Welcome back to Warped Pipes, the series where I look into the stories and lore of Mario games in order to create a timeline of events. This time around, we’ll be journeying into the land of dreams in...
Known as Super Mario Bros. USA in Japan, the release of this game ties into the odd case of The Lost Levels, which was intended as the true Super Mario Bros. 2. As I mentioned in a previous article, Nintendo felt that The Lost Levels was too challenging for Western audiences and needed a replacement sequel to release instead. Their solution? Modify a version of the Japanese platforming game Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic that replaces the protagonists with Mario characters.
While this odd origin may lead people to believe that Super Mario Bros. 2 is non-canon, the facts are that many of the enemies and gameplay elements first appearing in this title later appear in other games in the series. While the events of this game maybe weren’t originally intended as canon, Nintendo has clearly rolled them into Mario’s story and they can definitively be considered canon.
I’ll also note that I am considering the original, All-Stars, and Super Mario Advance versions of the game to all be the same entry given their relatively minor differences.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s move on to...
Super Mario Bros. 2 has a much more involved intro than the other games to this point. The manual lays out this strange scenario below:
Interestingly, approximately the same intro is given in the game itself:
Our four heroes must then travel through the land of Subcon to defeat Wart and his gang of monsters known as “the 8 bits” and save the Subconians.
The primary constituency of this gang seems to be different variants of the “shyguy”species, which are small humanoids who exclusively wear colored robes and blank masks. Additionally, our protagonists must deal with the higher ups in this gang, including a three-headed snake named Triclyde, an anthropomorphic mouse aptly named Mouser, and an egg-spitting dinosaur known as Birdo.
Things seem to work a bit different in this dreamscape, however. Simply jumping on these enemies is ineffective and the heroes must instead rely on projectiles. Thankfully, Subcon is rich with vegetables that can be plucked from the ground and used as weapons. Also found occasionally in the ground are potions that, when thrown, create doorways into an even stranger realm known as Subspace. Subspace appears to be mirrored and darkly silhouetted version of Subcon that exists without any other inhabitants. It is only within Subspace that the familiar items of mushrooms and coins can be found.
Further confounding this odd cosmology are the jars that litter Subcon. Although seemingly small, these jars can be entered, revealing entire realms inside. It is unclear if this is due to the characters shrinking or the jars acting as some kind of portal to a pocket dimension.
As our heroes venture through Subcon and defeat Wart’s minions, they obtain crystal balls which open Mask Gates; magical portals shaped like giant hawk heads that provide passage between the “worlds” of Subcon. They must also find keys guarded by “Phantos”; mask-like creatures who relentlessly pursue anyone holding a key.
When at last the protagonists reach Wart in his palace in the sky, they find him guarding the Dream Machine, which the manual tells us he used to create many of the monsters they encountered along the way. Thankfully for them, the machine spits out vegetables which they hurl into Wart’s open mouth to defeat him.
We then see the heroes being honored in celebration by the newly freed fairy-like Subconians while an injured Wart is carried away, seemingly meeting his end at the hands of mob justice.
However, in an Inception-esque twist ending, this scene zooms out and we see that it is occurring in the dream of a sleeping Mario.
Given the game’s ending, one potential interpretation is that the whole ordeal, from the into to the ending, was just Mario’s dream. I both agree with and reject this explanation. Let me explain.
Subcon and its denizens are too fully realized to be “just a dream”. Additional, the other player characters’ experiences and the existence of many foes in this game in later games strongly imply that these events truly did occur.
How do we square this with the ending? The most likely explanation is that, with Subcon being the land of dreams, the entirety of the game does take place while the characters are unconscious. It is likely that the picnic scenario did not truly happen and that finding the portal to Subcon was part of a shared psychic experience by the characters. After being contacted by the Subconians, Mario’s consciousness sought out his companions to join him on this quest. Together they all entered Subcon through a shared dream of a picnic.
We learn quite a bit about the dream land of Subcon in this game. Unlike the Western Europe feel of the Mushroom Kingdom, Subcon has a more mid-eastern aesthetic, with environments and structures reminiscent of the Mediterranean and Egypt.
Subcon seems to be a realm created by the psychic energy of dreamers and the place that consciousness travels to when people sleep, although they are not generally aware of it or able to affect it. This is similar to the Dreamlands concept presented by H.P. Lovecraft in his Dream Cycle stories. (As a side note, if you want to play a great game that explores this concept, you should check out The Dream Machine. I previously got a chance to interview one of its creators.)
The dreamland of Subcon has its own ecosystem, politics, and daily life, although it often functions on strange dream logic rather than the principles that govern physical space.
The existence of Subspace is more mysterious and may represent a different layer of the unconscious/subconscious. Subspace could be a more primordial reflection of the dreaming mind or a representation of dreamless sleep, given its more bare and twilit appearance.
We also learn more about the four main characters here. Princess Peach shows herself to be surprisingly formidable in combat and has the ability to hover through the air. Whether this ability is due to the Princess’s magic prowess or present outside of Subcon/Subspace remains unknown at this time.
Toad appears to be an especially loyal Mushroom Retainer and, although he lacks the verticality of the other characters, he makes up for it with speed and strength.
Once again, Mario and Luigi diverge slightly in their abilities with Luigi jumping higher but lacking Mario’s traction.
Another interesting note is that Birdo is the series’ first, and possibly only, trans character. We learn from the manual that this dinosaur was born male before transitioning and now prefers to go by the name Birdette. Unfortunately, this means that Nintendo (and the rest of us) has been uncomfortably deadnaming the character since her inception. This aspect of the character seems intended as an unusually mean-spirited joke by Nintendo and has clearly not aged well...
Super Mario Bros. 2 clearly takes place after Super Mario Bros. given that Mario and Luigi are already well acquainted with Princess Peach and a Mushroom Retainer by the name of Toad. Since the game takes place outside of our more familiar settings, it’s mostly disconnected from the other games and it makes the most sense to just put it at the end of the prime timeline for now.
Moving things right along, I will next take a look at the final game in the NES Super Mario trilogy: Super Mario Bros. 3.
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