New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS was functionally Mario distilled to its core essence. The first 2-D Mario game since the Super Nintendo, it re-created the long-lost days before Mario began collecting stars and traveling into space. It was sort of a "greatest hits" of the Mario franchise, combining a few new mechanics with the classic Mario-style gameplay that people know and love. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was more of the same: classic Mario gameplay with a few new twists. The cooperative multiplayer was enough to help it stand out, but the "greatest hits" approach was starting to become repetitive. In essence, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is more of the same, but this may be the first time in franchise history that "more of the same" is anything but a wholehearted endorsement.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 picks up almost directly from New Super Mario Bros.. There are no shocking changes to the basic gameplay, which feels more akin to Super Mario Galaxy 2 than Super Mario Galaxy. It's about new levels and a handful of new powers, and it has all of the features of a traditional Mario game. You begin as a tiny plumber and promptly have to collect mushrooms, flowers and raccoon tails to gain power-ups, which grant new abilities and extra life. Long-time fans of the franchise will be happy to hear that the raccoon tails are similar to Super Mario Bros. 3, allowing temporary flight and special spin attacks. The Mario franchise defined the side-scrolling action game, and New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn't rock the boat. It's traditional to a fault.
Coins are a big deal, and they're everywhere. You found coins pretty often in older Mario titles, but New Super Mario Bros. 2takes it to a ridiculous extreme. They rain from the sky, pour in from pipes, and fly from defeated enemies. New power-ups serve no purpose other than to create more coins. The golden flower turns Mario into a glittering golden version of himself that shoots Midas fireballs, which turn everything into money upon impact. Another power-up turns all of the enemies into gold, so they're more valuable when defeated. Yet another replaces Mario's head with a coin block, rewarding Mario with extra coins for acrobatic maneuvers. Collecting coins is also more involved. Coin blocks teleport around or become invisible, and the coins may dance around or turn into silhouetted ghost-coins that must be collected twice. Coins are plentiful, and you'll hear the coin jingle very, very often.
This makes coins drastically uninteresting. Coins have always had limited worth in a Mario game since you collected them to get 1-ups and not much else. In Wario Land, coins become the focus of the game, but the result is a rather different game. Despite the game being about collecting coins, they may as well not exist. It's not as if you have a shop to spend them. Any unlockable path or item requires the now-traditional hidden Star coins. Theoretically, the goal is to collect a million coins, but the prize is pretty unimpressive and not worth your time.
The coins dilute much of the rest of the game, too. In most Mario games, the 1-up mushroom is worth going out of your way to obtain. Since New Super Mario Bros. 2 keeps the "100 coins = 1 life" feature but roughly quadruples the coin count, you'll be swimming in extra lives. It makes finding a 1-up mushroom a disappointment because it's effectively identical to a 100-coin but doesn't count toward your goal. Wario and his hoard of games show that Mario-style platforming can mesh wonderfully with coin collection, assuming you design the game around the idea. Here, it's disparate and feels out of place.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a perfectly fine and by-the-numbers Mario game, and perhaps that is why it disappoints. Mario titles tend to stand out from the crowd. Super Mario Land 3DS may not have been the hardest game, but it was wonderfully crafted and fun to play. New Super Mario Bros. 2, in comparison, is a far more workman-like effort. It is perfectly playable and often fun, but it's rarely exciting. Super Mario Galaxy 2 may have been a similar game to the first, but far more effort was expended on making it feel distinctive. New Super Mario Bros. 2 feels like they threw a lot of coins at it and called it a day.
To the game's credit, there is a fair amount of content for a Mario title. There are a number of worlds, a few hidden worlds, the requisite Luigi mode, and a ton of coins to collect. There's also an optional Coin Rush mode, where you attempt to speed through levels while collecting as many coins as possible. These speed runs can be passed around via SpotPass, and you can try to beat other players' scores. There's also a co-op mode, which is akin to the half-cooperative, half-competitive modes in New Super Mario Bros. Wii but with fewer characters. You can still burn through the game quickly. If all you want to do is beat Bowser and see the ending credits, you'll probably pull that off in a couple of hours. There is plenty of coin grinding to do, but there's little reason to do so.
The problem is that New Super Mario Bros. 2 feels like an attempt to revive the long-lost days when score attacks were considered a part of every game. Score attack titles can be fun, as recent Sonic the Hedgehog titles have used them to great effect, but people played Super Mario Bros. to challenge themselves to reach the end. Most Mario titles had a scoring mechanism, but they became less important as the franchise advanced. By Mario 64, they'd been dropped almost entirely. To try to turn Mario into a score attack franchise feels like trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Mario is better when it's about finishing levels. Even those who challenge themselves to master Mario games prefer speed runs over point-farming.
"Recycled" is the only word that really comes to mind when describing New Super Mario Bros. 2's graphics. Everything feels rehashed and reused, from environments to animations. There's nothing really new to see here. You'll see material fresh from New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The biggest disappointment is the 3-D. Little to no effort was put into making New Super Mario Bros. 2's 3-D "pop" or look interesting, so the backgrounds look muddier. Coming off Super Mario Land 3D, with its masterful use of the 3DS's most distinctive feature, it's impossible to not consider this a tremendous disappointment. It's safe to turn off the 3D because it adds nothing to the game.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is by no means a bad game, but it is something perhaps more disappointing: an unexceptional one. There is nothing new or exciting about it, and it doesn't stand out from the crowd. The coin-collection gimmick is tacked on, and the level design suffers for it. There is still a lot to like here, as it's a well-designed platformer that anyone can pick up and play. It's fast and frantic, and for a little while, there is a bizarre hoarding satisfaction to collecting coins. If you enjoy Mario titles, you'll enjoy New Super Mario Bros. 2. If you haven't already picked up Super Mario Land 3D, you'd be far better off starting there. If you're looking for more Mario, New Super Mario Bros. 2 will happily scratch that itch. It just won't leave you wanting more after it's done.
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