Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Welcome to New Super Mario Bros. 2!  The game where everything is recycled and the coins don't matter!

New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the 3DS marks the third release for the "New" series of Mario titles.  First, we had New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, a very fun if not overly simplified revival of classic Mario sidescrolling gameplay.  Then came New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which did little to change the formula but did increase the scope of the game dramatically and added the hilariously chaotic 4-person multiplayer mode.  It felt a little stale if you had already played the DS original since it reused the same level themes and most of the same gimmicks, but it felt like a more full-featured fleshed out version of the concept.

New Super Mario Bros. 2, so named because evidently the Wii game doesn't count, continues to do very little to update the formula from the previous two games, but with a new gimmick thrown in here and there.  The primary new gimmick this time?  COINS!  COINS EVERYWHERE!  This game throws more coins at you than you know what to do with.  They spew out of pipes.  They drift around on parachutes.  They trail behind enemies.  Sometimes they just rain from the sky!  The goal is to grab as much money as possible to eventually reach the game's overarching goal:  collecting 1,000,000 coins.  The game keeps a running total of all the coins you've ever earned in the game so you can track your progress.

The result of this coin-grabbin' gimmick is pretty simple:  coins and lives are worthless now.  The game throws them at you so fast and furiously that you'll rack up hundreds of lives without even trying.  Plus, the game really doesn't reward you in any way for going out of your way to collect coins other than occasionally popping up a message to let you know that you've collected lots of coins.  The coins don't even unlock secret levels or anything, since series staple Star Coins remain hidden about the levels and are still used as the currency for unlocking secrets, like always.  The only goal to strive for is that 1,000,000 coin mark.  After playing through the main story and a few of the secret levels, I observed that I was at about 15,000 coins.

Only 985,000 to go...

So yeah, the coin grabbing mechanic is ultimately shallow and pointless.  But what about the rest of the game?  Underneath the gold-tinted facade is still a game of classic Mario platforming, correct?  And that is true.  But the result is sort of a mixed bag.  On one hand, I would be willing to say that NSMB2 probably has the best levels in the "New" series thus far.  While previous games in the series mostly presented Super Mario Bros. 3 inspired levels that provided short sprints to the flagpole, the levels in NSMB2 are much larger and open.  There are lots of secret little nooks and crannies to stumble upon in the levels, and while many of these do simply hold more useless coins, some contain the ever elusive Star Coins and some also house secret exits that lead to alternate paths.

The Raccoon Tail from Mario 3 makes it's return here.  But while the Tanooki suit in Super Mario 3D Land mostly felt like Nintendo forcing some heavy handed nostalgia into the game by sticking tails everywhere,  New Super Mario Bros. 2 is much more subtle.  Grabbing a tail simply serves to better allow Mario to explore the levels, as there are often hidden areas way up high.  Beyond the use of the tail, it definitely feels like the development team was actually looking at Super Mario World for most of their inspiration this time around.  Some levels even feature World's trademark slanted geometric hills in the background, and long-missing mid-boss character Reznor makes his triumphant return here.  That the game does not lean too heavily on Mario 3 for inspiration is quite refreshing!  It's nice to see that Nintendo remembered that there are other good games in the Mario series to draw influence from.

On the other hand...

As much as I enjoy the Super Mario World influences, that's part of the problem with New Super Mario Bros. 2.  Everything about it is pulled from previous Mario games.  Most notably, almost everything about this game's presentation is pulled directly from New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  The graphics, the voice clips, the level gimmicks, the enemies, and most notably, the music.  There's barely a new composition to be heard this time around.  Which is not to say that the soundtrack is poor.  It's quite good.  And I don't have a problem with reusing a few specific tracks in situations where it makes sense for old themes to return.  But lifting the entire soundtrack from a previous game and using it again with only a tiny number of new compositions and alterations comes across as extraordinarily cheap, even if the songs themselves are still decent.

Likewise, it's hard to appreciate the handful of new elements NSMB2 does bring to the table when visually it looks exactly like the previous two games in the series.  We've seen this exact same set of grassland, desert, beach, forest, volcano and other worlds in two games already, plus the fact that Nintendo seems to insist on using these same themes in all other Mario games now too, such as Mario Party 9.  The result is that this game looks tired and stale.  You've seen everything in this game already, so even when it does try to do something legitimately different, it's still impossible the shake the feeling that you've played this game before.  At least twice.  The only slightly clever thing I observed was combining the beach and forest themes into one world this time.  But that mostly just seems to be because there are fewer normal worlds in NSMB2.  (Six instead of the standard eight, though there are several secret worlds to make up for it.)

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is not completely devoid of new ideas.  The problem is that most of them are simply slight extensions or variations of what previous Mario games have done repeatedly.  So even when playing a level with a "new" feature it still feels incredibly familiar because you've probably seen something like it in a previous game before.  The result is a Mario game that is definitely fun to play, has everything that makes Mario games fun, but ultimately feels shallow and redundant.  In a series known for reinventing itself with each sequel, NSMB2 feels uncharacteristically safe.  Never before has a game with the word "New" in the title felt so stale.

I'm almost willing to give Nintendo a free pass here, because they have gone on record to say that they plan to make only one Mario sidescroller per console.  So once the equally stale looking New Super Mario Bros. U comes out later this year, it could be at least five or six years until we see another sequel in the series.  Hopefully that will provide Nintendo enough time to come up with some legitimately fresh new ideas for the series because as it stands, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is an overly-cautious retread on what has already been done repeatedly in its two predecessors.  It's still fun, but there's nothing really "new" about it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

My thoughts on "Dragons: Riders of Berk"

How to Train Your Dragon is one of my all time favorite films.  And it's no secret that it is one of my favorites for two primary reasons.  First:  Toothless is awesome.  If you put Toothless on the screen it will make anything cooler.  At least 20% cooler.  Second:  the movie had exceptionally good music, courtesy of John Powell.

And, it would seem, that I'm not the only one who enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon, as it's getting the full franchise treatment that Dreamworks has thrust upon all of their hits in recent years.  Short films, sequels, online games, vaguely Christmas-themed half hour specials, live arena spectaculars, and the obligatory television series.  Normally I'm skeptical about milking a franchise for all it's worth.  That could probably be a subject for a whole article in and of itself.  But How to Train Your Dragon created a world rich with potential for expansion.  So when Dreamworks announced its plans to throw the Dragons franchise into the milking machine, I was actually pretty excited.  The fact that Gift of the Night Fury managed to be a legitimately well made follow-up to the film instead of just a cheap cash-in holiday special made the future seem even brighter for the franchise.

And now we have Cartoon Network's new series called Dragons: Riders of Berk.  Recently the network aired two preview episodes of the new show set to premier this fall.   In the first episode, How to Start a Dragon Academy, Hiccup and co are faced with the task of figuring out how dragons and vikings can coexist before the curmudgeonly viking Mildew convinces Hiccup's father to cage the dragons and send them away.  The second episode, Viking for Hire, shows the struggles of Gobber, who is suddenly faced with a bit of an identity crisis now that his career as a dragon slayer and weapons blacksmith is over.

By and large, I was quite impressed by both episodes.  Both episodes dealt with an issue that the end of the film and Gift of the Night Fury both sort of glossed over:  the challenge of having a clan of vikings and a clan of dragons coexisting peacefully on a tiny little island.  It's a subject rich with potential for future stories so I'm glad to see the series exploring that direction instead of just having the dragons and the vikings being all best-buddies now right away.  Though it does kind of make one wonder why they didn't call the series How to Train Your Dragon: The Series or something similar because it looks like it is, in fact, going to deal with training dragons.  Oh well.

Either way, the first two episodes demonstrate that the creators of the show have some solid ideas for where to go with the series from here.  The writing, tone, and humor are all very much in line with the film.  Gobber seems a little dumber than he was in the movie and Stoic seems to be a bit more stoic than usual, but for the most part everyone is in character.  The cast is a fairly even mix between original cast members and sound alikes, but everybody sounds pretty good overall, even though most of the Scottish accents sound pretty fake.  The handful of new characters all fit right in with the established ones.  Mildew, the antagonistic curmudgeon of the island, is particularly enjoyable to watch.

Visually, the show looks quite good.  Being on a TV budget, there was no way it would look as good as the film, but it comes about as close as I think one could reasonably expect.  The visual detail has all been toned down a bit.  Hiccup's furry vest has been changed to look to be made out of leather now, for example.  And Stoic's beard took a pretty big hit, which is unfortunate.  But the overall look of the show is still surprisingly rich and very close to the level of detail seen in the film, which is quite impressive for television animation.  The animation is fairly decent, too.  The dragons' movement does tend to look a little robotic at times but it's clear that a lot of effort was put into making the dragons look good, especially Toothless.  Everyone's favorite Night Fury isn't on screen too much in the two episodes shown, but he's just as lovable as he was in the film when he does appear.

One last detail I was very pleased to see, or hear rather, is that the series utilizes the same character themes and musical motifs as the original film score.  A bit of research reveals that the show's music is being handled by composer John Paesano.  Paesano seems to have a solid grasp on the style of music that John Powell first established.  He weaves familiar themes in and out of the score without just copying the original source material.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled that the television series will have music that lives up to the great score crafted for the movie.

Based on the two episodes shown, it looks like Dragons: Riders of Berk is off to a great start.  Both episodes consisted of good Saturday morning cartoon fun, even if they were a bit on the predicable side.  The world of Dragons lends itself well to this sort of format, so I'm glad the potential is not being wasted!  Everything I enjoyed about the original film is present and accounted for and the new ideas and characters work very well with the established world.  I look forward to seeing future episodes when the season begins later this year!