Still Playing: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Still Playing is a recurring feature in which Nintendo Nation takes a look at a recently released game that is still in command of our attention. Today we look at why we’re still digging for gold in the 3DS’ New Super Mario Bros. 2.

New Super Mario Bros 2 gets a lot of flak and, let’s be honest, a lot of it is deserved. Recycled enemies, environments and game structure. a pitifully small, ‘Glee-ified’ musical score. The removal of New Super Mario Bros’ ace Mario vs. Luigi mode. A frankly embarrassing 3D effect. New Super Mario Bros 2 is a lazy, lazy game. So why does our activity log say that it’s been played for longer than unquestionably superior Super Mario 3D Land?

Three words: Coin. Rush. Mode.

The main reason the ‘New’ Super Mario Bros. games get a lot of aggression from the gaming community is that for a series advertising its freshness there’s an overwhelming stench of ‘been here before’ about them. Like returning to your hometown after someone tells you that everything’s changed, to find that the extent of this claim is a new lick of paint and that the Coffee Shop is under new management. A distinct case of overselling.

But Coin Rush Mode is new. Like the best bits of Mario’s past catalogue Coin Rush is the element that makes you sit bolt upright and say ‘Mazza’s still got it, he’s still the king’.

The 2D platformer has had a bit of a renaissance over the last few years. If it’s not big console games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Rayman Origins, and Donkey Kong Country Returns then it’s unbelievably good indie developed work like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV.

Despite their differing lineage and looks there’s one element that all of these 2D platformer’s have shared; challenge. Even if not to begin with the ‘ultimate’ goal of the modern platformer is often a super tricky level, or series of fiendish tests – even Super Mario 3D Land was not exempt from this rule. These challenges are normally designed with perfection in mind, asking players to run at full speed and land precision leaps on a pin head.

These levels are often amusing in their difficulty, billed as a ‘survival of the fittest’, but when put under any analytical scrutiny they’re revealed merely as exercises in extreme memorisation. Beat the designer’s challenge, jump through all their specific, tiny hoops, and beat the game. Done.

Coin Rush is a bombshell on the modern 2D platformer because it takes this concept – the idea of learning a level and memorising the motions required to succeed – and flips the mirror of agency right back on the player.

Quick recap for those that don’t know – Coin Rush Mode gives you three random levels from the game’s single player that must be played all in one life, the goal being to get as high a coin total at the end of the three levels as you possibly can. The mode features combo elements to boost your total amongst other tricks but time is always short.

The beauty of Coin Rush is that you’re always the one deciding how to tackle a level. Where other platformer’s hang up their tiny hoops for you to jump through so you can prove that you’ve ‘mastered’ the game, New Super Mario Bros. 2 throws all of the hoops over to you and says ‘you’ve played enough, you work out how best to jump through them. Show me how good you really are’.

That’s the beauty of Coin Rush Mode – it puts everything in the player’s court and in doing so focuses the magnifying glass right on New Super Mario Bros. 2′s exposed design follicles. Coin Rush mode says ‘let’s see just how good our levels really are’ and ‘let’s see just how well Mario really controls’. And after hours and hours and hours and hours of relentless runs and re-runs it’s clear – the game is spotless.

These are fat-free levels packed full of ideas, thoughtful elements and pixel perfect bounces, and Coin Rush mode exposes all of this as you work out how best to run a level to maximize your total. You feel smart when you get a high score because you worked out how to do it, and because you controlled Mario perfectly through your planned route. Yet you’re always wondering if it would be possible to get just a few more coins out of your levels…

Your levels. That’s the other element of genius in Coin Rush; your levels are your levels, making whatever score you can get across them that bit more personal. Your score and your levels are then broadcast to passers by through Streetpass. You play your trio of levels so much because your Mario mastery is being judged by everyone you saunter past, and you want to give them something to gawp at, something to push their mastery of the game further. Sometimes you get a serious challenge back in return and that only forces you to buckle up and work out how to maximize another set of levels, because every set of three feels different, and every set of three is a new, individual challenge to conquer.

‘You finished the last level of Donkey Kong Country Returns? Good for you, so did I, but can you top 23,000 coins on my three levels?’, you’ll say to friends. New Super Mario Bros. 2′s final challenge is defined by your ability, not a designer on a mean streak, and in this sense it’s more of a ‘game’ than every other title in the current platformer ‘renaissance’ put together.

For some bizarre reason Coin Rush mode stops counting at 30,000 coins (something we hope Nintendo fixes with the upcoming Coin Rush DLC) but even so, this is mastery and competition completely in your hands, it’s your chance to show off your abilities in a platformer environment fine tuned to perfection. So yeah, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a lazy game in many, many ways – we’re not saying it isn’t – but it’s also arguably the most extreme and important re-evaluation of the 2D platformer’s endgame since Super Mario World.