Three games in, the New Super Mario Bros. series is already set in its ways. Every Super Mario Bros. game used to define the rules; now I find the development team at Nintendo merely adhering to them. As a result, this feels less like something truly new and more like a remixed encore presentation of games you've played before. New Super Mario Bros. 2 executes precisely on the formula: Mario runs and jumps through the familiar grass, desert, ice, and other worlds, bouncing on enemies who dance, as always, to the same synth-vocal music. He searches for three Star Coins per level and the hidden exits to open up new paths on the now-familiar map screen. Each world has a tower level with the same boss, and a fortress level with a different boss at the end.
For the most part, the levels are easier than I'm used to – certainly easier than New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The Star Coin locations aren't nearly as diabolical as I'd expect after working through Super Mario 3D Land. There are very few locations that require you to use a Mini or Mega Mushroom, both of which are back for the express purpose of allowing access to those few areas. I had very little trouble making my way through every level NSMB2 had to offer, with the exception of one delightfully tricky ghost house, and picked up the majority of Star Coins on my first playthrough.
The new "cannon" worlds are an exception, both to the overall lack of difficulty and to the game's non-inventive nature, and they're great. In these levels, Mario is shot horizontally from a cannon, and is forced to automatically run through the level, putting you in charge of jumps. Think of it as Canabalt with Mario physics, or a faster Donkey Kong Country mine cart. These levels are thrilling, difficult, and feel like nothing I've ever experienced in a Mario game. Frankly, this should have been the whole game. There aren't nearly enough of these.
The idea of gathering masses of coins, which has been put forth as the marquee feature of the game, is sadly underexplored. When I first heard about the "one million coins" goal and the new focus on gathering hundreds and hundreds of coins in every level, I thought it was a clever subversion of Mario logic, turning an ancillary part of every other Mario game into the point of the game and letting you look at it in a new way.
Well, here's how that recontextualized money collecting changes the game forever: There are some more coins. That's about it. It doesn't even really seem like that many more coins. Occasional gold hoops will turn nearby enemies gold, causing Lakitus to drop coins, Koopa shells to leave trails of coins behind when kicked, and Piranha Plant pipes to turn into fountains of coins. You'll pick up the new gold fire flower that lets you turn almost everything onscreen into coins.
Why are you collecting coins? Because you're supposed to get a million. And why are you getting a million? Because ... the back of the box tells you to. It certainly doesn't come up in the game, and the narrative (the usual Peach rescue scenario) is silent about Mario's sudden and intense greed.
The other elements that are new to the NSMB series with New Super Mario Bros. 2 include a heavy dose of ... stuff cribbed from Super Mario Bros. 3. Everything from the Koopa Kids to those tiny Goombas that latch onto you return, along with the bouncing fireball enemies, the music-note blocks and, of course, the flight-enabling raccoon tail. This is a good thing, because Super Mario Bros. 3 is wonderful. But it's also stuff you've seen before, trotted back out as nostalgia.
That's the problem, overall: there are plenty of things that were great the first time you saw them, and work together to provide a pleasant experience, but there is no element of surprise, no attempt to dazzle you with new elements. Remember the first time you saw World 4 in Super Mario Bros. 3? Remember how weirdly experimental the Star Road levels were in Super Mario World? That's almost entirely gone, replaced with the rote recombination of stock elements. When NSMB2 does show flashes of clever trickery – like a giant Boo that playfully sneaks forward while covering its face – it only serves to remind me how creative these games used to be.
This review is based on the final version of New Super Mario Bros. 2, provided by Nintendo.
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