Aug. 10, 2012 at 1:14 PM ET
We expect different things out of games, depending on the developer and publisher. If "New Super Mario Bros. 2" had come from anyone but Nintendo it would be hailed as a modern masterpiece of platforming; a high water mark of both level design and subtly shifting game play mechanics. Instead, it’s likely be to be greeted with something close to a yawn.
"New Super Mario Bros. 2" fails to offer many new ideas for the series, and in fact recycles many settings and characters from past games. We have arrived at the point of being bored by excellence, because we crave what’s novel. If you want to see what makes the game special, ignore the silly coin-collecting mechanic and focus on the most intriguing aspect of the game: The secrets.
"New Super Mario Bros. 2" is another 2D side-scrolling platformer in the Mario tradition, complete with collecting coins both large and small. You run from left to right to finish each level, and the return of the leaf means you can once again fly using your raccoon tail. No, it doesn’t make much sense, but if you grew up with "Mario Bros. 3" you’ll be in heaven. There is also the addition of a golden flower that allows you to shoot fireballs that turn blocks into coins, and slot machine-like blocks that can drop up to 50 coins at a time. You can also increase the number of coins you collect by jumping through golden hoops that turn enemies into coin dispensers.
Each level is densely packed with micro-challenges, the meta-goal of finding the three larger coins, and hidden paths. My children have fun playing the game in a more straight-forward way; hoarding extra lives and getting to the end of each world. I bump into every wall and trace the nooks and crannies of the levels, as the game offers many rewards for diligent players. This feeling is Nintendo’s secret sauce, the thing that so many others try to emulate; after 20 years of playing Mario games the series still has the power to make me feel like an explorer.
You’ll see levels, paths, and cannons you can’t easily reach while poring over the overworld map, and you’re given precious little instruction on how to get to the hidden worlds. Forgot the goal of collecting one million coins, the joy is in finding each secret path and unlocking more of the game to play outside of the main worlds. The levels are so well designed, and the extra lives given so easily, that playing the same level over and over in order to find all the secrets is a joy. You’ll find a few surprises here and there, witness the flying Koopa ship that can flash-freeze you into stone if you don’t hide behind a wall when it attacks you, but the game is effective due to the level design, not a steady influx of new ideas.
There is a Star World to find, and you can play the game in local co-op where you can work together with Luigi if you want to earn more coins, and a Coin Rush mode where you play through a selection of stages to try to collect the most coins; those runs are then traded with other player using the Street Pass system. I’m not sure how often you’ll bump into other players with the systems in their pocket and Coin Rush attempts loaded and ready to trade, but I’m sure we’ll clean up at PAX.
In many ways it seems like the smallest acceptable amount of new modes and ideas have been put into the game, and Mario fans may at first be disappointed by what seems like a rote entry into the series. On the other hand, I still don’t know what happens when one collects the one million coins, because there are only so many hours in the day and that’s a metric shit-ton of coins.
"New Super Mario Bros. 2" is definitely a safe game, which is a problem that often earns Nintendo the ire of critics. While I wished for a bolder new direction and fresh ideas with these characters, I also found myself playing for hours, enjoying the feel of how Mario moves and how each of his powers work together to allow you to get the most out of each level. These interactions have been polished to a high shine, and you begin to realize just how sloppy and imprecise lesser platformers feel in comparison.
You can argue that this is more expansion pack than sequel, but even then it’s worth the money. I find myself thinking about the game when I’m not playing it, and every night I return to it in order to find every secret, every hidden path, and to make a little more progress towards that million coin mark. This is the work of master designers, even if those master has become complacent when it comes to introducing new ideas, and that’s enough to place it well above most games on the market.
"New Super Mario Bros. 2" is coming to the 3DS on August 19 for $39.99.
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