into the level, another difference that the series would expand upon - another reason why we can't shrug off Super Mario Bros. 2 as 'just Doki Doki Panic'.
The first boss isn't Bowser, and for some reason takes place on a slab of metal in front of a magical bird beak door.
Look, I'm not saying everything has to make sense, but some things scream 'Mario' and others clearly don't. Should have stuck with pipes, shouldn't they?
But they weren't trying to make a Mario game, at least not at first. I know I've already called it a reskin, but it's not quite that either. I'd imagine Doki Doki Panic was inspired by Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 - even Super Mario as a series - was inspired by Doki Doki Panic. Whatever the case, it hasn't been cast aside and forgotten about.
It's not my favourite in the series at all, but it's so odd - and yet not odd - that it does deserve to be played, in any form. I can't quite put my finger on a final word. Should you play it, yes. Why should you play it, I don't know.
It's a part of history. It's a good game. You can play as Toad. It doesn't matter what reason you put on your decision to play, so long as you decide to play it.
It's Mario, Jim, but not as we know it.
This is the first game to clearly show Luigi as being the taller brother.
Super Mario Bros. 2, developed by Nintendo R&D4, first released in 1988.
Version played: NES, 1988, via emulation.
SNES, Super Mario All-Stars, 1993, via emulation.
Version watched: NES, 1988 (World of Longplays)