To say that we know what to expect from a Mario game by now is, usually, both a tested truism and a misnomer. Since Super Mario Bros 3 (still the best 2D Mario), these games have been all about taking elements from the older games in the series and pushing them in awesome new directions, throwing up unexpected, delightful level designs and crazy abilities. The Galaxy games play out as a series of amazing experiments, and last year’s 3D Land was an excellent mash-up of the sensibilities of both the 2D and 3D Mario platformers.
But then, there’s the misleadingly titled New Super Mario Bros 2, the third ‘New’ game since the 2006 DS version, which seems unusually content to simply exist. Early on, in particular, it’s easy to completely tune out on this one. While the DS game was the first proper 2D Mario game in ages, and the Wii version still felt fresh and bold, the 3DS version has a bit of a cash-cow feel to it, to the extent where its coin-collecting theme feels more like a metaphor than a gimmick.
There are coins absolutely everywhere in NSMB2, spewing out of pipes, popping out of blocks, and bursting out of enemies if you’ve collected the proper power-ups. This may up the stakes in the (offline only) multiplayer somewhat, and it gives you a bit more of a sense of purpose when you’re running through each level, but the accumulation of wealth isn’t actually all that great an incentive for those of us who have been collecting these coins for years now, especially when the reward for collecting a million of the damn things is a new title screen. The ‘life’ system is, surely, nothing more than a winking parody of game convention at this point, effortlessly soaring into triple figures by the end of the game as you’re literally showered with gold. As a way of establishing identity within the Mario series, this gold-rush isn’t particularly inspired.
Otherwise, New Super Mario Bros 2 is a pretty low-key affair, full of old ideas and awful boss fights. When the Tanooki suit popped up in 3D Land, it was a welcome piece of nostalgia, cleverly reinvented for the 3D world; here, it just feels a bit underused. The enemies and levels are all too familiar, as are all your moves. Even the graphics feel a bit muted, especially when the 3D effect blurs the otherwise quite pleasant backgrounds to achieve depth.
None of this means that New Super Mario Bros 2 ever even comes close to being a bad game, mind you. Mario games are, at their absolute worst, merely inessential, and it’s easier to complain about what this game gets wrong because the many things it gets right are so familiar to us by now that pointing them out hardly seems necessary. It’s worth noting that from the halfway point onwards some levels actually do exhibit some of that classical Nintendo brilliance, and although the game is quite short there are plenty of fun bits to play through. More than ever, this one is about exploring rather than reaching the finish. Just getting to the flag at the end of most levels is disappointingly unexciting and easy, but hunting down the three hidden Star Coins in each map, and the multiple hidden paths and exits, is often a pleasure.
Plus, every now and then, you’ll find a level that is actually totally rad. The last few worlds are fairly cool, and there are a few neat gimmicks along the way, including ghost houses that warp and move around, Lakitu clouds that can be controlled, pipes that fire you across the level. And, as always, Mario’s unique combination of beer-gut heaviness and floaty jumping just sort of works.
So yes, New Super Mario Bros 2 is a Mario game, and in some ways it gives you pretty much what you’d expect. But it’s also the first Mario game I’ve ever played that frequently bored me, and as much as it manages to nail the central mechanics and tick many of the right boxes, it also serves as worrying proof that, in the world of gaming, no series is truly sacred.