Add to them the end-of-the-stage hawk’s mouth you have to jump through to proceed to the next stage. It looks enough like a mask as it is, but in the original Japanese version of the game, Doki Doki Panic, exiting a stage involved stepping through a more humanoid mask:
And the blocks that are shaped like mushrooms in Mario 2 are also cosmetic changes. They replaced yet more masks.
Mask-tastic — appropriately so in that Doki Doki Panic itself was given a figurative mask in the form of a graphical makeover to dress it up like a Mario game. But I never saw how the masks connected with Doki Doki Panic’s Arabian-themed setting. The original game starred a happy little Arabian family that was replaced my Mario and company when the game was translated for American audiences, yet elements of the original theme remain. The American incarnation still features magic carpets and snakes hiding in vases and distinctively Middle Eastern-sounding music in the underground scenes.
But I recently found a video that might explain the masks. Doki Doki Panic — full title: Yume Kōjō: Doki Doki Panic, “Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic” — was designed by Nintendo to promote Fuji Television’s 1987 “Dream Factory” showcase, with the cartoon Arabian family being both the stars of the game and the mascots for the event. They show up in the video below — which is advertising the convention, not the game — but so do a whole lot of freaky masks.
I can only guess that the masks were also part of the convention’s overall motif. And since the game was developed specifically for the convention, those design elements were incorporated. And it also makes sense that the setting of Mario 2 and Doki Doki Panic is some kind of dream world, given that the name of the convention was Dream Factory. (Weirdly, only Mario 2 has the main character waking up at the end and realizing that the game’s events were just a dream and didn’t really happen.) But it seems like a weird aesthetic combo for a technology convention — Arabian stuff, masks and dreams — and I wonder if it refers to a specific story or other cultural element that I just don’t know about.
And even an explanation for that wouldn’t fully account for one of the strangest bits: The turtle shells you can throw at enemies in Mario 2 were bizarre blackface heads in Doki Doki Panic. I know Japanese culture doesn’t approach issues of race the way we do in the U.S., but, as this gamer-artist points out, what you see below looks a lot like either a depiction of blackface or the head of a pickaninny
It’s all very strange, but that’s why I like it — and continue to think about these things years after I stopped playing this game.
Super Mario Bros. 2, previously: