For me, Mario games never get old. I've been playing them since the original Super Mario Bros. hit the NES in 1985--for me, the name "Mario" is synonymous with the very idea of video games. As a whole, gaming wouldn't even be close to where it is today without Nintendo's portly but incredibly agile plumber and the indispensible innovations his games have brought to the medium. I was so excited for New Super Mario Bros. 2 that just last week I even did a Mario-themed Fanart Friday in anticipation!
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a direct sequel to the original 2006 DS title and the 2009 Wii follow-up, and takes from both of them, as well as from some of the best titles in Mario history to provide an overall solid game that sometimes tries a little too hard to be "like the older Mario games you remember," and doesn't always hit the mark.
As expected, the game looks great--the 3DS' higher horsepower gives us bright, lively visuals with great character animation. While you can put the visuals in 3D, it's totally unnecessary--unlike Super Mario 3D Land, the game is 100% side-scrolling 2D action. The gameplay is still familiar, but it's veered off into terrifying OCD territory.
Coins have always been an important part of the series--collect 100 coins and you get an extra life. But New Super Mario Bros. 2 takes this now-standard process to an insane extreme--the game is all about grabbing coins. While there are three save slots on a game card, the game itself keeps a running total of how many coins everybody's picked up, with some special surprise if you hit the one-million mark.
Despite me saying I'm an experienced Super Mario Bros. player, I tend to play the games more like Sonic titles--I dash headlong into levels, grabbing every coin possible and taking blind leaps of faith. Giving Mario a Super Metroid-style wall jump in NSMB only encourages this kind of reckless play, and I find myself missing out on all the nooks and crannies each level has to explore.
Thankfully, Mario controls better in this game than in previous installments. Mario's never been able to stop on a dime, but NSMB2 has tighter, more responsive controls than the last two NSMB titles. Turning from a full-on run into a sudden hop back to catch that last coin, or make a last-second dodge to avoid spikes or a Thwomp is not only doable, it's encouraged--the game puts plenty of bait near traps, like placing coins or power-ups mere pixels away from spikes or lava. Smart players will just treat them as a lost cause and move on--brave players will take the leap.
In addition to the standard Super Mushroom, Fire Flower and Invincibility Star, the White Leaf returns from Super Mario 3D Land, and the Raccoon Leaf from Super Mario Bros. 3 makes a real return. Instead of SM3DL's Tanooki Suit that only slowed your fall, you're now capable of actual flight, opening up new areas full of--you guessed it--more coins. The two newest power-ups bring ludicrous amounts of cash into the game: a gold block that connects itself to Mario's head creates a stream of coins, while the new Gold Fire Flower allows you to turn blocks into coins, and make defeated enemies cough up five coins instead of the standard one.
A few of the game's levels are lethal and inventive--one of my favorites was an early Ghost House where you had to keep moving forward because a giant Boo was behind you. The level would only scroll when you were facing away from the ghost--thus, having him chase you. Unfortunately, these pleasant surprises are few and far between, and many of the levels feel typical and samey. Instead of evoking the feel of the original Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, or Super Mario World, it just felt like I was playing New Super Mario Bros.... again.
Complete the first world, and you'll get access to Coin Rush Mode--the meat of the game for hardcore players. You get one life to collect as many coins as you possibly can in three random stages, and you can record separate times as regular Mario or an invincible "White Raccoon" Mario. Going with the "hardcore players only" feel, you get less time to complete Coin Rush stages than you do in the regular game. In a standard Mario level, you'll get 300-500 ticks on the clock (they're not exactly seconds) to complete a stage--plenty of time. In Coin Rush, you get an average of about 100, but sometimes you'll get as few as 30 or 50--it's a mad dash to snag as much gold as possible and make it to the flagpole at the end. Even for platforming experts and longtime Mario fans, it's a straight-up, no-frills challenge, for which I'm very grateful.
The game's SpotPass functionality lets you compare Coin Rush times and coin counts, which is another nice bonus and a more personal alternative to leaderboards. I don't care what xXkillStealerXx's coin count is, but I do care if I'm beating that dude who passes by my house every day, or my friends who also have 3DSes. Co-op is another fun addition (of course, that depends on your definition of "fun"--NSMB Wii's co-op can be relationship poison) that allows you to play through the whole game, but requires two game cards.
Even with all it does right, my main problem with New Super Mario Bros. 2 is really hard to easily pin down. While the graphics are good, they lack individual style. The music works, but it does nothing to set itself apart from any other Mario games--every Mario game up through to Super Mario Galaxy had defined graphical styles and elements, defined musical styles from the iconic NES and SNES tunes to Galaxy's sweeping, epic orchestral score. NSMB2 just feels kind of plain. It's fun to play (and that's really the important part), but it just feels soulless sometimes.
I'm also disappointed at how criminally easy the game is. Mario has always provided a solid platforming challenge, but the franchise has recently toned itself down. 2D platforming is always less forgiving than 3D platforming (no ledge grabbing!), but while the game doesn't shamelessly hand out 1-ups like Super Mario 3D Land, you'll be collecting so many coins that you won't have any shortage of extra lives. Newer players less skilled at platformers will enjoy the lighter pace, but longtime Mario fans will really only find lasting value and challenge in Coin Rush.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is good, but it looks like the saying is true: you can never go home again. It's a great-looking game with excellent platforming and some really cool new additions. I know I'm gonna keep plugging away at Coin Rush, because I have something of a competition complex, but something still feels off about the game. It's welcoming to newcomers, but hardcore fans should be prepared--things aren't like they used to be, and they probably never will be.
+ Solid graphics that make good use of the 3DS' improved horsepower
+ Tighter controls and a varied moveset give Mario plenty of options for platforming
+ Unexpected and awesome power-ups bring something new for longtime Mario fans
+ Plenty of extra stages and two worlds to unlock, plus Coin Rush Mode for the truly hardcore
+ Coin Rush Mode provides excellent challenge and replay value for hardcore players
- The main game is really, really easy for experienced Mario players
- Nothing to really set it apart from other recent Mario games--while it plays great, it lacks artistry
- Co-op requires two copies of the game, doesn't provide limited play for single-card broadcast