Boss Fight Books: Super Mario Bros. 2 (#6) – Jon Irwin

4 out of 5

In the easy-internet-access-with-cheap-streaming-media era, the availability of information and entertainment and the options by which to consume those things are… many. What once might’ve been a difficult factoid or flick to come by and now generally be looked up and / or accessed within seconds or minutes. Is it a good thing? For sure. It has its pluses and minuses, of course, but I love being able to consume all of this stuff, and finding answers to questions or curiosities on a whim. And a topic that I once might’ve only read about casually – video game history – I now have much more familiarity with via plenty of youtube channels, and TV series, and even occasional books, several of which have been crowdfunded to completion – another positive result of online culture.

One of the more interesting pluses of this, to me, is that it has allowed me to figure out what kind of presentation methods or narrative styles I prefer, and which – in some cases – I might objectively consider “better” than others as, indubitably, I’ll be hearing / seeing / reading similar tidbits or concepts repeated in varying ways, and when one of those similar tidbits sticks in memory for longer, or grabs my attention more dutifully… well, that’s a good sign, innit? I “subscribe,” or I take note of another writer or whatnot to follow.

So: Super Mario Bros. 2, the vegetable-pullin’ version we got in the US: I loved the game whenever I had opportunity to play it as a kid; played it more when I was an adult and could finally own it via remakes; and I’ve been able to catch up on its history thanks to wikipedia and youtube and other casually digested data along the way. And yet, Jon Irwin’s book on the game, for Boss Fight Books – its longest entry in the series to this point – wholly maintained my interest, and made my feel like I was experiencing the game, and learning its history, all over again. Yes: that’s a good sign.

The BFB series has, thus far, been an up and down ride of various voices trying to explain passions for particular games, and hopefully translate that passion to the reader. Some entries have had the challenge of doing that for very un-gamey games; some have erred toward humor; some use unique structures. They’ve been good; a couple great. I kind of had low expectations for SMB 2, as I figured I would really know this stuff already, and so I prepared for a moderately wanky tone that would try to pepper familiarity with, I dunno, self-effacing humor and weak metaphors that relate Mario to life, the universe, and everything. Instead, Irwin delivers a very well researched timeline that tracks through not only the game’s history, but also the whole Nintendo mentality that could’ve produced what was / is an oddball in the franchise; it’s a fact-based book that also communicates the excitement of someone playing (and enjoying) the game, and feels backed up by groundwork that, frankly, goes above and beyond.

Which isn’t to discredit previous Boss Fight entries, which also have numerous cited sources and interviews; rather, Irwin justifiably fills up his 150+ pages with things that extend past the framework of “tell me about Super Mario 2,” but in a way that ties back in to proving why the thing is a worthwhile focus for a book in the first place. The tone is also a good balance of personality and facts: Irwin is a teacher, and you can feel the measured presentation style of someone good at that trade in the way things are doled out colorfully, and that may seem out of left field, but then are brought home with a sudden thesis statement and the proof to make it sound. This is true even up through the very last chapters, when a sudden inclusion of speed running – a very modern concept – makes the whole history of Mario 2 feel epic, and special. I was also very pleased with how Irwin made the read accessible to those who maybe can’t conjure up images of SMB while reading; I never felt bored as a gamer, and equally felt I could hand this book to a non-gamer and they’d appreciate the concepts.

Two minor quibbles kept it from blasting all of my socks off, though, and they were, collectively, enough to knock the rating down a notch. Firstly: there are two Super Mario Bros. 2s – the US and Japanese versions. Jon covers this, extensively, but by not establishing a set naming convention to differentiate the two, it’s sometimes confusing which one he’s talking about, and that is important in some sections. Secondly: I… have no idea what the chapter separations were about, except to break up the book. This sort of conflicts with my praising Jon’s teacherly presentation, but I didn’t have any issues following any particular thought or thread… it’s more that I just felt like the four sections of the book and its subchapters felt a little random in designation. I prefer chapters over one whole chunk of text, for sure, but maybe giving clearer chapter headers would’ve given me some faux sense of structure.

Boss Fight Books sixth entry focuses on a game that shouldn’t still be interesting to read about, this many years on. It’s down to a talented writer to make it very interesting indeed, and to a great teacher to make me feel like I’ve learned something new, even if I thought I knew it before.