When the first New Super Mario Bros. was announced, it seemed crazy. It’s not that we were tired of the 3D Mario games or anything (though I actually do hear some insane people sometimes who actually, you know, don’t like them), but it had been so long since there was a proper new side-scrolling Mario game that it was weird to see it another. It did a good job of reminding us why we loved those old games- full of secrets and incredibly well polished, I must have sank 30 hours into it, replaying levels over and over.
Then it sold a trillion copies, and Nintendo decided to start treating it like any good Mario spin-off and release at least one version of it on every one of their consoles. While it’s easy to say the idea is getting worn out already, they’ve all been focused on specific things that add into the core gameplay and provide new experiences every time. These are coming out hard and fast now, though, and with NSMB U coming out for the new console pretty soon, this one feels like it’s somehow caught in between. Plus, the much ballyhooed “Collect a MILLION COINS” mechanic winds up not really going anywhere, making it seem like a pointless challenge to pad out replay value. It’s got the fun, it just feels like something isn’t quite there and it’s hard to say what.
I’d recommend that you go read the Iwata Asks interview for this game because it’s pretty illuminating. It talks about how the team was made up of a lot of people who hadn’t made a 2D Mario game before, how this game started getting developed after NSMB U was in development, and where some of the ideas came from.
What Nintendo did was set up a “Mario Cram School,” teaching the core basics of Mario level design to help people who had never worked on a 2D Mario game figure out what makes them fun, and have them develop their own. This isn’t to say that the level design is bad or anything, but you do sense that there’s something lacking in them. So where something like Mario 3D Land and the first two NSMB games have a lot of challenging levels at the end that can really try your patience, this one really doesn’t have that- there are some interesting new takes on level design in a Mario game, but it never gets to the point where of some of the other games got to.
While the other games did a good job of trying to balance out challenge, this one seems to go a different way, asking you to seek out the challenge on your own. If you’re just busting through the levels, and your goal is to see the last castle and then see the credits, there’s not too much there. But if you go through and try to find all the secret exits and Gold Coins, there’s a lot more to keep you occupied. In some ways, it’s super smart- if you just casually play platformers like this, you can have fun, and if you die too many times, you can get the invincible suit to help you further. If you’ve grown up playing Mario games for years, there’s much further challenge for you to find. It’s easy for it all to get lost at some point if you’re not looking for it, though, you might be finding the game a little lacking.
Why am I just talking in depth about the design philosophy of the game instead of the gameplay? Because you know what you’re getting into here. New Super Mario Games just have those beats that they hit, so you’re just no surprised when they pop up. Even something that used to be a treat, like seeing the Koopalings, is now just another thing on the checklist for the series. You’ve got Star Coins, a secret area you only get after you beat the game, and secret exits to find.
Still, each new iteration has had a gimmick of some sort, with the original being size manipulation, the Wii version being all about multiplayer, and this one being all about coins…to an extent. Despite all of the marketing about it, though, there really isn’t that much going on with the coins. Yeah, it keeps track of your current total, and your highest earned per level, but it doesn’t do much more with it than say “yo, coins. Go collect them.” Even if you do collect the million it asks of you, you don’t really get a reward. Yes, the fun is supposed to come from the gameplay and not some arbitrary achievement or something, but when you don’t even get a new level it’s asking a little much.
Coin Rush, the new mode, is a cool idea, giving you 3 levels from elsewhere in the game, only 100 seconds in each, and just asking you to get as many coins as you can. You can save your record and exchange in on StreetPass, which is cool, because then you’re challenged with beating the other person’s records when they send them to you. I really like this mode because it’s designed to be a good mix of coin-heavy levels, so it’s entirely possible to walk out having earned 10,000 coins on something after a few minutes. Plus it’s just fun to run hell-bent through a level, trying to mix a huge amount of coins with getting to the end in time.
All of the rest of this game makes it feel like a Mario game set to a scientific formula. It’s all the familiar elements set in a new set of locations. The new stuff added in doesn’t really change the well-walked path the game treads. Every map is well made and has a lot to reveal once you’ve explored around it completely, but not as deep or difficult as previous games. It very much seems like an “in-between”, with the main team working on a real sequel, and this new team just isn’t as well-versed in how best to use the series.
So this is actually one of my favorite uses of 3D that I’ve seen in the system. It’s subtle, but absolutely gorgeous in the way that small elements are kind of brought out and others are sunk in. As you put the slider up and down, you’ll see the background sink, separate and blur, and some foreground elements get a little depth to them. It’s actually so precise that there were some Bowser friezes on the wall, and they actually popped out, but were still clearly behind Mario. The 3D is incredible, and I actually got a little bummed when I had to turn it off for whatever reason.
Even then, the game looks super crisp, a bright, color experience that’s great to look at. While the level design is a little expected in terms of visuals (ice level lava level mushroom level!), they all look very nice and animate smoothly. I’ve heard it said that this doesn’t look much better than the original, but this is a much smoother game, and it throws in more character and brighter textures and it really stands out.
I mentioned it a little in gameplay, but let me reiterate- you get from this game what you give to it. If you want to blow through a level as quickly as you can and think the best part of a game is watching the credits, that’s cool. You just won’t really have much fun, unless you love speed runs. This game opens up a lot more if you actually look for everything: secret exits, Star Coins, or even areas you didn’t know you could access and it’s just a neat secret.
At the same time, though, I also mentioned how retreaded this game feels. Yes, you can do all that, but there’s something about the fact that makes it feel like you’ve played it all before, and it’s probably the fact that you’ve played it all before. There is some good cleverness in the level designs, but they’re not as smart as the other games. It’s rare to lose too many lives in regular play, and it’s only when challenging yourself to do something else that you’ll see the Golden Mario pop up.
Now I want to be clear that I’m not trying to poo-poo this game. Beyond some feelings of staleness is a well-balanced, highly-polished platformer. While the challenge isn’t as deep as in older games, it’s still pretty difficult at points and it’s easy to find the fun, despite it being a little hidden and out of the way. Exposing things like the highest coin total you have is a great way to encourage replaying, and Coin Rush is a great way to get into the game for a super quick challenge if you’re on the bus or waiting for something and just need a quick challenge. Fighting records from StreetPass is also a lot of fun, in that same high-score challenge mentality that kept old arcade game interesting. Plus, you get all of the coins from their record when you complete a challenge, so it’s almost like free money!
I’ve also found all the secrets and beaten all the courses in this game, and that’s something I just don’t do with any other game- they all get so boring and so uninvolved. Yet this game keeps the discovery of the secrets so essential to unlocking more of the game and so involved in the gameplay that it’s a constant rush of something new until it’s 23 hours later, and you’ve finally unlocked and completed everything. Even then, though, Coin Rush is a compelling mix of the levels in quick succession, making this game easy to return to whenever you need a quick fix.
Adding the game to the eShop actually gives me a chance to recommend that as the way to buy the game, too. The download is no different from other games on there, but it just makes more sense for the game. Really, what you’re looking for is probably going to be a quick pick up and play platformer, and having it downloaded and stored is a much better option than just having the game on a cart that you’d have to remember everywhere you go. It makes the game more fun to just have it at all times, which is best for the game.
Nintendo needs to do something with this series to start making sure that it stays fresh. The core idea of a Mario platformer, side scrolling, on modern systems is perfectly sound, but they just came too many, too quickly. Lack of innovation might help tire us of a great idea, but even without being a new experience, there’s still a lot to this game that entertains and offers a fun experience to anyone who tries it. The game may lack some innovation, but where it counts, in gameplay, it still delivers the experience you expect from a Mario game.