Coins! Coins everywhere! There’s an embarrassment of riches in the Mushroom Kingdom, as the golden discs burst from blocks, spurt from squished goombas – and even fall from the sky. That familiar chime upon collection will ring in your ears thousands of times in New Super Mario Bros 2 – as part of a renewed focus on gold hoarding that seems to defy these troubled economic times. Indeed, play through a level of New Super Mario Bros 2 and it’s hard not to feel like an accountant at Nintendo HQ totting up the sales figures for the first game.
Nintendo’s focus on the sheer amount of gold in NSMB2 might have seemed a little overly insistent during its E3 presentation – a too-obvious attempt to underline the differences between the 3DS sequel and its Wii U cousin – but regardless, EAD Tokyo has delivered on its promise of the most gold-stuffed Mario game yet. With one eye on co-op – and the competitive spark that limited collectible resources can inflame – the designers haven’t simply sprinkled more coins over these levels: they’ve come up with a few new ways of collecting them, too. Some coins are merely white-dotted outlines until a player passes through them, the coin appearing moments later for a crafty player two to potentially grab. New power-ups betray NSMB2’s money-hungry capitalist leanings, too. A coin-spitting block sits on Mario’s head, gradually adding to his coin tally every time you jump or move – and as such gently encourages flamboyant acrobatics. A gilded take on the traditional fire flower even turns Mario gold (and Luigi silver), letting him turn bricks to coins with the aid of the golden flames that shoot from his hands. Not all of the new power-ups are financially themed, however – fresh from its reappearance in Super Mario 3D Land, Mario’s raccoon suit has a starring role.
But scrape away New Super Mario Bros 2’s glistening surface and you find more familiar minerals underneath – the robust but familiar blend of 2D Mario’s simple momentum-powered platforming, some carefully arranged levels, and the slick 2.5D retro-infused visual design that carried the first title to such assured success. Of course, when the first NSMB game was released, refamiliarising yourself with the series’ stripped-down Mario was a challenge in itself. Without the aid of his 3D incarnation’s trickier gymnastic skills, you’re forced to rely on a simpler economy of jumps and dashes. The triple jump’s still there, but the level design rarely offers the open space needed for that somersaulting third leap. There’s an emphasis on precision platforming, in other words, that’s simply not to be found in Super Mario 3D Land.
One thing NSMB2 does have in common with Mario’s most recent 3DS game – surprisingly – is assured use of the system’s 3D effect. After the gimmicky excesses of earlier titles, Nintendo’s in-house design teams have reigned in their use of the system’s USP. It makes inevitable if paradoxical sense, then, this process has reached its culmination with a 2D game. A neat depth-of-field effect sees the level backgrounds blur out as you nudge the slider upwards – foregrounding the action itself but occasionally obscuring some incidental detail. It’s a solution that meshes neatly with the unusual mixture of 3D models and 2D sprites that defines the series’ aesthetic, giving Mario and his foes a pop-out-of-the-screen clarity.
That said, no amount of depth effects can change the feeling that you’ve seen this game before. The surreal whimsy of the Mushroom Kingdom is becoming overcooked, that familiar parade of lush green opening levels followed by deserts, snow levels, fire levels, underwater levels and the occasional castle beginning ?to take the magic out of Mario. It’s not that the clever platforming challenges haven’t been deftly threaded throughout – there are still breadcrumb trails of coins leading to knotty arrangements of platforms – it’s simply that veteran Mario players simply won’t experience the thrill of discovery that accompanied their first soar into space with Galaxy, or the delight at exploring 3D Land’s chunky, angular world. The first NSMB traded on nostalgia – and New Super Mario Bros 2 doesn’t seem to understand that the first game’s success at reacquainting players with the 2.5D Mushroom Kingdom means it simply can’t do the same on its second outing.
It has ideas of its own, of course, and is liberally sprinkled with the kind of touches that ensure all that extra gold is polished to a shine. Koopas clap their hands in time to level music; returning enemy types behave (very occasionally) in unexpected ways; haunted houses startle with feints and misdirection. But if you want new features of any substance you must head outside of the main game and into Coin Rush, a new high-score mode that gives you a limited amount of time to bag as many coins as possible in minimalist versions of courses from the main game. It’s an unabashed score-chasing mode in a series that’s always valued exploration over speedruns, but it does give players unchallenged by the ordinary levels an excuse to push Mario to his limits.More old than new, New Super Mario Bros 2 is an inverted Galaxy, more content to remix old stomping grounds and sprinkle on new gimmicks than take Mario to places he hasn’t hopped through before. Few titles can match 2D Mario for its peerless sense of weight and fine control – and NSMB2 is a cartridge full of levels proving that fact. But Mario’s not just about polish. He’s about moving from left to right with giddy momentum, and New Super Mario Bros is a series that appears to be standing still.