Review by LordLeaf

"A romhack at retail price."

The Super Mario Bros. series has served as the gold standard for the platforming genre since 1985. Though Nintendo could've rested on its laurels, emulating the formula of the original classic for a half-dozen or so titles, it's instead chosen to consistently redefine the series and lead the charge on innovation. With a franchise as storied as Super Mario, it'd be reasonable to hold each of its new releases to a higher standard than usual; yet even by more modest measurements, New Super Mario Bros. 2 falls flat. Not only does it struggle to reach mediocrity, it commits a cardinal game design sin the series hasn't been seriously accused of since the Japanese SMB2 release: stagnation.

To be sure, the writing was on the wall with the 2006 DS release New Super Mario Bros., ostensibly a throwback to the classic 2D Mario titles of yesteryear. Any "throwback" title like this is, on its best day, an average tribute to past efforts and, on its worst, a manipulative cash-in; but the first NSMB was, on the whole, a passable effort. It introduced a brand-new aesthetic and game engine, and displayed some genuine creative sparks from time to time. Transitioning the subfranchise to the Wii brought the same aesthetic and musical style while adding co-op play and some surprisingly fresh design ideas, making it a worthwhile installment. But two points aren't enough to form a pattern, and NSMB2 crosses the line from emulation to uninspired plagiarism.

Graphics and Music
There's little positive to say here. The graphics are typical of New Super Mario Bros. games: clean, bright, smoothly animated, and completely devoid of style or soul. As a 3DS title, NSMB2 feels obligated to incorporate some use of the 3D slider, and does so in the laziest way possible: it blurs up the backgrounds. No unique pop-outs, no appealing effects or attention to detail, nothing notable whatsoever. While 2D platformers aren't built to take advantage of 3D in the same way games like, for example, the excellent Super Mario 3D Land are, it speaks volumes that a presumed system-seller would neglect the handheld's namesake feature.

The music fares even worse, with a majority of tracks being ripped directly from past NSMB games. This is absolutely unacceptable for even a budget sequel, let alone a new Super Mario game.

Game Engine and Level Design
The floaty Mario physics from NSMB are back, and work exactly as you'd expect. Mario's traditional arsenal of running and jumping remains bolstered by wall-kicking and ground-pounding, providing tight control and plenty of options to interact with one's environment. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a lack of creative new power-ups, which were present in both previous NSMB titles. Instead, the player gets a modified form of the Coin Block Head from 3D Land and a Midas Flower that turns blocks and enemies into coins. Even if some of the previous NSMB additions didn't pan out all that well, it's hard not to appreciate the sense of effort, which is conspicuously absent here.

Up to this point, everything in NSMB2 can be summed up with one word: stale. Apologists for the franchise, however, have quickly rallied around a rhetorical line of defense: "Even if the game is more of the same, it still has that gold-standard level design the Super Mario series is known for!" This way of thinking has clearly caught on with many; I've even had people tell me the level design featured here exceeds venerated classics like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3. Were it even partially true, it'd be a great out to forgive many of the game's shortcomings.

It's not.

Game design is a complex, nuanced topic, and there are several different perspectives to approach the issue, so I'll simply throw out a few first steps. Is NSMB2 challenging? No. It's insultingly easy from start to finish, with deaths as rare as 1-ups are frequent. Does NSMB2 provide rewarding optional / secret content? No. To attempt to compensate for the outrageous ease of the regular game, each level adds three Star Coins to find and collect (which open up new paths to items and levels) as well as a handful of hidden exits. These secrets, however, never find a happy medium: 95% are transparently obvious- go down this odd pipe, jump on this out of reach platform- while the other 5% involve cryptic nonsense that seems to reward searching an FAQ more than searching a level. As an example, one secret exit involves riding a moving ? block up towards the top of the screen, which, instead of dropping Mario down, transports him to a new area. There are about a dozen such moving ? blocks in NSMB2, and only this particular one leads to a hidden exit. I stumbled upon this one by sheer accident during my playthrough, and I almost couldn't believe it. Fair? Hardly. Well-designed? Please.

It goes without saying that Super Mario games aren't Contra, and haven't been defined by a high difficulty. Most every Super Mario game, however, has a fair amount of relatively challenging content. Super Mario Bros. 3 has Worlds 7 and 8; Super Mario World has the Special levels; Sunshine has the FLUDD-less sections; Galaxy 2 has the Green Stars and the Final Run. NSMB2's answer to this call is the Star World, which- and I say this without exaggeration- is about as difficult as World 3 of NSMB Wii. It's not even the most difficult world in its own game. So while most Mario entires may be for kids, NSMB2 honestly feels designed for toddlers.

So. If NSMB2's level design doesn't challenge the player and doesn't provide satisfactory secret content, what else does the level design have to offer? I will say that the game succeeds somewhat in its coin collection gimmick. Sparkling golden coins are everywhere, and it's far too tempting not to pick up those in one's path- for a while, at least. Once the feeling sets in that these coins don't actually do anything for the player, this goal quickly becomes discarded in favor of collecting Star Coins or simply completing the adventure. Not adding any kind of real incentive for coin collection (NSMB2 really could have learned from Wario Land in this regard) really hurts the game's replayability. [Although yes, there is technically a reward for reaching the million-coin mark. "Reward" being used with the same flexibility as "throwback."]

As for Coin Rush? Forgettable. A new mode exclusive to NSMB2, Coin Rush provides the player three levels through which to try and collect as many coins as possible in a shortened time frame. It's a neat little mini-game on paper completely ruined by two defects: the stage selections are completely random, and coin score caps at (a surprisingly easy to achieve) 30K. Meaning that once you max out your score, there's little incentive to return.

Closing Comments
What do you get when you take the same graphics from a past Mario game, the same music from a past Mario game, and add some mediocre level design? You get a dime-a-dozen romhack. Nintendo, desperate to boost fledgling 3DS sales, decided in its wisdom to tarnish the Super Mario name by making a romhack of their own and charging forty bucks a pop. As a game devoid of style, original music, challenge, and the quality design the series has traditionally been known for, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is difficult to recommend to anyone but the die-hard Mario fanatic. If you need a Mario fix for your new handheld, 3D Land is an infinitely better choice, as are the many Mario games available on the Virtual Console.


Reviewer's Score: 2/10 | Originally Posted: 08/23/12

Game Release: New Super Mario Bros. 2 (US, 08/19/12)


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