Developer: EAD Tokyo
We still don't know why New Super Mario Bros. 2 isn't a Wario game.
The hygienically challenged antihero is driven by the greedy acquisition of treasure, which is the only particularly 'new' thing that Mario's latest handheld outing brings to the table. As well as giving everyone's favourite scumbag a well-deserved day in the sun and allowing Nintendo to experiment with some new ideas, repurposing the project under a different name would have also helped to rid us of that irony-infused title. It's technically correct since New Super Mario Bros. 2 serves as a sequel to the old New Super Mario Bros. (give me strength...) that released on the DS six years ago, but it's otherwise hilariously disingenuous. This new title retreads old ground with almost every step, providing a shinier take on the same levels and challenges of the 2006 original with a few other cues taken directly from Super Mario Bros. 3.
Except, this time, there's gold. GOOOOOOOOLD! Enough dosh to choke a whale, enough cash to solve third world debt with change left over, enough to make you believe in your soul; a copious, staggering, obscene amount of wonga spilled by every enemy, block and powerup.
And nothing to spend it on.
The intro picks up where New Super Mario Bros. left off, seeing Mario and Luigi bid farewell to the princess mere seconds before she's abducted by Bowser's biologically-improbable children. What follows is another 12-15 hour serving of classic two-dimensional platforming action through a selection of eighty familiar levels, some precision jumping, Goombas to stomp, Koopas to de-shell, subterranean pipework to explore and the occasional swim. All of the familiar staples are present and correct, from the mushrooms to fire flowers, gliding Raccoon Suit and the cathartic Mega Mushroom. Nintendo has obviously looked to Super Mario Bros. 3 for inspiration this time around, bringing back Music Blocks and an referential overworld map. It's 2D Mario. Again. In 3D. Sort of.
Which means, of course, that it's brilliant. Nintendo has lavished an enormous amount of attention ensuring that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a polished to a mirror shine. Everything feels right, including jump height and handling, while the experience absolutely shines thanks to a crisp and colourful eye for detail (the fact that Koopas dance and clap in rhythm to the music is a lovely touch). The 3D effect makes the personality-laden sprites quite literally pop out into the foreground, emphasising just how pretty Mario can be on a good day. I frequently state that I'll never get bored of classic Mario gameplay, and I'm delighted to report that I'm still set in that opinion. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a blast whether played alone or via local co-op.
Yet there's no denying that what felt fresh and vital back in 2006 has definitely lost its edge. Since then, we've experienced the likes of Rayman Origins, Fez, Dustforce and Super Meat Boy, not to mention the forward-thinking Super Mario Galaxy that released a year later, making the experience feel staid and conservative even in comparison with other Mario games. The novelty of getting reacquainted with the 2D mechanics has well and truly worn off, while the lack of imaginative new environments or hazards beyond a couple of sorely under-used features (coming up later) is asking for trouble. New Super Mario Bros. 2 therefore desperately needed a hook, a spark of uniqueness, something to stop the familiar levels becoming over-familiar and apathy from seeping into the cracks.
Gold wants to be that hook.
Most Mario games have featured coins to collect, but here, acquiring them in vast numbers is the main focus of the game. POW blocks transform entire platforms into coins. Gold flowers allow you to turn enemies into dosh. Roulette blocks offer vast riches, a gold block hat sprinkles money at regular intervals and most downed foes will pay you for your trouble. Your cumulative coin tally is displayed in an ever-increasing counter after each level, and there's even an optional Coin Rush mode that essentially invites you to race though the levels as fast as possible while stuffing your pockets with as much gold as you can carry.
Interestingly, this new greedy angle doesn't change the core gameplay so much as it alters the way you'll engage with the levels. Your goal is still to reach the end of each level without dying, but you've now got the option to attempt some tougher challenges in order to increase your bank balance. Some coins trigger a timer, for example, or require you to risk life and limb instead of speedrunning straight past. In many ways this allows you to set your own difficulty level on the fly, without particularly affecting the ancient formula whatsoever.
So to make this optional gimmick work, to give it legs and justify its inclusion as a core gameplay conceit, Nintendo needed to ensure that players are always motivated - that we're given a genuine reason to care about our coin total and make us go out of our way to collect every single one. No such luck, because this is where New Super Mario Bros. 2 falls flat. Nintendo has made no effort to incorporate the acquisition of loot into the game proper, save as a depressingly vague mission to cumulatively 'collect a million' over the course of countless hours. For reasons beyond my mortal comprehension, there are no online leaderboards (neither friends nor global), removing the simple satisfaction of collecting more gold than a mate or rising through the ranks. It hasn't been incorporated into the story in any meaningful way, making our motives inscrutable. We never get to see our riches visually represented in a money vault or in an enormous pile, instead distilling our riches down to a number and stopping us from really ever taking pride in our accomplishment.
Worst of all, even though you're constantly hoarding enough gold to make Rockefeller blush, there's nothing to spend it on. We rather assumed that New Super Mario Bros. 2 would feature numerous unlocks to enjoy, or a marketplace in which to buy new character skins, levels, modifiers and concept art, but there's nothing of the sort - completely declawing the entire point of the game.
Your excitement at collecting money soon withers and dies with the realisation that gold is just an arbitrary, even lazy, way of shoehorning in replay value; replaced by an overpowering feeling of malaise. The counter stops being a joy to watch, becoming a constant reminder that your vast coffers are entirely useless... and reaching a million will take you so very long to accomplish. Though completionists will still likely become willing slaves to compulsion, most players will simply stop going out of their way to collect the more dangerous coins after the first handful of levels, safe in the knowledge that there's little reason to do so.
In fact, one could argue that Nintendo shipped a game with a pervasive, omnipresent mechanic that literally does nothing; that has no purpose beyond simply existing. So I will. That's what they did. At least we'd at least have some context if this had been a Wario game.
Sadly, this shallow shiny diversion serves to overshadow a couple of glimmers of real innovation, such as a wonderfully nuanced haunted house level and a depressingly small clutch of cannon stages that see Mario shot out of a massive gun, flying across the level and playing out much like a psychadelic take on Canabalt. There are glimpses and snatches of the inventiveness we love from the franchise, but it's nowhere near enough to satisfy and barely enough to really justify this full-price release.
I'm not convinced that Nintendo are milking the brand anywhere near as badly as several alarmist pundits seem to think (they only issue one nostalgic 2D Mario title per console, apparently), but I will say this: while most Mario games act as a reason to buy a Nintendo console, New Super Mario Bros. 2 feels like a game released for necessity's sake; designed for the sole purpose of giving 3DS owners something to play and doing the bare minimum to justify its existence. For many, that will be enough, but it's clear that Nintendo needs to go big or go home when it comes to launching Mario's next true flagship title.
- Classic, polished and fun Mario gameplay
- Impressive visuals
- Great value, plenty of content
- The much-vaunted Gold focus is a lazy, pointless gimmick that hasn't been properly integrated into gameplay or narrative
- Why can't we spend all this money, exactly? Why is it even here?
- Bewildering lack of online leaderboards
- Dearth of innovation makes the experience feel slightly backward and overly similar to its six year old predecessor
The Short Version: New Super Mario Bros. 2 wants money for old rope. But here's the problem: the rope is so shiny, so polished, so comfortingly familiar and so much fun that it's sometimes difficult to care.
3DS owners who want more Mario platforming will be in seventh heaven, but sadly we can't ignore the lack of new ideas and how poorly the obtrusive gold collection metagame has been integrated into the experience. This unambitious outing gets a recommendation, but not the childlike excitement that often accompanies a Mario release.