Super Mario Bros. games are catching more and more flack of late for recycling the same game year in and year out, sometimes multiple times in the same year. There are 3D Mario games and there are 2D Mario games, but there is little doubt that Mario has always and will ever remain Mario. There will be coins to collect. There will be koopas to stomp. There will be a princess to save. Ignoring for a second that the last bit there feels somewhat problematic in the modern gaming landscape, what we have is a proven formula that the all-star developers responsible for the constant flow of Mario games are loathe to mess with.
Still, what New Super Mario Bros. 2 makes plain is that an evolution has been taking place in Mario games. It’s just been so subtle as to be almost invisible. New Super Mario Bros. 2 feels like the last step in that evolution, a series of game design choices taken to their logical conclusion.
Specifically, Super Mario Bros. games aren’t about “winning” anymore. While the story, as much as it exists (and let’s be honest, it barely exists), is still about Bowser kidnapping Princess Peach, it is shoved so far into the background here that it completely disappears. For some reason, the Koopa Kids are back to create a little havoc, and Peach seems somehow even more helpless than usual—I’m not sure I remember her walking a single step in this game, as all of her appearances have her being picked up and carried somewhere, usually while yelling—but none of it matters. It’s window-dressing. It’s here because somebody decided it needed to be here. Somebody thinks that we need motivation to progress, and so the Princess-as-MacGuffin approach is employed. Apparently, gaming for the sake of playing a game still just isn’t enough for some portion of these games’ sizable audience.
Still, rescuing the Princess has been relegated further and further to the background, a pattern that one can see beginning in the first New Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo DS.* New Super Mario Bros. was not an overly difficult game, and no regular Mario player had any trouble getting through it, but it pulled the curious trick of almost certainly leaving two full worlds inaccessible upon the first playthrough. While a player who “wins” has the satisfaction of getting to the end, there is also the feeling that much of the game has gone unexplored. When you skip two whole worlds, there is a compulsion to go back and try to figure out how to play them. If you don’t play them, you’ll never know if you’ve missed out on the most fun, most difficult, or most well-designed levels in the game. It’s an almost insidious route to keeping a player interested in the game.
Since then, Mario games have become less and less about winning and more and more about completing. The game isn’t over when you save the princess anymore. Perhaps the most exhilirating part of Super Mario 3D Land, for example, was the realization upon completion that the player was at best half done. There was a whole parallel world to explore, a world with new powerups, new challenges, and new levels that only tangentially resembled the proper adventure’s pieces. It is essentially two Mario games in one and only the best and most devoted Mario players ever experience it all.
As much as New Super Mario Bros. 2 is about saving the princess, it is also about item (and specifically coin) collection. You can buzz through most of these levels fairly quickly, as the platforming required to get from start to finish is very, very basic. The levels are short, and you’re given tons of time to get through them. Boss fights are generally so easy as to be nearly insulting, and there is quite literally no spot—no spot at all—that will take more than five tries.
The funny thing is, even if it was a difficult game to beat, even if certain stretches took ten, 20, 50 tries to get through, it wouldn’t really matter. There are so many coins in this game that you may well have more lives after you finally master a difficult stretch than you did before you ever came across it.
Ostensibly, coins are New Super Mario Bros. 2‘s reason for being. Coins are getting all the publicity because 99% of the secret passageways and hidden triggers in the game are there for the sake of granting the player with more coins. There are new power-ups that offer unimaginable amounts of the things. To a point, this is fun. This is exciting. You feel like you’re accomplishing something in the way that kids do when they’re participating in an Easter egg “hunt” that involves 75 eggs tossed into a four-square-foot area in the church courtyard. The game even keeps a running count of all the coins that you’ve found, so that you have some idea of just how devoted/completist/unaware-of-the-outside-world you are. Eventually, though, the coins sort of fade into the background. The game is not to collect them, so much as it is to find new and creative ways to collect them. Make a skillful jump from candlestick to candlestick in a ghost house, for example, and a little string of ten coins might just pop up out of nowhere. Find a blue “P” switch in a tucked away brick, and you might just have the chance to collect 50 coins that weren’t even there before. There will even be applause if you find them all!
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is what it looks like when a design team shows off, when every level becomes a game of “can you top this?”. There are secrets within secrets within secrets, and most of them are just sitting there to be found if you’re paying attention. These aren’t the types of secrets that force you to run to GameFAQs for the sake of completing a game. These are the types of secrets where a slight discoloration or a loosening of the camera is just enough of a tipoff for a player to know that there is something to be done. They are Portal secrets—puzzles that aren’t actually all that difficult but that make the player feel smart.
While the transition to a nearly non-linear puzzle experience is a pleasurable one, it’s hard to see where Mario could possibly go from here; unless the devs are willing to eschew a story altogether and, say, turn the next Mario game into a series of vignettes, preferably ones that give the princess something to do other than get carried. It is constant stimulation, and it is often brilliant enough to make the player’s head shake at the sheer audacity of the level design. Taking the game to this point almost guarantees that the next edition, whenever that appears, is going to be inventive—to take Mario to a place he’s never been.
While New Super Mario Bros. 2 is fine on its own, it’s in this promise that the real excitement resides.
*The argument could be made here for Super Mario World, with its exclamation point blocks and alternate exits or even for the original Super Mario Bros., a game in which talking to your friends about warp zones was actually more exciting than talking to them about saving the Princess. Still, the DS game seems to be the first game in which the idea of playing the levels so overtly superceded the idea of “winning”.