Nintendo’s successor to the Game Boy Advance, the DS, proved to be a tremendous hit when it launched in 2004. It revolutionized the medium by introducing touch controls. Nintendo’s effort was not without precedent, but they were arguably the first to implement them competently. By the end of its lifespan, the DS sold more than 150-million units worldwide. Even with Sony, which had dominated the console market after launching their PlayStation product line, Nintendo continued to rule the handheld scene. As the decade came to a close, people began to speculate as to how Nintendo could follow up the DS. The press wouldn’t have to wait long before Nintendo officially announced their newest handheld system: the 3DS. This console would be capable of displaying stereoscopic three-dimensional effects without the need for special glasses or any other accessory.
Naturally, as Nintendo had created some of the longest-running, beloved franchises in the medium’s history, fans eagerly anticipated new entries to debut on the console. The release of Super Mario 64 in 1996 caused a minor divide among fans. While highly regarded, certain fans longed for Nintendo to create another side-scrolling installment. For those who wanted the series to revisit its roots had their wishes granted in the form of New Super Mario Bros., which was released on the DS. Those who hoped for these kinds of games to return to consoles were similarly delighted in 2009 when New Super Mario Bros. Wii was released for the eponymous console.
With the release of the 3DS, both factions were pleased when Shigeru Miyamoto revealed two Mario games in development for the 3DS. One, taking advantage of the new technology, would be in three dimensions while the other was to retain the sidescrolling gameplay of the New Super Mario Bros. subseries. The former saw its release in 2011 – the same year as the 3DS’s launch – under the name Super Mario 3D Land. Shortly thereafter, the president of Nintendo at the time, Satoru Iwata, formally announced this sidescrolling installment’s name: New Super Mario Bros. 2. The game was released worldwide in the summer of 2012 whereupon it became the first retail 3DS title to make itself available as a digital download. The game was fairly well-received, though it didn’t seem to generate as much enthusiasm as its two predecessors. As the third game in the subseries, does New Super Mario Bros. 2 bring anything new to the table?
Analyzing the Experience
It doesn’t take long before a veteran Mario player realizes that the answer to the question I proposed at the end of this review’s introduction is a resounding no. New Super Mario Bros. 2 has the exact same base gameplay as the subseries’ inaugural entry. While I can certainly appreciate a game that is easy enough to pick up and play, New Super Mario Bros. 2 takes this notion a little too far. Anyone even passingly familiar with subseries can predict exactly what to expect before they ever consider pushing the power button.
Because this game is, at its core, identical to the first New Super Mario Bros., it shares a vast majority of its strengths and weaknesses. The ability to hold an item has been reinstated, but once again, deploying it requires players to use the touch screen. Just like before, I can’t think of a reason why the development team didn’t simply take cues from Super Mario World and allow players to deploy items by pushing the “SELECT” button. Instead, “SELECT” pauses the game, which is redundant because “START” does as well. Instead, one has to awkwardly draw the stylus and tap the window, which can cost a life if they need the item for a boss fight.
Then again, any hypothetical player may not actually find themselves in such a situation. The first New Super Mario Bros. was criticized for its lack of difficulty – something Mr. Miyamoto himself regretted about the final product. With its second sequel, the subseries is right back to square one. If anything, it’s probably worse off in that regard because even a novice will find themselves with hundreds of extra lives by the time the credits roll. This is because New Super Mario Bros. 2 places a large emphasis on collecting coins. Not unlike Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, the coins you collect in a stage are added to a reserve. However, you can’t actually use the coins to make any purchases, and its impact on the ending you receive is minimal. Collecting one-million adds a statue to the title screen, though if you’re really persistent you can get as many as 9,999,999.
The problem with this proposition is that, as any longtime fan knows, collecting just one-hundred coins grants the player an extra life. Considering the developers expect completionists to earn one-million, it doesn’t take an observant person to realize that the odds of anyone seeing the “GAME OVER” screen is infinitesimal. While the stages themselves are often filled to the brim with coins, this game introduces a new power-up in the form of Gold Mario. This form is achieved by grabbing a Gold Flower. Conferring onto Mario a rather literal Midas touch, this form allows Mario to shoot fireballs that transform enemies into coins when struck. The power-up itself breaks the game’s difficulty, for even Bowser can be felled by a single golden fireball. It is balanced somewhat because Mario will revert to his Fire Mario form if he completes a stage as Gold Mario. It is rendered a meaningless drawback because you can easily store a Gold Flower in the inventory window, allowing you to use it whenever you want. There are also gold rings in certain stages that turn the enemies golden, causing them to award the player coins upon defeat. If you combine one with a Gold Flower, you will receive an even greater number of coins.
Many of these problems could be overlooked if the game’s levels were well designed. While I wouldn’t say the stage design is terrible, it never really rises above being merely “competent”. You’re just going through the motions whenever going through the basic, entry-level stages offered by New Super Mario Bros. 2. You make your way to the end of a stage, ideally while collecting the three Star Coins hidden in each stage. If you find them all, you can move on, but if not, you must scour it more closely. Disappointingly, even the worlds themselves consist of the exact same eight environments used in the previous two entries.
There is something of a twist to the New Super Mario Bros. formula in the form of the Warp Cannons. In the previous two games, they merely acted as stand-ins for Warp Zones. While they technically serve the same purpose in New Super Mario Bros. 2, they instead lead to alternate worlds – labelled with a Super Mushroom and a Fire Flower in place of number. Open defeating Bowser, World Star is unlocked. Like World 9 from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, accessing it requires one to complete the game and to have amassed a large amount of Star Coins to traverse it completely – ninety-nine, to be exact.
This is similar to how the first New Super Mario Bros. required players to defeat certain bosses in a miniaturized state to reach two different worlds. One could argue this isn’t as bad of a requirement, but it manages to be irritating in its own way. Rather than just placing Mario in the appropriate world, players are made to guide him through stages modeled after endless runner games. I can appreciate wanting to add a variety to the proceedings, but these stages have a very trial-and-error design the series isn’t known for. There is one saving grace in that New Super Mario Bros. 2 has a mobility power-up – specifically, the Super Leaf from Super Mario Bros. 3. It is used exactly the same as before, coming complete with a sprint meter that fills up the longer Mario runs. As Racoon Mario, getting through these stages is a trivial matter.
While the lack of creativity regarding the worlds’ environments is disappointing, Worlds Mushroom and Flower take this problem to another level. None of these worlds have any cohesive themes at all. This idea is not by itself untoward, as the same could be said of the Special Zone from Super Mario World or World 9 in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The difference between those two games and New Super Mario Bros. 2 is that the worlds with random themes consisted of optional bonus stages. The former tied in nicely with the game’s emphasis on finding secret exits. Meanwhile, the latter couldn’t be accessed until the game had been completed. Either option is fine because it makes sense for the difficult bonus world to be an amalgamation of various environments. This way, the kinds of challenges you face test the various skills you picked up leading up to that moment.
In no way does this choice work when it comes to designing non-bonus worlds. As it stands, New Super Mario Bros. 2 effectively has three worlds sharing the same theme: randomness. While technically optional, Worlds Mushroom and Flower only serve to make the journey to Bowser’s castle even more forgettable and uninspired. World Star gets something of a pass for at least applying its randomness in a logical situation. However, having two other zones like it makes the obligatory spike in difficulty hard to appreciate – even if it does up the ante from New Super Mario Bros. Wii by including one final boss fight.
All of these aspects tie into what I feel to be the game’s fatal weakness. While New Super Mario Bros. 2 is, by no means, a bad game, there isn’t a single good idea it has that wasn’t done better in a previous installment. Gliding through the stages as Raccoon Mario just made me want to replay Super Mario Bros. 3. Being able to hold an inventory item reminded me of how much better Super Mario World was. Even hearing the music recycled from New Super Mario Bros. Wii made me realize just how much of a step down its immediate sequel is. The newest installment of a long-running series can evoke memories of the past, but it shouldn’t make the audience actively yearn for it. A work that cannot make a case for itself is one fundamentally incapable of providing an essential experience.
Drawing a Conclusion
By 2012, Nintendo had gained a reputation for milking their franchises with the intent to make money rather than to produce good art. For the most part, this criticism was undeserved. These sentiments were generally perpetuated by then-prominent independent critics such as Ben “Yathzee” Croshaw, who often injected cinephile sensibilities into their assessments. The intent of this was to lend their medium a sense of legitimacy – not unlike how AAA developers took to telling their stories through cinematic, Hollywood-style cutscenes. Because films had been proven to be art long before computers were invented, it stood to reason than the gaming critical circle would need to look to their predecessors discussing film for their medium to truly grow up.
However, both approaches were ultimately cases of creators attempting to jam a square peg into a round hole. Film critics have a notorious aversion to sequels as evidenced by only one, Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, ever winning the top prize at Venice, Berlin, or Cannes going into the twenty-first century. I understand the reasoning behind this, as being forced to come up with an original IP does theoretically promote creativity. Many horror film franchises such as Halloween and Friday the 13th can be cited as proof as to what happens when one tries to get too much mileage out of one good idea, after all. The problem is that this mentality ignores many key differences between the two mediums. Generally speaking, sequels were, and continue to be, far more accepted in gaming than in films. While many game creators had gone the route of those horror film franchises by stretching the goodwill generated by their defining work way too far, Nintendo themselves typically defied this trend, which is obvious to anyone who played Super Mario Galaxy 2 on the heels of its predecessor and looked past their superficial similarities.
Now, despite the criticism of Nintendo relying too much on nostalgia and the goodwill of their generation-defining games being largely false, they also had a bad tendency to provide said detractors with fodder every now and again. I say this because New Super Mario Bros. 2 is absolutely guilty of doing the exact thing independent critics had lambasted them for. It’s not a bad game, but it is entirely unable to carve an identity distinct from its predecessors. This is the kind of game you will likely forget about the moment you stop playing.
Because of this, I find recommending the game extremely difficult. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is reminiscent of Super Mario Land in that the only real advantage it has is the fact it’s portable. However, considering that the 3DS can also play DS games, the first New Super Mario Bros. included, this advantage is rendered negligible. Even Super Mario Land 2, which was released twenty years prior to this installment in a time when portable games weren’t taken as seriously, has more ambition. You would have to be a diehard Mario fan to enjoy this game for what it is. If you aren’t a fan of Mario or Nintendo in general, you’re better off looking elsewhere because this game will not change your mind. In 2012, one could argue Nintendo was still the best, most creative developer in the business, but you wouldn’t have known that by playing New Super Mario Bros. 2.
Final Score: 4/10