"If it ain't broke, make it better."
Review in Brief
Game: The latest retro-style Mario 2D platformer.
Good: Strong level design; stronger world map design than recent releases; interesting new power-ups and level features.
Bad: No killer app or uniquely distinguishing feature; borrows far too much (basically everything) from its predecessors; sorely outdated.
Verdict: As much fun as an outdated, unremarkable game can be.
Rating: 6/10 – "Fair – game is okay, but there are many better."
Recommendation: Worth a rental, I guess, but you won't miss out by skipping it either.
"If it ain't broke, improve it."
I drive a 1989 Volvo 240. It's a pretty old car, but it still serves its purpose: it gets me from point A to point B. The seats lean back with large, unwieldy gears that would be impossible for anyone with arthritis to even consider using. The air-conditioning operates on a Boolean switch: either it's on or it's off. It has power locks, but it does not have a wireless remote for locking and unlocking at a distance, and the trunk can only be opened by physically inserting the key. The rear view mirrors have to be moved manually; there is no electronic control to reposition them. The entire car frame is made of steel, which is great for safety but leads to terrible gas mileage. There is no computer to analyze environmental conditions, so the car's acceleration differs greatly between summer and winter months. The car has no cupholders, no built-in stereo system, no airbags, no arm console, no backseat vents, no visor mirrors, and only one interior light.
My car is not broken; however, if Volvo had followed the mantra "If it ain't broke, don't fix it", they would have gone out of business 15 years ago: that's about how long it would take a car following the above description to become outdated. If your product is broken, fix it; if your product is not broken, improve it.
The main defense that I hear from Nintendo apologists for why my critiques of Nintendo's largest franchises are off base is basically, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." If there is nothing glaringly wrong with a franchise, why change anything about it? The reason is simple: just because it is not broken does not mean it is not horribly outdated. Just because it still serves its function doesn't mean it is worth as much as it was when it was new. My Volvo still gets me from point A to point B, and Mario games are still somewhat fun: does that mean a brand new 1989 Volvo 240 should cost the same thing today that it cost in 1989? Of course not; and similarly, a Mario game that barely improves on the formula it created 20 years ago should not qualify as another full release.
The ironic thing about this criticism is that it flies directly in the face of what Nintendo did for 20 years; for 20 years, Nintendo released Mario games at a snail's pace, and every single new game came with an enormous distinct new feature or flavor. From 1985 until 2005, only ten Mario games were released; yet, since 2009, four Mario games have been released, five if one includes the upcoming New Super Mario Bros. U. In the past four years, Nintendo has more than doubled the rate at which they release games for their best-selling platformer franchise. For 20 years, every single new release was a unique, innovative, standalone game; since 2006, only one game has been released with an original concept.
Now, don't get me wrong: New Super Mario Bros. 2 is somewhat fun at parts. It is significantly better than the previous 3DS Mario game (Super Mario 3D Land), sporting some excellent level design, a few interesting new twists, and a more thoroughly developed world map than the franchise has seen since it fell in love with world maps again. But to me, those are the equivalent of throwing a cupholders and power mirrors onto my Volvo: they improve it a little, but they still don't come anywhere close to the improvements necessary to make it contemporary. There is still a place for traditional 2D platformers like New Super Mario Bros. 2: the 3DS eShop, for $10 apiece; to be a full-price cartridge release, a lot more would need to be done.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the latest in Nintendo's series of rebooted 2D platformers, following the original New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS and New Super Mario Bros. Wii on the Nintendo Wii. In this one, you face nine worlds with around seven or eight levels in each. The worlds are arranged such that only five must be defeated to access the sixth world, and as usual there are shortcuts hidden throughout the levels to help you jump forward towards the final battle.
Many of the old traditional features of the Mario franchise are present; for example, every level still has three star coins hidden throughout the level for the player to try and find. These star coins can be used to purchase access to certain hidden routes on the world map, such as those leading to mushroom houses and 1-Up houses. Other returning features include the traditional power-ups, world map design, end-of-level flags, halfway markers, held items, and Bowser family.
New features in New Super Mario Bros. 2 include mostly an enormous emphasis on coin-collecting. One of the goals presented to the player from the very beginning of the game is to eventually collect one million coins across the game's various modes. As part of that, the new power-ups all revolve around increasing the number of coins that the player can collect. There is a coin flower that turns the player into a version of Fire Flower Mario that hurls gold fireballs that turn enemies and bricks into coins. The notable new game mode is referred to as Coin Rush. In this, the player is placed on a random level from the game with a set amount of time to collect as many coins as possible.
Before I get on all the complaints I have about New Super Mario Bros. 2 — and more generally, the direction that Nintendo is moving as a whole — let me open by saying that in many ways, New Super Mario Bros. 2 surprised me. I genuinely did not enjoy its predecessor, Super Mario 3D Land, and I have been hard on every 3DS release that I have played because I feel none of them live up to their potential. New Super Mario Bros. 2, on the other hand, did not disappoint me; I got more than I expected. Granted, that is partially because I did not expect much, but it still surprised my low expectations. Most notably, after its anomalous predecessor, New Super Mario Bros. 2 at least returns to Nintendo's history of strong level design.
Strong Level Design
I was earnestly impressed with the level design in New Super Mario Bros. 2. Its predecessor, as I described at great length, felt like a parade of the rejected levels from the various previous Mario games: they lacked identity, they lacked intrigue, and they lacked that certain inspired and unique quality that typically characterizes Nintendo as the industry leader in the platformer genre.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 returns to that reputation. The best way to describe what exactly makes the level design strong is that almost every single level has a unique identifying criteria or element to it. When you open up a certain level without remembering what its content was, you quickly remember because there is something in it that basically makes you say, "Oh, this is that level!" For example, "Oh, this is the ghost house with the three floating doors" or "Oh, this is the dungeon with the spiderwebs!"
The important element here is that it avoids a certain risk in developing platformer games. When you develop a platformer game, you create doodads, such as bits of terrain, moving platforms, and pipes, that can be reused amongst different levels. You could create 100 levels based solely on different combinations of these doodads, but that would not make the game fun. The game would quickly become tedious, repetitive, and even though the levels are technically different, it would feel like the same thing over and over again. Even the best platformer games do this to a certain extent: for many games, there are unique levels, but there are also filler levels that serve only to pad out the length of the game without devoting additional time to designing innovative and engaging individual levels.
In keeping up with Mario tradition, New Super Mario Bros. 2 makes every single level unique. Many of the levels have particular doodads they could have been reused in other levels of the game, but by limiting the usage of these to only one or two levels, the game remains fresh and interesting. Never does the game feel like playing through different combinations of the same concepts; every single level feels unique in some way.
Complex World Map Design
Like many critics, I find Nintendo's newfound allegiance to the traditional world map layout appalling. It was one thing when the layout was used in the original New Super Mario Bros. because at least there, the emphasis on nostalgia and retro design was explicit; but as soon as they used the same layout in Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario 3D Land, two games but had no reason to claim a retro allegiance, they lost the right (in my eyes) to use it at all. Their use of this outdated, primitive, and downright boring world map is why I could not bring myself to give the game more than a 6.
That said, New Super Mario Bros. 2 executes a boring and outdated idea about as perfectly as it can possibly be executed. The game provides numerous more secret paths, hidden levels, and secret exits than any of its similarly retro predecessors. The disguises for these exits are better as well, playing back into the strong level design mentioned in the previous section. Typically, any seasoned veteran of the Mario franchise will have no trouble pointing out where Nintendo was likely to hide the secret exits, as the methods used to disguise them have not changed much over the years. In New Super Mario Bros. 2, however, many of the exits are so well hidden that even franchise veterans are sure to have difficulty finding them.
Although at first I thought it was a silly gimmick that would actually serve to shorten the game, I came to appreciate the different world structure in New Super Mario Bros. 2; instead of eight sequential worlds followed by the now-expected "secret" ninth world, New Super Mario Bros. 2 provides three secret worlds, with the first and second following from secret exits in the first and third world, respectively. Completing the first and second secret worlds, dubbed the Mushroom World and Flower World, leads the player directly to worlds three and five, respectively. The "secret" nature of these two worlds lent itself to unique level design and theming apart from the traditional desert, jungle, ice, and underwater worlds (although those are all still present).
Overall, the best way to describe the improvements to the archaic world map in New Super Mario Bros. 2 is to say that for the first time in many releases (in my opinion, since Super Mario World), the world map actually feels like it has real secrets rather than just alternate paths.
Interesting, though Small, New Features
In the next section, I will describe in great length New Super Mario Bros. 2's lack of a distinctive new feature. That is not to say that the game lacks any new features, but rather just that the game lacks a new feature of the size that Mario games typically provide.
The new features that New Super Mario Bros. 2 does have, however, are somewhat notable and actually add a new feel to parts of the gameplay. Part of this comes from the level design feeling much more dynamic, with coins swooping in and other level reactions that have been absent from previous Mario games. But part of this also comes from the new features themselves. Since I was expecting that the game would provide relatively little in the way of new features, I made it a point to actually write down every new feature I came across; about halfway through the game, I decided it had satisfied my desire for significant new features outside of the lack of a killer app.
The most notable new features revolve around the game's emphasis on coin-collecting. As mentioned earlier in this review, there is a golden fire flower that allows Mario to throw golden fireballs, which do a form of splash damage instantly killing any enemy in their range and turning any brick box into a coin. Truth be told, the power-up is a little bit overpowered, and has a frustrating tendency to break the game's treatment of power-ups in general by downgrading the golden fire flower to a regular one at the conclusion of the level (if the game were good enough to be nit-picked, that would be one of my main picky comments, but such comments do not really matter for a game so far from perfection anyway).
Although they are not new, the game makes liberal use of the classic Pow block for similar interaction with the brick blocks throughout the levels; oftentimes these are chained together to take out a huge number of bricks and enemies in one interesting foul swoop. Another coin-related new feature is the gold ring; jumping through it creates a temporary mode in which all enemies are worth extra points and throwing a Koopa shell leaves a trail of coins behind it. This gold ring is used in several interesting ways throughout the game.
One of the particularly interesting new doodads in New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a pipe in which the player can throw fireballs to get coins out of a different end. The most interesting thing about this doodad is that it is responsible for the only appearance (that I have found so far, anyway) of the mega-mushroom that first made its appearance in the original New Super Mario Bros.. There is also a new feature where if the player hits a multi-coin box enough times quickly enough, it becomes its own power-up, a coin block that sits on Mario's head and gathers coins as he moves.
The majority of the new features are coin-oriented, which limits the praise I will give them a bit since I find the game's attempt to make coin-collecting a new and interesting endeavor rather silly; however, there are other new features as well. Some other new doodads include climbable spiderwebs, trampolines, and moving climb walls that reverse orientation when they are hit. The cannon levels that serve as the teleporters between worlds are new as well, as well as rainbow levels that occasionally appear as bonuses for the player.
The game lacks a large and significant new defining feature, but the iterative small new elements are somewhat satisfying and interesting; if nothing else, they provide more innovation than I expected New Super Mario Bros. 2 to have.
The main problem that I have with New Super Mario Bros. 2 can be boiled down to two main similar criticisms: it borrows too much, and it does far too little on its own. As far as its weakness as a game, the latter is a much more significant criticism; the former is more of a reflection of Nintendo's refusal to put full development effort into its releases for the Nintendo 3DS.
No Killer App, No Distinguishing Feature
The phrase "killer app" comes from the marketing world, and is typically used to describe a program or feature that is so needed that it becomes the main selling point for a much larger entity. In gaming as a whole, a killer app would be the game that is so good that gamers would buy the console just to play that game. Within the context of individual games, though, the killer app of a game would be the game's defining feature or gimmick, something so strong that it becomes the game's primary point of recognition and primary selling point.
In order to understand New Super Mario Bros. 2's lack of a killer app, let's step back through the history of the Mario franchise for a bit to understand just how important a killer app is. For the first twenty years of the Mario franchise's history, the company produced about one game every two years. Starting with Super Mario Bros. and running through Super Mario Sunshine, we saw on average a new Mario game every two years from 1985 to 2005. That release schedule included both console and portable games: 7 of the 10 came on the NES, SNES, Nintendo 64, or GameCube, while three came for the Game Boy. By comparison, Sonic the Hedgehog saw 8 releases in its first four years (when combining console and portable releases). That slow release schedule led to plenty of design attention being paid to each individual entry, and as a result, every single entry has a significant and notable feature that sets it apart from the rest of the franchise.
Super Mario Bros.'s killer app was its redefinition of the platformer genre. For Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Western version, anyway), it was the four playable characters and incredibly different graphical style. For Super Mario Bros. 3, it was the world map. For Super Mario Land, it was the transition of the genre to the portable console and yet another distinct visual motif. For Super Mario World, it was Yoshi most notably, though the world map was significantly changed as well. For Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins, it was an entire reinvention of Mario himself and his antagonist, with a game world that shared no features at all with any previous game. For Wario Land: Super Mario Land 3, it was the wholesale removal of Mario as the protagonist. For Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island, it was the restructuring of every game mechanic to center around Yoshi, including the eggs, baby Mario, and numerous other elements. For Super Mario 64, it was the creation of the platformer genre in 3D. For Super Mario Sunshine, it was the super soaker (hey, I didn't say every killer app was good, only that it was unique, significant, and memorable).
The reason I painstakingly outline all of those is that I hope, by describing thoroughly what the previous games in the franchise did, it becomes more clear to Nintendo apologists just how stagnant New Super Mario Bros. 2 is, and more broadly how stale the series as a whole has become. This is a series that was always new, always on the cutting edge, always innovating – and now, it's just become a shadow of its former self.
The problem began shortly after the above games. New Super Mario Bros. came out, but it had the killer app of the retro angle – that was a great idea, once. A retro Mario game is something we were all excited to play, and being the first of its kind, it still had some great inherent appeal. The presence of interesting power-ups (the mega- and mini-mushrooms) built on that, and the other retro elements were desirable then. New Super Mario Bros. Wii gave us the four-player multiplayer, an incredible reimagining of the platformer genre that itself was able to give that game its killer app.
Somewhere between those releases, though, Nintendo fell in love with the retro feel. The world map gave them justification to never put work into a hub world again, and as such we haven't seen a true hub world in 5 years, since Super Mario Galaxy. Think about that for a second: for the past five years, all our Mario games have been using a feature first pioneered in 1988, rather than the much-improved feature introduced in 1996 and used until 2007. If that's not an enormous step backwards, nothing is.
The problem is that throughout those early retro games, there was still a value-add, there was still a killer app, and there was still a distinguishing feature. By the time we've gotten to New Super Mario Bros. 2, though, that killer app has disappeared. The game doesn't even provide the shadow of an innovation or new development that could rival the kinds of incredible design that Nintendo made commonplace throughout its earlier years. There have never been three games in the entire history of the Mario franchise as similar as the three New Super Mario Bros. games. Apparently in their dedication to retro style and design, Nintendo forgot that back in those early days they're so fond of harkening back to, they innovated, too.
The game does seem to make an attempt to set itself apart with coin-collecting angle, but honestly, I can't imagine who is buying that as an enormous step forward for the franchise to rival gravity physics, a world map, or Yoshi. Coin-collecting was first introduced in the very first Mario game; I am most certainly not going to call adding a game-long coin counter an incredible innovation. The Coin Rush mode boils down to nothing but a shorter timer on the same levels they had otherwise. New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn't provide anything new with these features, it just gives a slightly different framing of the exact same thing we've already been doing for almost twenty-five years.
With every previous game, there was such a distinct and pervasive feel to the entire game that you could give a player a screenshot and, without specifically considering elements of the level or world, they could figure out which game it was: it was clear just from the graphical style or the most basic building blocks of gameplay. Give me a screenshot of any of these latest New Super Mario Bros. games, though, and I can't imagine picking which is which in the absence of blatantly distinguishing feature. There is very little way to distinguish these latest games. Super Mario 3D Land gave the franchise absolutely nothing new, and New Super Mario Bros. 2 continues that trend. The level design is fine, the new power-ups are interesting, and it's nice to see that they're finally actually developing the world map (even though the fact that they're still using one is downright pathetic), but the game doesn't have anything to match the crowning achievements of nearly every other game in the franchise.
It used to be that Nintendo would release a new Mario game every couple years, and every single one was incredibly distinct. The last three have lost that spirit. Even Super Mario Galaxy 2, one of my favorite and highest-rated games of all time, showed symptoms of this: the gravity physics left plenty of new levels to be designed, but the game did relatively nothing new for the franchise as a whole. It seems now Nintendo is going for the quick cash grab as part of their new allegiance to casual gamers who themselves probably wouldn't know a Shy Guy if it smacked them over the head.
The Mario franchises has never stagnated this long, both in terms of raw time taken and in terms of number of stagnant releases. In terms of stagnant releases, the franchise has never had any until the last several years, depending on when you pick the point of stagnation (for me, it was Super Mario Galaxy 2, as much as I love the game). In terms of time, it's been four years since a significant new feature (New Super Mario Bros. Wii's multiplayer platforming), and six since the type of revolutionary killer app that used to be common in every Mario release. The franchise has stagnated; there's just no way to argue against that.
There will be, of course, the argument that New Super Mario Bros. is a separate series from the rest of the Mario franchise, and thus does not have the same expectation of innovation that the rest of the franchise has. That argument does not change the fact, though, that New Super Mario Bros. 2, while fun, is a sorely outdated game. It isn't broken, but it has plenty of room for improvement.
Too Much Borrowed
Not every game has a killer app, and truth be told, you don't need a killer app to be a good game (though you do need one to be a great game, I'd say). You can take the same general concepts that have been used in numerous other games, that have been tried and proven to be popular and appreciated, and implement them in a new context with relatively simple improvements and still come up with a fun, original, engaging game. Theatrhythm, Sleeping Dogs, Portal 2, and Wii Sports Resort are all like this: none do anything revolutionary, but all are solid, original games.
The problem with New Super Mario Bros. 2 in this regard, though, is that the amount of content it borrows from previous games (both recent and older) is absolutely astounding. Well over half the content in the game is borrowed in some way, and you could certain make the argument that it's much closer to 70% or 80%. Although the individual level design is strong, and there are uniquely defining characteristics to every level, the amount of content that has been wholesale lifted from previous games in the franchise makes it difficult to regard New Super Mario Bros. 2 as anything more than a level pack at best and a ROM hack at worst.
I became aware of this the moment I started up the game and saw the world map. I've already talked at great length at how pathetic I think it is that New Super Mario Bros. 2 and other games like it are using world maps of this style; it's just downright lazy. What astounded me about New Super Mario Bros. 2's world map, though, is that it isn't just the structure of the world map that's copied from previous games: it's every single element about it. Visually, the animations of Mario running around the world map, Bowser's underlings dragging Peach around, and the pathways leading between levels are all exactly the same as they've been for the last several games. But that pervades throughout the entire game; there are enormous swaths of the game that are wholesale copied from previous games.
Now, don't get me wrong – I know that there are large portions of the Mario franchise that are sacrosanct and absolutely have to be present. A Mario game without Bowser, Goombas, fire flowers, and water levels would be like a Call of Duty game without guns or a Final Fantasy without an obnoxious protagonist. Those are fine, to a large extent, but the degree to which things are borrowed in New Super Mario Bros. 2 pushes it far over the edge.
Don't believe me? Good, because I took the liberty of making a list. We've got the same Bowser family we've had since the SNES days. In a couple instances, we've got the exact same boss battle against those family members that we've seen before. Even with the ones that were changed, every world still ends with a boss battle involving Mario jumping on the boss's head three times. In the center of every world, we've got the normal fortress battle that ends with the Reznors on spinning platforms, which I think was first introduced in Super Mario World (though I could be mistaken). There are no new enemies in the game whatsoever: the only arguably new ones are just modifications of old enemies, like a larger Boo, a smaller Urchin, a bone versions of Piranha Plants and Goombas. The plot, of course, is the same, and in keeping with recent tradition no more exposition is given to it than a 30-second kidnapping scene. Bowser's still flying around in his propeller face pod. We've still got the three star coins per level, and those star coins are still needed to unlock certain other levels. There's a flag at the end of each level, of course, and hitting the flag pole higher leads to more points and possibly a 1-Up (sidenote: I don't even know the purpose of lives anymore, I've never completed a level without earning at least two more lives). You still hold an item in your inventory like you did in Super Mario World. Ground pounds are still around, as well as triple jumps and wall jumps. The halfway marker is exactly the same. That bizarre saving paradigm is still around, for whatever reason that still escapes me. The mushroom houses, one-up houses, and star houses are still the same. There are still red coins to collect quickly. The vines to the sky are still there. The overall world structure is still the same. There are still cannons between worlds. All the recent power-ups – fire flower, super leaves, mini- and mega-mushrooms, stars – are still present. The same themes are recycled yet again – dessert, marsh, ice, underwater, sky, volcano.
But the most egregious thing in the entire game was the music. To the best of what I noticed (and with how closely I was making sure to pay attention to it, I can't imagine I would've missed it), not a single song in the entire game is original. Every single one was copied from an earlier game in the series. Sure, they're covered and remixed and altered, but they're all copied. Don't get me wrong, I'd be disappointed if I played a game and didn't hear the original music at least once, but for the entirety of the music in the game to have been ripped off of previous games in the franchise is just downright unforgivable.
Now, again, don't get me wrong: I'm not saying that they shouldn't have included any of those things. A Mario game without Bowser, question blocks, and fire flowers would just be strange (although, I'd point out again that in the early days of the franchise, there were games without those things and they worked great – when did they become sacred?). The point, though, is that you can't build your game almost exclusively on borrowed content, themes, elements, and structures. There is hardly any content in New Super Mario Bros. 2 that was not in some way borrowed from a previous game in the franchise. There are a few doodads that render certain levels notable, and those elements are all knitted together into some very good levels, but the vast majority of the game's content is borrowed. More importantly, there is nothing new added on top of that content. It's fine to borrow from previous games, but the things you borrow shouldn't constitute the entire darn game. And we won't even talk about the technical issues; New Super Mario Bros. 2 could have been implemented on the Nintendo DS as a level pack for the original New Super Mario Bros. very easily. Heck, ignore the graphical improvements and New Super Mario Bros. 2 could have been Super Mario Bros. 4 for the NES, and that fact is just pathetic.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a fun game. I won't deny that. I did enjoy it, and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It has some great level design, the new features – what few new features there are – are interesting, and even though Nintendo is stubbornly refusing to go away from the incredibly outdated world map structure, at least the world map has some intrigue to it. Within the context of refusing to implement anything new, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is about as good as it could have been.
But the problem is that we have to give the caveat of that context in the first place. Mario used to be one of the most persistently innovative game franchises in the industry, with every single game providing an incredibly notable new feature; and yet, in the past five years, the series has stagnated terribly. Even while the games were still good, with New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy 2, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the franchise was starting to show signs of stagnation: the games were good, but their killer features weren't sustainable or rooted in design. Now, with Super Mario 3D Land and New Super Mario Bros. 2, we see the full fruition of that stagnation: two games that contribute nothing to the franchise's ongoing growth and build on no strong innovative feature of their own. They aren't broken, but that doesn't mean they can't – and shouldn't – be improved.
Would you pay $31,000 today for a new 1989 Volvo 240? How about $2,500 for the original Macintosh 128K, operating at 6MHz with 128 kB of memory? How about $750 for a 28" CRT television? Of course not; but then why would we pay full new price for a game that's functionally the same as it was 25 years ago? It ain't broke, but that doesn't mean it's not sorely outdated and in need of improvement.
With the 3DS's library as lacking as it is, it's still worth a rental. Still, it's short, the million-coin collection is just a grindfest, and there's not much you haven't seen before, so you won't be missing much if you skip it. It's like watching your favorite movie for the sixth time: sure, you still enjoy it, but it's still the same thing over and over.
Reviewer's Score: 6/10
Game Release: New Super Mario Bros. 2 (US, 08/19/12)