New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a good game. No other title captures the deep, peaty feel of running and jumping through an imaginary world of turtle infested forests and cloud kingdoms like this game. It’s a craftsman’s exploration of momentum, but it isn’t an artist’s. Something essential is lost in New Super Mario Bros. 2, and no amount of raccoon tails or golden coins can replace it.
All the elements are here. Bowser’s ragamuffin kids kidnap Princess “Peach” Toadstool just like in Super Mario Bros. 3 (and New Super Mario Bros. Wii and other games) and it’s up to Mario and Luigi to traipse across 8 worlds to find her. As Mario topples those kids in their castle fortresses, the vanquished kids hand off the princess to the nearest sibling using the same route they always use: Familiar green Mushroom Kingdom hills give way to desert in World 2, beach and forest in World 3, then ice, then sky, then the volcanoes Bowser always goes home to. Why doesn’t Mario just get in his car and drive to the fire world to ask Bowser if he can cut out the middlemen and possibly play a pick up game of tennis?
Templates don’t damn a project. NSMB Wii borrowed the very same structure from New Super Mario Bros. That game’s levels though featured expansive designs built to accommodate up to four players, and as a result felt totally unique. NSMB Wii’s stages were expansive, startling, and challenging in ways that forced you to rethink how Mario moved. New Super Mario Bros. 2 meanwhile only offers variations, not new ideas. Old Mario games have a giant ghost named Big Boo? Well what about an even bigger Boo! That’s the theme of one ghost house level early in the game, and it’s fun, just rote. Warp Zones are the one exception. You can jump forward in the game with canons unlocked by finding secret level exits, but they don’t just fire you into new worlds. Instead, they fire you into shadow levels where you can’t stop running, just timing perfect jumps on enemies over precise traps.
New Super Mario Bros. 2’s raison d’être, at least according to the marketing, is the overflow of golden coins in each level but even this is just a revisiting of an old idea. Coins in the original SMB were a reward earning you extra lives, but their primary purpose was tutorial. They were positioned in ways that showed you how to run and jump through a level properly. By the end, they were arranged in trickier ways to demonstrate expert maneuvers. Stages in NSMB 2 do the same and dole out coins in different ways; blocks with multiple coins can turn into golden helmets spouting coins as Mario moves; hopping into a tiny crevasse between two pipes will cause a row of coins to magically appear above Mario. There’s no tangible reward for collecting coins though. Showing off to friends through Coin Rush, an extra mode with three difficulty levels slowly unlocked as you move through the campaign, is an entertaining diversion but insubstantial. The coins aren’t game changers—There’s just a lot of them around.
Super Mario Bros. was, as a series, synonymous with surprise. One of video games’ greatest pleasures over the past 27 years was firing up the latest Mario adventure and finding out what was going to happen. Prediction was impossible. After Super Mario Bros. had you run from left to right hopping on turtles, Super Mario Bros. 2 had you hitting punk-rocker mice in the face with vegetables. Super Mario Bros. 3 had giants, sprawling maps, and you could fly. Super Mario World had vicious terrapin football players and dead-end forests and dinosaur pals. Yoshi’s Island was a storybook come to life.
That tradition has continued into today. New Super Mario Bros. was a scaled back exploration of the 1985 original’s fundamentals, but it tweaked those fundamentals with wall-jumping and new mushrooms that made you massive or miniscule, forcing you play stages multiple times in different ways. NSMB Wii stretched out levels to accommodate more players, and as a result made a solo Mario that played unlike any previous entries.
There are no surprises in NSMB 2. There are tricks and fun and some solid, laudable work, but no surprises.
There’s a good reason that NSMB 2 just feels like craftsmen’s work. Since the series is Nintendo’s golden goose, it opened “Mario Cram School,” bringing in developers from Nintendo’s internal studios other than the Mario teams to teach them how to make levels in the series and thus crank out new games quicker. First time Mario director Yusuke Amano and his team of rookies learned their lessons well, but you can’t teach inspiration, and even Mario’s weirdest adventures like Super Mario Sunshine are overflowing with that.
The Model T Ford was a good car in much the same way that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a good game. It’s just a game without a soul.
Score: 6.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Nintendo 3DS on a copy provided by Nintendo)