Make no mistake about it: New Super Mario Bros. 2 is Mario for the obsessive-compulsive set. I say this with the greatest respect and admiration that Nintendo could somehow, yet again, find a way to bridge the near-impossible chasm between the ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ set, resulting in yet another traditional Super Mario platformer that hits (most) of the right notes. Yes, it’s more than a little familiar, and while publishers like Activision and EA get (rightfully) scorned for pushing endless iterations of essentially the same game year after year, Nintendo comes off relatively unscathed for releasing what have been minutely tuned versions of the same ‘new’ roster of 2D Mario platformers. With the exception of new levels, power-ups, costumes, and in the case of the Wii edition, multiplayer, they’re essentially the same game.
But then again, it’s been a remarkable six years (2006) since the first New Super Mario Bros appeared on the original DS, and three years (2009) since New Super Mario Bros. Wii brought multiplayer Mario to the masses. So, in all fairness, it’s not like Nintendo keeps pumping carbon copies out year after year, as they seem to have found the ‘sweet spot’ between innovation and crass consumption. It’s a fairly ingenious scheme, leaving their most experimental efforts to the non-2D Mario games like Mario Galaxy and last year’s Super Mario 3D Land, leaving the traditional Mario platforming – one of gaming’s most cherished experiences – to those seeking more familiar and immediate pleasures.
Smart, Nintendo. Very smart.
If you’ve played any of the plumber’s previous ‘New’ games then you know what to expect here: pure 2D platforming that’s immediately familiar for all, simple enough for newcomers, yet sadistically rewarding for the hardcore fan dedicated enough to keep playing well past the ‘final’ Bowser battle. The same overworld structure remains in place (with World 6 taking over for the usual World 8 final set of levels), with two hidden worlds to unlock and explore. Three giant gold coins are cleverly scattered throughout each level and you’ll need to collect as many as you can if you ever want to face giant Bowser and save Princess Peach.
In a way the game is far closer to the first ‘real’ Mario sequel, the original Super Mario Bros. 2 (relabeled The Lost Levels outside of Japan) in that what the game lacks in sheer innovation is made up for in workmanlike gameplay with familiar themes, characters, and a dash of bippity, boppity, boo when it’s needed. But it’s the coins themselves that play the starring role this time around, leading to NSMB2’s biggest collect-o-thon thrills as you’ll snatch, grab, bump, bounce, and even create as many golden coins as possible en route to collecting a cool one million of things. They’re everything this time around, often leading to strange new paths, to chasms brimming with shimmering gold, and often just raining down like manna from heaven, triggering spasms of guilt when you realize that’s it’s impossible to snatch up every single one. The constant meter that tallies your overall total haul is a constant reminder of just how close – or how far – you are from the million coin mark, though it does occasionally splash your recent achievement in boxy letters for some light encouragement “You’ve Collected 50,000 Coins!”
Apart from the usual cadre of fire flowers, giant and mini mushrooms, and invincibility stars, there’s a smattering of ‘new’ power-ups and costumes here to help give Mario and Luigi all the help they can get. Keeping with the game’s “golden” motif is the Coin Block Head, a literal coin block head that temporarily spits out strings of coins the faster you go, while the new Golden Fire Flower not only suits the plumber brothers with a golden suit but supercharges fireballs so they turn regular blocks into shimmering scores of golden goodness. Most exciting – and fresh from Super Mario Land 3D – is the beloved Tanooki Suit, which instead of just slowing your descent has been fully restored to its Super Mario 3 glory – build up speed and you’ll take to the skies in short bursts of tanooki tail-powered flight.
Fail multiple times on the same level and the Invincibility Leaf also returns, continuing Nintendo’s trend of offering in-game help for those whom a little boost could mean all the difference between completing a game or shutting it off in frustration. This feature remains one of the series’ biggest accomplishments and I’m puzzled why more games don’t include it – Nintendo ones or otherwise.
Completing the first level opens up the Coin Rush Mode, which has clearly been designed for the most obsessive and hardcore fans by marrying the sheer thrill of competitive speedruns with the game’s overarching collect-o-thon mission. Here you’ll zip through three random levels from the single-player game as fast as you can, collecting as many coins as precious seconds tick away. A big gripe about this mode is how it’s limited to local StreetPass playing – there’s no WiFi option for Nintendo Network trading, online leaderboards, or anything like it. StreetPass, which is a great tool for those living in towns and cities populated with neighboring 3DS denizens, isn’t all that useful for the rest of us confined to less-connected places. The same frustration applies to the new multiplayer mode, which grafts elements from the Wii version onto the main campaign as both Mario and Luigi take on every level of the game together. This would have been better if the adventure wasn’t limited to local wireless play (or, given that, two copies of the game were required).
Visually, the game is a big step-up from the first NSMB, with more detailed polygonal plumbers and various Mushroom Kingdom denizens putting the sequel on par with the Wii’s brighter and more colorful aesthetic thanks to the 3DS’ added horsepower. The framerate is buttery-smooth, the animations silky, and every level is dripping in bright and happy colors – especially gold.
Still, its not hard to be somewhat disappointed that Nintendo’s wizards didn’t put more effort into making each of these New Super Mario Bros games – this one included – its own visual beast. It’s remarkable that until the ‘New’ series of games, every previous Mario game had its own distinct and recognizable style that set it apart from every other game (remember the crayon sprawls from Yoshi’s Island?). The graphics here are excellent and get the job done, but we’ve seen them all before, just as we’ve heard the same bouncy music and nostalgia-stewing effects again and again.
Sadly, the 3D effects in NSMB2 come with a slight cost – namely the loss of detail in the game’s bright and cheerful backgrounds as the 3D slider smears them into a gaussian blur of pixels. It’s never distracting and the added sense of depth admittedly looks good, though purists may find themselves alternating between ‘sharp’ and ‘blurry’ to see everything the game has to offer.
So if New Super Mario Bros. 2 offers so little in the way of originality and innovation – especially for a franchise that’s come to define both – why should we even care? Because it’s still a great Mario game, which means the controls are perfect, level design is sublime, and when everything clicks the game becomes impossibly, impressively, and fantastically fun – which is still the primary reason we keep plugging away at these game-things in the first place. Few games are as immediately rewarding for earned accomplishments than a 2D Mario game, where well-timed head bops, slides, and flights of fancy can literally transform a standard level into a world of possibilities. Yes, the whole thing may seem more than a little familiar, but this is a series that embraces the idea and wears it like a big, comfortable tanooki suit; it just feels right.
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