For the longest time, I’ve championed the opinion that nearly every Mario game—when adherent to the established formula—is, in itself, innovation, thanks primarily to the fact that so many new concepts and clever mechanics are introduced throughout the various levels. The Galaxy series was, of course, the epitome of this phenomenon, featuring some of the most wildly inventive and mind-twisting platforming mechanics ever introduced. When Galaxy 2 hit the shelves, swelling criticism surrounding its recycling of the original’s formula could be heard, but was quickly silenced by the realization that the formula, in itself, was merely a framework for innovation. And—rightfully so—the game went down in history as one of the highest-rated and most creative ever.
But something is amiss with the New Super Mario Bros. series. It isn’t that the level design is lacking or the gameplay is off—because both of those elements are exquisitely-tuned. It isn’t the presentation or the feel. And it isn’t the length, either, as the game features plenty of content, even if it is arguably a little bit shorter than some previous installments. So what is it? And does this subtle misalignment with the rest of the series’ design history ruin its appeal?
You like gold coins? We got gold coins!
Super Mario Bros: Bling Edition
The gimmick behind New Super Mario Bros. 2 is an unending abundance of coins. There are coins everywhere, and practically everything you do produces even more of them: walking through specific spots in the environment, shooting fireballs into pipes, leaping through golden hoops, jumping on POW blocks. There’s even two new power-ups dedicated to producing coins: a coin block which Mario wears on his head, and a golden Fire Flower which produces fireballs that explode everything within a certain radius into coins. It’s not unreasonable to expect a coin total nearing 30,000 before you reach the final boss. Nintendo shamelessly flaunts this aspect of the game as though we all have this insatiable desire for coin collection, and to some extent, that’s an accurate conclusion.
But fun as it may be, the problem is that eventually the quest for coins loses some of its luster. Part of this is certainly due to desensitization, but the main reason is that there just isn’t anything to do with all those coins. Sure, you get a fancy grand total counter staring at you from the bottom-right corner of the screen, but ultimately, the number is meaningless sans a few congratulatory messages and a completely disappointing 1million coin reward.
Progression through the game’s worlds and levels is still governed by the same familiar (albeit solid) principles as before, with the basic feat of completing each level leading into the collection of its three star coins and seeking its (sometimes quite cleverly) hidden exits. The world maps (nine of them, each with between 7 and 11 core levels apiece for a total of 81) feature sprawling hidden paths opened upon discovery of a level’s secret exit. Ghost houses, forts, and castles decorate the worlds, as do mushroom houses and a handful of secret cannon levels.
Scarcity determines value. Seriously.
All of this is lots of fun as always (hunting for the elusive secret exits or the occasionally tricky Star Coin can be addicting), but it provides no functional value of regular old coins, which soon total in the thousands and just plain don’t matter. So before long, the excitement of collecting the ubiquitous gold coins expires, and eventually you’ll find yourself voluntarily skipping them out of sheer unwillingness to devote the requisite time.
Business as usual
Apart from that, the game is business as usual. The organization is a little different: there are six main worlds this time and three hidden worlds, but for the most part, it feels the same as its predecessors. Level design is familiar and of a quality now expected of the franchise. Apart from that, the only notable differences in formula between this and previous NSMB installments is the inclusion of the beloved Raccoon Mario, a change which adds verticality to many of the levels and provides for a bit more scavenger hunting when collecting Star Coins.
Beating the boss at the end of World 6 opens up World Star, whose front gate requires 90 Star Coins to unlock. The other two hidden worlds (clearly marked on the 3DS bottom screen) are, predictably, named World Mushroom and World Fire Flower, and all of them consist of some pretty fun ideas. The challenge is truly never all that great, though, and I whipped through even most World Star levels on first or second try.
It's Mario. Is that enough?
The final addition for hardcore players represents a nod to the speed running community. It’s a special mode where three random levels are selected for a challenge. Your goal is to collect as many coins as possible throughout the triple-level trek and live to tell about it. Time is quite limited, with a starting clock of just 100 (so-called) seconds and only a handful of options throughout the levels to extend that time. Other minor modifications apply to make some elements of the levels more focused on coin collection, but that’s the gist of it. Of course, upon completion, the time remaining is also added to your coin total, further incentivizing quick progress. This mode is fun, but the severe lack of online functionality (leaderboards, replays, etc.) harshly limits its appeal. The same limitations apply to co-op play, which is a great option to have, but which also would be much more appealing if it were possible over the internet.
Mario games are such a staple of gaming that it’s likely a new one could be released almost once per year and still receive plenty of interest from the public, even with very few changes to the formula. But with New Super Mario Bros. 2, the fraying of the seams has finally become difficult to ignore. Much like the issue with Zelda in recent years, the supply is beginning to outstrip demand, and there isn’t enough variation to justify it as a must-have. Why is this precisely?
The game still has some great ideas.
It’s the fact that Nintendo has begun to (unwittingly?) betray the very essence of what makes Mario so great to begin with: its undying quest for surprise and gameplay innovation. You see, we all possess an assumed expectation when we sit down to play a Mario game. We know that, while the basic gameplay remains the same, the game will continually surprise us with new concepts throughout the course of the adventure, thereby keeping the experience fresh and firing off plenty of dopamine within our brains’ reward centers. Put another way: running and jumping and hopping on bad guys can be fun forever as long as the conditions wherein the activity takes place are sufficiently dynamic.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 still partially adheres to this design strategy. No two levels are alike, and new challenges are constantly popping up throughout the levels. There is certainly a lot of variety, too, so it really doesn’t get boring at any point. The problem is that the concepts therein don’t feel different from anything we’ve done in previous Mario games. Moving walls, rotating lifts, familiar bad guys, and even more familiar power-ups. None of this is a bad thing, but there is a need for a certain percentage of new content and perhaps valuable gimmicks that is conspicuously missing from this release. And with the coin collection mechanic revealing its vapidity in such short order, there’s really nothing left to bank on.
Nevertheless, it’s a solid Mario game, even if it isn’t really a different one. Fanatics will find plenty to satisfy them throughout the eight or ten hours required to collect everything, so if you’ve got a hankering for some platforming action, don’t let NSMB2’s shortcomings hold you up. Just don’t expect a truly fresh experience either.