You might think that with two games in the same series being released during the same year (the other being Mario U) that Nintendo is strapped for ideas. Just how much classic sidescrolling Mario do we need, anyway? While at first glance NSMB2 does indeed look like more of the same, underneath its tried-and-true facade is a game that feels most worthy of its ďnewĒ branding.
Itís the gameís emphasis on coins. How often does a Mario game, let alone any video game, focus all of its design on one singular aspect? Most games are hodgepodges of mechanics. Super Mario Galaxy 2, for example. What underlying philosophy are turning into a cloud and riding Yoshi indicative of? They are non-sequiturs contrivedly stitched together. Well, the seams always show. NSMB2, on the other hand, is a game with a center. It has a thesis statement. It says:
ďCoin collecting is fun in Mario games, right? It just feels good to pick up a shiny thing and be rewarded with a catchy sound effect. Itís audiovisual crack. So, letís run with that.Ē
As such, the game plays like an essay on coin collecting. For instance, each level is specifically designed to create scenarios for increasing a playerís coin count. The most basic way this is evident is in the sheer number of coins littered throughout the levels. Coins have always been used to show a player the best path through a level or to entice him or her to a particular spot, but in NSMB2 this has been kicked into high gear. Instead of there being two or three coins along a jump arc there are more like six or seven. Coins are also now used as rewards for tiny triumphs. Go out of your way to catapult Mario to a hard-to-reach spot, and a flock of coins will fly in from somewhere off screen, revealing themselves to curious players. Or, take out a a trio of Piranha Plants and the pipes that housed them might just start joyously vomiting gold like some water park fountain of Midas.
Again, though, thatís just the basic stuff. The level design doesnít really take off until the gameís three new gameplay additions come into play. Each one is meant to give players a new, fun way of collecting coins.
First up is a floating gold ring that, once Mario jumps through it, turns all of the enemies into gold for a short period of time. If an enemy is killed while in this golden state, it will add 5 coins to the playerís count. If enemies are successively killed, a multiplier is started (5 coins first, then 10, then 20, then 50). The level design around these rings is clearly intended to nudge the player into a specific scenario (such as a Koopa shell at the top of a long slope just asking to be thrown), but thereís a good bit of room for player expression. Itís ultimately up to the player to decide when and how to use the gold rings. Itís a lot of fun figuring out the order of stomping enemies that yields the most coins, especially with the rush of the timer.
Next is what Iíve taken to calling ďcoin headĒ Mario. Whenever a player encounters a block that yields more than one coin, if they keep pounding away at it, the block will eventually pop onto Marioís head. Coins continue to come out. So, yeah. Coin Head Mario. The coins will spurt out at a faster rate if the player runs fast and jumps high. Theyíll continue spurting out at this higher rate until the player stops Marioís momentum, or of they get hit by an enemy. This is both extremely satisfying and fun. It incentivizes the player to go full on speed run mode and run and jump like crazy. It feels so good to have a steady stream of coins gushing out of the top of Marioís dome all while avoiding enemies and obstacles.
The third and final one is the most interesting of all. Itís the gameís only new power up, and itís a take on the Fire Flower. Itís simply called ďGold Mario, and it, in addition to covering Mario in shiny, luscious gold from head to toe, makes his fireball projectiles turn either enemies or brick blocks into gold. This is a totally brilliant addition. Once Mario is transformed into Gold Mario, the game turns into a ďchoose your own adventureĒ quest for cash. Maybe youíll shoot four Goombas in a row to take advantage of the aforementioned multiplier to snag a sweet total of 85 coins. Maybe youíll take out a Lakitu (for 5 coins), and then rain golden terror down from above to increase your coin count tenfold. Or maybe youíll (and this is my personal favorite) save Gold Mario for an underground level. Underground levels mean lots of destructible brick blocks, and that means within each block is a shiny golden trinket just waiting to be blown open. Destroying the entire level with Gold Mario might hurt the level designersí feelings, but thatís ok. Itís fun.
Thatís really what the game is all about
: pure, simple, satisfying fun. The coin collecting focus is kind of just a means to an end; unadulterated pleasure is the real goal. Thatís what picking up a coin is, after all. Itís fun in and of itself. I think that focus gave the designers a strong context in which to create fun scenarios for the player. Actually, I know thatís what happened, because it says so in the gameís Iwata Asks
Amano: ďWhat I felt really new this time was that the programmers had a lot of ideas that helped steer the direction of the game.Ē
Iwata: ďThatís probably because there was the primary objective of collecting coins. Everyone focused on it and a lot of ideas came out.Ē
There is a bit of an issue with the gameís difficulty that I should address. Every 100 coins still grants the player a new life. When the goal is collecting as many coins as possible, and with the game designed to help the player towards this goal in every way it can, that means that the player is going to be racking up a lot of lives. This effectively robs the goal of finishing the story of any challenge at all. I said itís only a bit of an issue because, honestly, I think itís ok. I donít think finishing the story in a game is very satisfying or rewarding, and Iím glad that NSMB2 dilutes that goal into insignificance. It makes room for a new, infinitely more satisfying goal: scoring.
Playing for score in a game is always more rewarding; itís the difference between tee ball and Home Run Derby. I donít think Iíve ever played Super Mario Bros. for score, but in my defense, it hasnít really been possible since the advent of saved games. Score becomes meaningless if one can play the same game file over and over again. NSMB2ís three new gameplay additions (the gold rings, Coin Head Mario, and Gold Mario), though, all make me want to play for score. Their impermanence has a lot to do with it. I know that the gold ring is on a time limit, and I know that Coin Head Mario and Gold Mario wonít last forever, so I fervently try to increase my coin count as much as possible while I can.
Thereís actually an entire game mode devoted to scoring called ďCoin Rush.Ē In it, the player must play through three randomly-selected levels and set a high score for the number of coins collected. The player is only given one life, and the timers are short. Itís a hectic, but extremely fun way of playing Mario. Players can share their high scores via StreetPass, which is neat, but leaderboards would have been even better.
This emphasis on scoring breathes a lot of life into the classic formula. I may even say that it feels the most ďnewĒ of all the NSMB games, but the multiplayer in the Wii installments has a lot going for it, too Iíll save that question for another time. For now, Iíll leave off by saying that NSMB2 is an excellent and fresh entry into the NSMB series, and itís all because the designers were able to rally around a single idea. I hope for more games made in that vein.