There's something really weird about NES sequels to major Nintendo franchises--a fact that the Wii Virtual Console is helping to highlight again now, many years after the original system's lifespan came to a close. Zelda II is one already-released example of a franchise going in a patently crazy direction, and now there's Super Mario Bros. 2 to gawk at. SMB2 was indeed a departure from what Super Mario Bros. laid out, adding four playable characters, the ability to pick up enemies, a variety of weird power-ups, and a gaggle of enemies and bosses that were most definitely not Bowser and his assorted minions. It was such a kooky game that its follow-up sequel, Super Mario Bros. 3, actually reneged on a lot of this game's ideas and went back to what made the original SMB so much fun. Still, weird as it was, Super Mario Bros. 2 was a fantastic game for its time, and its unique gameplay still holds up as challenging and fun all these years later.
Super Mario Bros. 2 throws Mario, Luigi, Toad, and the Princess into the weird dream world of Subcon, where an evil overlord named Wart has taken over. You get to play all four characters as you hop, jump, and toss your way through the game's various stages. The main gimmick with the different playable characters is that each handles a bit differently. Mario is the most balanced of all characters, handling and jumping normally. Toad is quicker than everyone else, and a bit more powerful, though his jump is weak. Luigi jumps the highest, though he's also very touchy to control and just kind of a pain in the neck to play with. The Princess was arguably the best character in the game, despite her lack of power, as she could hover in the air for a couple of seconds while jumping.
SMB2 also changed up the gameplay of the original Super Mario Bros. drastically. Stomping on enemies no longer killed them. Instead, you could basically just stand on an enemy's head and then pick them up and toss them at other enemies. There were also all sorts of vegetables buried in the ground you could pull out and toss as weapons. You'd also find items like bombs, which could bust through certain types of rock walls, and POW boxes, which would cause an earthquake that would remove any enemies currently on screen.
There's a good reason why SMB2 is so off-kilter compared to the rest of the Mario pantheon--this wasn't originally a Mario game. It started out as Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, a Japan-only release that had zilch to do with the Mario franchise. That is, until someone at Nintendo got it in their head to swap all the main character sprites with the Mario posse, tweak a few other things, and call it a Mario game; hence why you find yourself against enemies like shyguys and Birdo instead of koopas and goombas. If Nintendo was really awesome, it would have released Doki Doki Panic as a Virtual Console release at the same time as SMB2, so people could sit down and pick the two apart. Oh well.
For all its inherent weirdness, SMB2 was, and still is, quite a bit of fun. The level designs are still challenging to navigate, the bosses are still amusing to fight, and the presentation holds up. This is especially true of the music, which is some of the very best of the era. One minute spent in any of the game's subterranean levels is all you need to get that catchy tune stuck in your head for the rest of your natural life. At 500 Wii Points ($5), Super Mario Bros. 2 is a game well worth downloading, both for older audiences who remember playing it back in the day, and younger players interested in a history lesson. Granted, its value is lessened somewhat if you already own the fabulous Super Mario Advance for the GBA, or specifically want to play the Super Mario All-Stars version that came out for the SNES. But, for everyone else, it's a great platformer that shows that veering from the beaten path of a franchise's standard game design isn't always a bad idea.