Unlike last year’s “Super Mario 3D Land,” this latest Mario is a 2D side-scroller with gameplay almost identical to the “New Super Mario Bros.” released on Nintendo DS in 2006. The game’s main course is ridiculously easy even by Mario standards, although there’s some challenge presented by the final level and a few of the extra unlockable courses.
While I enjoyed the game (which I’ll now start referring to as “NSMB2”), I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had played it before. Entire courses seemed identical to ones from the “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” game released in 2009, particularly in the lava-filled final world and a middle world filled with purple water, spiderwebs, and giant caterpillars.
Most Mario games have a few levels that are positively exhilarating. “Super Mario Galaxy” was filled with them, including an epic final battle vs. Bowser spanning three planets. “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” has what might be my all-time favorite Mario level, a secret course involving a gigantic skeletal roller-coaster that you ride and cling to until the bitter end—all while hopping and avoiding a treacherous lava pit and the enemies emerging from it. By contrast, there really wasn’t a single level in “NSMB2” that felt exciting; again, the game stands out not for what it offers but for what it doesn’t.
Like previous games in the New Super Mario Bros. series, each course has three star coins tucked away in hidden, hard-to-access areas. It’s the primary trick Nintendo uses to make these games replayable—if you don’t find all the star coins, keep going back and exploring until you do. The star coins can be used to unlock special levels and mushroom houses containing items to help Mario on his way.
Separately from the hidden star coins, there are plain-old-regular Super Mario coins everywhere throughout each level. As you clear levels and build up coins, you unlock a bonus game, “Coin Rush,” in which you replay courses in order to collect more coins. Collect a million coins and the title screen will feature a gold Mario statue. I’m up to 17,000 coins, but I’ve already accomplished my goal of unlocking and completing each level, so I won’t be going much further.
It becomes clear while playing “NSMB2” that Nintendo needs to stop making new Mario games every year. Last year there was “Super Mario 3D Land,” today there’s “New Super Mario Bros. 2,” and coming soon is “New Super Mario Bros. U.” I love Mario, but there are only so many times you can trot out the same game and call it a sequel before the well of innovative gameplay is sucked dry.
After playing through the Italian plumber’s latest, I argue that the only way to save Super Mario Bros. is to give the series a time-out. If Nintendo needs cash in 2012 and 2013, issue a remake of every 8- and 16-bit Mario game for the iPhone, iPad, and Android. Or (since Nintendo hates releasing software for hardware it didn’t build) just release them again with better graphics for the 3DS and upcoming Wii U. No one will hold it against the company.
After doing that, Nintendo should wait. While Mario development will never completely cease, it should be put on the back burner in favor of developing new intellectual property. Keep the Mario wheels moving slowly behind the scenes until you hit upon the right idea, the one that takes the series to the next level like “Super Mario World” and “Super Mario 64” did in the 1990s, or “Super Mario Galaxy” in 2007.
Nintendo can take a page from its own Legend of Zelda series, which maintains its excellence with clever dungeon and over-world design, strong storytelling, and gameplay tweaked to fit the unique strengths of both handheld and traditional consoles. Crucially, years go by between major Zelda releases—that’s how long it takes to get everything right.
I will gladly wait until 2015 for the next Mario game if it’s anywhere near as satisfying as Zelda’s “Twilight Princess” or “Skyward Sword.” Fans waited five years between Zelda releases for the Wii and were rewarded. The same could be true of Mario.
The State of Mario Today: Haven’t I Already Played This Game?
Most gamers assume that each new Mario game will just offer more of the same. But that’s not entirely true. I’ve been playing Mario my whole life, and to my mind nearly every one stands out from the rest for one reason or another.
“Super Mario Bros. 3” and “Super Mario World” built upon the classic original with more intricate level designs, power-up items, and the ride-able dinosaur, Yoshi. “Super Mario 64” brought Nintendo into the 3D age and influenced an entire generation of games. “Super Mario Galaxy” introduced gravity as both villain and friend. And last year’s “Super Mario 3D Land” condensed the best bits of side-scrolling and 3D Mario action into one rollicking, lengthy video game.
With this latest Mario, only one thing distinguishes it from previous editions: coins. Lots and lots of coins. Yes, every Mario game has coins, but this one has lots of them, and you get the aforementioned special rewards for collecting them. If you played “New Super Mario Bros.” for the Nintendo DS, just about everything in this sequel will be familiar: it’s all nearly identical, just not quite as memorable.
Nintendo has fallen behind Sony and Microsoft in courting serious gamers. The fact that its biggest hits are new versions of classic games wouldn’t be concerning if Nintendo could also produce some great new series and attract third-party developers before the latter’s newest games hit the PS3, Xbox 360, and PC (or iOS and Android).
And while Nintendo still leads the handheld gaming market, it had to drastically cut the price of the 3DS. This holiday season, Nintendo will release a home console that finally puts it on graphical parity with the half-decade-old PS3 and Xbox 360. The list of launch games for the Wii U is notable for including third-party titles that hit rival consoles a year ago, such as “Batman: Arkham City.”
The thing Nintendo is really trying to build excitement around is “Nintendo Land,” a game that will supposedly explain the appeal of the Wii U in the same way Wii Sports sold players on the motion control capabilities of the original Wii. It’s hard to see how this strategy will succeed on a massive scale. “Nintendo Land” is basically just a series of mini-games based on Nintendo’s most successful franchises, as the company desperately clings to its past to remain relevant. It’s like saying, “hey, remember when these games really mattered?”
The Future of Mario
Ultimately, “NSMB2” is an enjoyable experience that leaves me discouraged about the future of the Mario series. While the Legend of Zelda has remained fresh, Nintendo is relying on gimmicks to make each new Mario game seem slightly different than the last. But with level design virtually identical from one game to the next, releasing three Mario games in just over a year will only make matters worse.
I don’t think Mario has run its course for all time. As I mentioned before, I just think the course has been run for 2012 and probably 2013. (Instead of playing the essentially same game with a “2” or a “U” appended to the title, I may as well replay the games that made me love Mario in the first place.) That’s why, instead of releasing one new Mario game every year (or worse, several), Nintendo should dramatically slow down and focus on one or two new Marios for each console generation.