The best part of New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the opening scene the first time you turn it on to play. Suddenly the realisation hits: you’re about to play an entirely new 2D Mario game.
Those memories of childhood come flooding back, and though the graphic style is looking resplendent using the modern technology of the 3DS, though simple 3D effects give the game a new sensation of depth, and though the music soundtrack is pleasantly modern, the first enemy remains a hapless goomba, and the first pickup remains a growth mushroom.
By the end of the too-brief running time, that initial nostalgic thrill has well worn off and you’ll have come to realise that there’s nothing particularly memorable about this game, but only if you fall into the same long-time gamer like me – or to put it another way, you’ve now played too many of these games. I’ve clicked through quite a few reviews of New Super Mario Bros. 2 and I’ve come to realise something rather sad about games criticism: there’s a real lack of empathy there. Putting yourself in the shoes of someone who has only had limited exposure to Mario games puts the game in an entirely different light: this is a spectacularly-designed game.
Sure, the level design is a retread of what we’ve ever seen. Mario games have become easier over the years in terms of actual platforming, but while the pixel-perfect jumping has thankfully gone the way of the dinosaur, the joy of exploration through the levels remains the same; especially if you haven't seen New Super Mario Bros 2 tricks too often in the past. Go in with a fresh mind-set, and grabbing a raccoon Mario leaf then finding a bit of flat land to use as a runway and soaring into the sky to look for hidden treasure troves remains as compelling now as it ever did back in the day. The game’s pace might have slowed to the point where twitch reflexes are no longer needed, but the developers has replaced that with a far less frustrating and yet far more rewarding goal – collecting a million coins.
With that goal in sight you’re going to find yourself replaying levels over and over to find ways of weaselling in to the hard-to-reach treasure rooms. You’ll spend hours in the coin rush mode – where a strict timer and one-life-only policy brings the game the closest to a “traditional” Mario challenge that we’ve seen in years. The quest to rescue the Princess yet again (seriously, Nintendo, that was kosher two decades ago, but it’s starting to become cringe-worthy in terms of political correctness) is quickly forgotten as those shiny yellow coins gracefully twirl around in the sky, glittering and beckoning Mario like a moth to a light.
Every so often a little message pops up telling players that they’ve accumulated a certain number of coins. This passes as the game’s achievement system, and though it feels weirdly like an RPG grind at times, any negative feelings that realisation may generate are offset by a highly social feature. Every so often Nintendo through SpotPass sends players a message telling them of the global coin total. Presently it’s well over five billion. There’s no in-game counter for that number, but the simple thought that you’re participating in a group-shared experience amongst millions of others turns good level design into a compelling activity, in order to leave your own little anonymous mark on the coin total.
Less compelling is the multiplayer mode, which allows one other person to play along as Luigi over local wireless. Online would have been preferable, and though the game does work fine in multiplayer, there’s sadly few levels that take advantage of the camaraderie in any meaningful way.
Whether solo or with a friend, by the time you’ve reached that final level, Mario has well in excess of a hundred lives, and if he ever runs into genuine trouble, there’s an invincibility powerup that pops up after a few consecutive failures to help prevent the young-ones from giving up. And because of all these concessions, I get that this game is a bit of a disappointment for long-term Mario fans. This is a game that looks traditional, sounds traditional and has all the traditional trappings of a Mario game.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is clever like that. It looks traditional, but really it’s the most progressive game Nintendo has made to star the red-hatted plumber in years. With such little fanfare it’s difficult to even consciously register, New Super Mario Bros. 2 really is a new game.
The real problem this game created for itself is not making more of its own innovation. It’s a real shame that so few critics even noticed that.
For everyone else: give this a go and pretend for a moment you've never played a Mario game before. That fantasy makes New Super Mario Bros 2 irresistible.