In 2006, New Super Mario Bros was quite the novelty. Back then, it had been over a decade since the last 2D Mario game, and it was warmly received on Nintendo DS. Compare that fanfare to today’s gaming landscape, in which New Super Mario Bros is now one of Nintendo’s best-selling franchises. The series is so ubiquitous that a sequel needs to be more than just another retro-flavored platformer to deliver something special. New Super Mario Bros 2 offers up some interesting new techniques -- most of which involve collecting thousands of coins -- but it plays things too safe, and ultimately falls short of its pedigree.
As is the custom, all the trouble starts when Princess Peach is kidnapped by Bowser and his Koopalings, sending Mario and Luigi into action. The gameplay that defined a genre is intact, as are the themed worlds to explore. The Desert, Ice and Lava Worlds are all there, laid out in a similar fashion that all build to a boss fight against a Koopa Kid, and of course, a victory sends you to the next world. The whole package is still entertaining on a primal level, but it’s also becoming very predictable.
NSMB2’s big new addition is a heavy emphasis on collecting coins. Increasing your score to earn bonuses has always been a part of the franchise and the genre in general, but NSMB2 expands on it like never before in Mario history. Coins aren’t merely for gathering 100 to earn an extra life, this one keeps track of every coin you pick up, and the ultimate goal is to reach a million. NSMB2 attempts a philosophical shift in one of the core ideas of Mario and for much of the game it succeeds.
For years, the life counter in Mario games has continued to lose meaning. The early Mario titles made each life count by withholding continues or penalizing your progress in some way, but in contemporary Mario titles, those penalties have been missing. Your collection of lives became essentially meaningless, making coins even more pointless. By increasing the overall importance of coins and making it much more than collecting an extra life, coins can again be used as incentive to challenge the player more in each new stage. Theoretically this makes NSMB2 the toughest Mario in some time, but the challenge is only there if you want it.
NSMB’s coin placement throughout the stages keeps pushing you to try new things, attack enemies you’d otherwise avoid, and search for more secrets. It becomes a tool for the developers to direct casual Mario fans into more high level play, but takes it easier on them by making it mostly optional. Even with this casual inclusion, NSMB2 challenges experienced players in a way the New Super Mario Bros franchise failed to do so far. If you think all of the games in the series are made for Grandma, this sequel will change your mind.
Stages aren’t simply covered in coins either. Coins are hidden in so many places that you’ll be ready to search for secrets in every corner, and in NSMB2 you’ll find them. There’s an abundance of unknown exits, hidden power-ups, and mysterious worlds to unlock. Mario titles always have secrets for the dedicated to find, but NSMB2 brings back that magical feeling of finding a secret that past Mario games had. It inspires a real curiosity, the kind we haven’t felt in a Mario game since childhood.
That sense of discovery is one of the less obvious ways NSMB2 recalls classic titles, but its other past influence are much easier to see. Similar to recent Mario titles reaching back into franchise history, NSMB2 is swimming in nostalgic throwbacks. Raccoon Mario is back from Super Mario Bros 3, as are many of the enemies from SMB3 and Super Mario World. Gameplay additions that were revolutionary in those classic games are back too, and it makes the stages in NSMB2 more interesting for having them.
Thanks to Raccoon Mario’s seemingly illogical ability to fly, many levels offer a refreshing verticality that was sorely lacking in previous NSMB entries. The deeper collection of enemies and gameplay options makes this a much richer experience than previous NSMB entries, creating a level variety that the franchise was missing. Unfortunately, contemporary Mario games have been so referential lately that this continued reminiscence is starting to lose its nostalgic impact for Mario maniacs. It’s great to use the Raccoon’s flight all over again, but it would have been more satisfying to long-time fans if it and other aspects of SMB3 hadn’t just appeared in last year’s Super Mario 3D Land.
In the moments that New Super Mario Bros 2 offers something novel, there’s payoff, even if it doesn’t do enough with them. The entire game can be played with another person via local co-op, and despite some visual restrictions -- framerate drops and the restriction of sharing the same screen, which hinders the degree of exploration that single-player encourages -- for the most part it works. Speaking of the game’s visuals, despite being on a 3D system, all but a couple special stages virtually ignored the feature. NSMB2 is 2D through and through.
Coin Rush mode is the other major addition, one that’s more effective than co-op. Taking three random stages from throughout the game, you’re tasked with running through them and collecting as many coins as you can. You get much less time to explore and you only have one life, so mistakes are fatal. It tests players more than ever with risk/reward gameplay and adds a nice hardcore touch that you’ll need after you’ve done everything in the main game.
Yes, the interesting additions and nostalgic inclusions are mixed with platforming gameplay that’s been perfect for some time, but ultimately NSMB2 feels a lot like the other NSMB games that have been around for the last six years, and that’s to its fault. Despite its great new additions that work well, the bulk of the game feels like one that’s dipped into the nostalgia well one time too many. The game is a good 10 hours of iconic Mario action, but once we’d unlocked every stage and found every hidden level, we were left thinking, “Is that all there is?” Then again, if you’ve missed the last few Mario titles, this familiar package will ultimately be more satisfying.
And upon completion and running NSMB2 through its paces, the same coins that initially engaged us and pushed us to try new things became an albatross. By the end, despite beating every level in the main game -- in some cases a half dozen times -- our coin total tallies around 40,000. That once-inspiring million coin total is so far away that it even though we can still return to Coin Rush mode to give it a shot, it’s no better than the grindfests found in games of other genres. And without spoiling anything, what you get for those million coins isn’t all that great anyway. The motivation to collect coins is so deflated by the end of the game that its greatest strength becomes its biggest weakness.
At this point, it’d be very difficult for Nintendo to get a Mario game horribly wrong. The formula has been so thoroughly refined that there’s never anything particularly disastrous about any given game. It’s easy to argue that with New Super Mario Bros. 2, Nintendo succeeds once again in making a classically great Mario game that more people than die-hard Mario fans can enjoy. Unfortunately, the additions to NSMB2 merely add more spokes to an already heavy wheel, so to speak. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it’s one that steeps itself in nostalgia to mask an experience that falls short of the revival that the New Super Mario franchise really needs these days.