Nintendo 3DS game New Super Mario Bros. 2

I have this old friend with whom I’ve made a thousand amazing memories. We’ve known each other since we were kids, and I count my time with him as some of the best moments in my life. Whenever I’m about to see him these days, all of that nostalgia rises to the surface, and the thought of creating new adventures that’ll match our old ones excites me. Only, instead of doing something new, we spend our entire time together reminiscing about the good old days. It’s become awkward because you can only do that once. After that, you have to face the possibility that your relationship may never be the same again.

That’s the problem with New Super Mario Bros. 2, the new side-scrolling platformer for the Nintendo 3DS. Hell, that’s been Nintendo’s biggest problem as a developer for the last five years.

It’s not even fair. NSMB2 is a fine (bordering on great) game, but I’m grading on a curve. This is Nintendo and Mario. These are words that are essential to describing my happy childhood. And while this next entry in the series fixes a lot of the problems I had with New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, it’s still the same conversation. It’s still just a series of allusions to previous games wrapped in stale art assets.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

New ideas mixed in with timeless gameplay
Jumping over chasms and squashing slow-moving goombas is still just as fun as ever. Mario’s movement on the ground and in the air feels just right. The little plumber quickly becomes an onscreen extension of your thumbs. Bouncing on eight consecutive koopa troopers’ heads while simultaneously dodging flaming rocks is a blast. It’s always been that way, and it continues here.

Thankfully, the development team didn’t just randomly pick Super Mario Bros. tropes out of a hat and blindly throw them in. New gameplay ideas sprout up regularly. Whether it’s a new type of bonus stage that sets Mario running at a fixed speed, new underwater boss fights, or just a difficult late-game block that projects fire until Mario hits it, a world doesn’t go by without throwing a couple of wrenches into the works.

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Intelligent and rewarding level design
If I had a problem with New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS, it’s that it felt sloppily designed. To access certain secret paths, you needed to find a mini mushroom, which shrinks Mario down to tiny proportions. The issue is that the developers didn’t logically place powerups like that around levels or even around different stages in the world. Most of the time, you would have to track down the item you needed in one of the game’s special areas. It felt careless.

That’s fixed in NSMB2. Secret paths still often demand the mini mushroom, and special areas still offer that item, but this game delivers in-level powerups in a much more deliberate way. If you get a rare power, chances are that the level you are in (or one that is coming up very soon) will require you to use it if you wish to discover all of the secrets.

And oh man — the secrets. The over-world map in NSMB2 may be the most interesting since Super Mario World. It doesn’t quite match that game in alternate paths and hidden level exits, but it certainly captures that Super Nintendo title’s spirit. Both of the previous entries in this “New” Mario sub-series feature their own secrets, but this one just has so much more going on. World 5 has a golden ship in the background that I cannot figure out how to access. The cannon levels that fire Mario into the special worlds are now Sonic-like bonus stages. Dormant level markers lie enticingly in the foreground with no apparent way to get to them.

It makes the whole game feel more alive. It’s like the developers actually spent time thoughtfully setting up this magical quest for you rather than just filling in a formula.

Those three big gold coins are finally well hidden. We’ve been gathering these collectibles since the DS version, and it’s never been very difficult. That’s not the case anymore. I’ve spent a ton of time in a few of these levels searching for these particularly elusive coins only to come out empty-handed. Considering this is an optional part of the game, making it a challenge amplifies the reward for dedicated players.

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

An overwhelming sense of been there, done that
I like NSMB2. It has a decent amount of new ideas. It does not, however, look like it has new ideas. Despite the upgraded 3DS hardware (and some new effects here and there), Nintendo decided to stick with an excessively familiar art style and design formula. All the new gameplay concepts in the world can’t change that NSMB2’s first impression is one of disappointment. This is exactly the same thing we’ve played twice before. Reusing old are assets — as disheartening as that is for someone who just paid full price — is one thing, but then presenting the game world’s in the same order as always smacks of extreme laziness.

Go ahead — guess which order Worlds 1 through 5 are in. If you said Mushroom Kingdom, desert, water, snow, and sky, then pat yourself on the back and shake your head at Nintendo. I can’t talk about World 6, but I bet you know what that is also.

If we keep buying these games, Nintendo will just keep making them. It’s just a shame, though. We bought Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World in record numbers, and each of those had a distinct voice. The company could have just crapped out another clone of Super Mario Bros. at the time with new gameplay ideas, but it didn’t (it did in Japan but smartly decided against bringing that to the States). Maybe because the company took more pride in its work back then or because it didn’t hire enough accountants to point out that it can save money by reusing the same stuff over and over.

The outdated save system

Again with this save system! If you played either of the previous NSMB titles, you know how it works. The game will only let you save if you beat a castle or a dungeon or if you spend your big coins to unlock a mushroom house. A quick save feature exists that creates a temporary bookmark to save your spot, but that’ll disappear the next time you load up the game.

If you forget to make a quick save and put down your 3DS for just a bit too long — which on the system’s short battery life isn’t really that much time — you can say goodbye to any progress you made since the last castle.

I closed the lid of my 3DS while playing NSMB2 with no warning about the battery, when I picked the device up a few hours later, it was dead. I lost about four levels of progress. After that, I was much more careful about charging and saving, but why should I have to learn that lesson? The game should save after every level.

Legacy mechanics that have no place in a modern game
The 1UP mushroom has to die. It was silly in New Super Mario Bros. Wii where I often had over 100 lives, but in this one, which is about collecting coins, I easily have over 250 lives at all times. Why does this even exist? Game Overs are pointless. I’m sure NSMB2 will dole out some punishment if I ever see one, but why? It’s just a piece of history that the developers feel beholden to for no good reason. They don’t want to leave it out because it’s always been a part of the series, but they also don’t want to a make a game that uses lives and 1UPs in a creative way. It’s another lazy design decision.

Oh, and we still have points and a timer. One of those things is meaningless and the other is meaningless and annoying. I get having a time limit in the Coin Rush mode, but for the single-player experience, a finite amount of exploration time is nothing but a hindrance. It’s something I only notice when it’s about to kill me. Just let me play, Nintendo.

As for the points, no one would even notice this disappeared. Super Mario 64 doesn’t have points, and the world is still standing. It doesn’t hurt the game to include an ever-rising number on the bottom screen, but it’s representative of everything wrong with NSMB2. The team responsible is just slapping together parts from other titles without ever asking themselves why they’re doing it.

More detrimental to the experience is the way the game handles deaths. It is 2012. Super Meat Boy has happened. Please quit kicking me out into the over-world map after every single death. That is just baffling. It only gets in the way of the fun. A platformer in this era demands an instant-restart button. The absence of that is already a problem, but to throw Mario out of the stage completely and to force the player to reselect it is a travesty of design. It’s one that you get used to, but you shouldn’t have to.

Coin Rush mode has potential
Of course, the line from Nintendo on NSMB2 is that it’s all about the coins…and I guess it is. The game keeps a persistent count of every one you collect anywhere. That goes for the new Coin Rush mode as well. This asynchronous-multiplayer-focused event sorts three-random levels into the Mushroom Cup, Flower Cup, and Star cup. Players are given 100 seconds to collect as many coins as possible in the first level. If you makes it through without dying, then you can try for the same on the second level. If you make it through all three levels without dying, you have the option to save your score and begin sharing it with the 3DS’ SteetPass functionality.

It’s an intense mode. One hundred seconds is not a lot of time, and it’s easy to slip off a ledge when you’re is rushing through obstacles. I can see myself becoming attached to this if I had a ton of friends in my local area with whom I had StreetPass’d, but I don’t. Despite it being a fun distraction, it just feels like it’s missing some basic features. You can only share one high-score at a time — even across the different level packs. If I have a high score on the Mushroom Cup, I’d have to replace it with my high score on the Flower Cup. It’s really limiting, and pales in comparison to games like Super Meat Boy that have leaderboard times for every single level.

CONCLUSION

I’m conflicted. After I got past the sensation that I’ve done this before, I discovered a really fun game with lots of new ideas. NSMB2’s later worlds and many secrets do an especially great job at setting this release apart as one of the best titles on the 3DS, but Nintendo cannot do this again. The Wii U is launching with another New Super Mario title, and that will only exacerbate. I’d be more depressed about NSMB2 if I thought that Nintendo couldn’t make something fresh and exciting again, but we’re not that far removed from the revolutionary Super Mario Galaxy. Instead, I’m just confused and a little frustrated by some of the lazy decisions I found in this otherwise great game.

I want to reconnect with Mario. I know that’s it’s possible, but NSMB2 begins as just another night of nostalgic anecdotes. It eventually overcomes that on the strength of its world-class gameplay and level design, but pieces of that awkwardness remain.

Score: 71/100

New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo 3DS releases August 19 in North America. The publisher provided GamesBeat with a 3DS eShop download code for the purpose of this review.