This article originally ran on April 3, 2018 on Mike Podgor’s Monsters of Multimedia.
The second installment of the Super Mario Brothers series is an odd duck since it started life as an unrelated game called Doki Doki Panic. It was reskinned when Japan’s Super Mario Brothers sequel was deemed too difficult for American audiences and due to this pedigree the entire game has an air of quiet displacement about it. Mario and his allies were never supposed to be in this world, after all, and while some of the enemies have resurfaced in later Mario games its main antagonist gave up his villainous life and went on to become a singer in other dream-related Nintendo games. Well, Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. (A quick aside: the Link’s Awakening image is the only one I didn’t personally grab for this article, though I intended to do so but kept forgetting to save. When I eventually died, I lost a not insignificant amount of progress and so the image was taken from Zelda Universe. I do hope they don’t mind.)
While Super Mario Brothers 2 has seen two graphical overhauls, the original game had to work within the boundaries of the Nintendo Entertainment System’s processing power. This caused many of the landscapes to be rendered rather bleakly which granted many of the game’s events a quiet terror. The quest to defeat Wart begins by dumping your chosen character out of a door in the middle of the sky. There is no return for your character after this, and while the once and future Peach could deter her descent through floating all four playable characters wind up on the ground after passing by some of Subcon’s malevolent denizens. Reaching the edge of the screen caused the player to loop around, and this was the first clue that not only was this game different but it would almost be dangerously beyond what we had known from Mario’s previous outing.
The only way forward was through the door where you came face-to-face with your first foes. Attempting to dispatch these enemies in the typical Mario way was impossible, but leaping atop of them allowed you to ride them. This would later provide some joys later on, since another advancement became apparent when one could go across the level in either direction with reckless abandon. There was no longer an invisible wall barring us from retracing our steps. It was as if a whole new world had opened up, doubly so when vertical scrolling allowed us to travel up to to the heavens and down to Hell in different worlds.
One could defeat most of the enemies in the game by hefting them into the air and tossing them at other enemies or off cliffs. If done properly, they would criss-cross some screens. Other enemies could only be defeated by turning their own attacks back upon them or utilizing parts of the environment. All enemies could be ridden, save for the bosses, allowing players a brief respite from the battle should they need it. It gave everything a suitably dream-like atmosphere, but like most dreams, it could turn to a nightmare in the blink of an eye. One example is level 4-2, in which the somewhat lax nature of the other levels gave way to a barrage of spear-wielding Beezos, flying Shy Guys who moved so fast that a player would be thrown from their backs in an instant due to their momentum. Yet this is not the first taste of terror in this game. No, that comes when you enter a simple room with a key and three masks.
There’s no enemies here, you think. Only a key. So you grab the key.
Easily done. Except then one of the masks begins to move.
Not only does it move, but it starts to come after YOU.
You might get hit, you might even be killed, but video game logic dictates that leaving the room will be your salvation. So you do.
You think you’re safe. Then HE appears, breaking the rules in his efforts to come after you. You toss the key away, hoping it will placate your pursuer. Except you need that key to progress and you know your only option is to use that key.
Using the key ends this curse, and you continue onward, knowing that this creature may show up again, and he does, and the pursuit just gets more difficult.
There’s almost nothing in this game that carries the terror of Phanto, and only one creature comes close: the Hawkmouth.
Even this pales in comparison to Phanto. The Hawkmouth can be defeated. Phanto is implacable, invincible, and will pursue you to the ends of Subcon should you wrong him. He is the truest monster the Mario series has ever seen, and we can be thankful he has not resurfaced since his debut.