The second game in the series seems to be a large departure at first glance, with major gameplay elements removed or changed. This is because the game is in fact a hack of different game called "Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic." The "true" sequel as released in Japan was judged to be "too difficult" and not innovative enough for an American release. As I remember it this was kind of a big deal back in the day, where some people felt "robbed" when they found out the sequel they just bought wasn't a real Mario game. But for the most part we as kids didn't care. Thus over the years this one has remained an oddity, although characters from this game (mainly Shyguys) have made appearances in subsequent Mario games.
This game is the first in the series to change the sprites of the main characters to resemble more closely the artwork on the manual and box cover, i.e. Mario with a big round nose, round head, etc, the basic design of which nearly all subsequent Mario games would follow. In this game Luigi also gained his "modern" taller and thinner appearance, which is a result of forming his sprite around the differently shaped "Mama" sprite from Doki Doki Panic. This is also the first game where Toad and the Princess are playable characters.
Unlike in other Mario games you get no specific powerups beyond mushrooms, no fire flowers or racoon tails or whatever. You don't jump on things to kill them as well, instead you have the ability to pick up enemy characters or pull up vegetables from the ground and throw them. Coins and mushrooms can only be found in "subspace," which is a dark mirror world that is entered after entering a doorway manifested from a thrown potion. Coins are not collected to 100 to get an extra man but instead gambled in a slot machine minigame after the end of each level. Other Mario conventions such as warp zones, starmen, and turtle shells also have been added to make the game fit in more with the first one.
When the characters "shrink" to their little, non-super versions after being hit, they retain their normal sized heads but with little bodies, like some kind of freakish Super Deformed monstrosity people. I don't know what's up with that. Mushrooms return you to normal size, and additional mushrooms add hits on your life meter.
The game is pretty fun in itself, with large, well animated levels that scroll horizontally and vertically. There are the usual forest, desert, and ice levels that would become platform game cliches in later years, however at the time of this game's release these were still pretty new concepts. Some levels require a bit of thinking outside the box on how to proceed, for instance digging through quicksand or hitching a ride on a Brido egg to get across a chasm. However there isn't much in the way of puzzles, mazes, or backtracking. The levels are of the straightforward, get-through-this-area-without-dying-type.
Where the game excels is in the various types of strange enemies, each one is like a cutesy little puffy stuffed animal thing, yet at the same time they look just slightly bizarre enough that you know they are not friendly. Not evil enough to give you nightmares, but just evil enough that you don't feel bad killing them. They for the most part have set patterns and kill you mostly by walking into you. The boss battles in the game are very well done. Boss battles involve you catching stuff the boss throws and tossing it back. Each boss is large and well animated, and extrudes a bit of personality. The game however is dreadfully easy, you're more likely to die from an occasional misstep into a bottomless pit than anything else.
Long, colorful, well animated levels, surreal enemies and good bosses are enough to keep interest, but on the whole the game gets a bit boring, without enough of the secrets from a usual Mario title. Once the game is completed there really isn't much incentive to play through it again, no hidden stuff to uncover, no bonus levels, etc. Plus the fact that the game has been remade several times keeps this version from being relevant. For fans of the series only.
Graphics: Large characters with lots of animation, good animation in the backgrounds. The levels manage to not come off too cookie cutter.
Sound: Catchy background music instantly bores itself into your brain so you remember it 20 years later. The sound your character makes when picking something up is a unique "Plughagh!" sound that fits fine. There is a wimpy little "squeek!" when you get hit that is out of character, and a strange, strangling chocking sound when a boss is hit. The rest of the sound effects are the usual Mario bings and boings, which are well done throughout.
Gameplay: Vastly different from the other Mario games, so much so that it may turn first timers off (if there are any by this point that is.)
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