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.

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