Playing New Super Mario Bros. 2 over the last week, a few things struck me. Is Nintendo, a once mighty company brought to its knees in the last year by the 3DS omnishambles, making some kind of sick joke at its own expense? Has it created a game-length meditation on the financial bubble and its aftermath? Or is it just a gaming dinosaur recycling old tricks in a desperate attempt to recapture past glories?
If you don’t know, the humble coin is front and centre in this latest Mario release. The levels are full of them, the power-ups generate loads, and there is a one million coin target that evolves into an ever-present MacGuffin, spurring the player on to replay levels for maximum financial gain.
Coins are probably the least glamorous item in the Mario universe, but one that has an interesting history. The formula is beautifully simple. Collect a hundred coins, get an extra life. In the original Super Mario Bros. coins are scarce, and so are extra lives. This, combined with the game’s torturous difficulty, makes finding and using all available cash key to completion, at least for those of us who aren’t world-class platforming athletes. Finding a ten-coin box can be the deciding factor between getting to the next level and a heart-crushing game over. Knowledge of their whereabouts is highly prized. You conduct research, take hand-written notes, experiment and strategise. This style of coin gaming reached its apex with the third in the series, Super Mario Bros. 3, with the importance of coins still overwhelmingly derived from their scarcity. Collecting them is, literally, a matter of life and death.
By the time of Mario games on the SNES, power-ups had become more important. Mario’s cape makes platforming mayhem a lot easier to handle, its floaty physics allowing you to glide over bottomless pits and spikes of death. And Yoshi reduces some formidable enemies to toast with an ease not provided by the old-school and awkward fire flower. This, combined with the advent of the save point, made coins much less critical. Sometimes in these games it seems they are only there to fill the screen, making pleasing pinging sounds as you hoover them up. The endorphin release is still there, but you’ve moved those yellow discs deeper into the subconscious.
When we get to 3D Mario, with Super Mario 64, the relationship between coins and life became much more direct. Coins refilled your health meter, meaning they were important in the nearer-term and not so much part of a game-length strategy. I think this fits with the episodic ‘courses’ nature of this type of Mario game, and has persisted right up until Galaxy 2. But it makes coins a fundamentally different thing.
Which brings us to the ‘New’ series, starting with New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, through New Super Mario Bros. Wii and on to last week’s release. Even before this latest edition, coins were much more numerous. There is no fist-pumping when you reach 100. You’ll tot up extra lives without even realising it. By their proliferation, coins, and life, become cheap. There are new iterations too. Long trails of blue coins you have to rush to collect, awkward to reach red coins that offer a prize if you grab them all. Most importantly, and a key feature of the ‘New’ series, are the ‘Star Coins’, of which there are three on each level. Finding and collecting all of these gives the player the most profound satisfaction, even greater than story completion, even if they do very little. Simply put, the journey becomes more important than reaching the destination.
Clearly the coin has reached its zenith with New Super Mario Bros. 2. Its time has come. There are so many in this game they become an almost inane feature, a slapstick overload as they fly from every direction and constantly rack up on your scoreboard. The calculus of coin collection has gone as well. Coins make death less harsh. Power-ups make platforming easier. When many power-ups simply generate more coins we are basically back to square one, with the very idea of the coin cancelling itself out and death becoming ever more meaningless. The psychological release of coin collection, already diluted, has become effectively non-existent.
The hollow feeling I’ve experienced playing New Super Mario Bros. 2 runs deeper than that though. It’s obvious, and has been widely noted, that this rapidly produced game was a cynical move. Nintendo knows punters love 2D Mario (New Wii sold more than either Galaxy game), and it desperately wants them to buy a 3DS and lock-in to Nintendo handheld software. It is surely a no-brainer. But moments of platforming magic were inevitably the victim. Whereas in other Mario games – none more so than in the masterpiece Galaxy 2 – the warmth and wit of the level design provides the purest kind of escapism imaginable, in New Super Mario Bros. 2 cynicism begets, well, cynicism. Sure, there are moments that brought a wry grin to my face, and it is surely going to be one of the best 2D platformers this year, but the high standard set by previous entries in the series has not been matched.
Am I too harsh? Should every Mario game have to re-invent the wheel? Or, like soap operas and crime fiction, is it enough to just be able to hang out with characters we know and love for a few weeks each year? I’m not sure, but the symbolism of the coin in this new game is too heavy to avoid. Nintendo has admitted, both through its publishing strategy and in the ‘text’ of the game itself, that the tried and tested will be the order of the day for financial reasons. If this doesn’t stop them from taking risks elsewhere, it is a price I’m willing to pay. But if it as at the expense of their fertile imagination and creativity, then that’s just kind of sad.