In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we play New Super Mario Bros. and figure out what “2D Mario” means a decade after it was replaced
A lot of this series has been dedicated to charting the evolution of specifically the Mario series. Donkey Kong, Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario 64 have all been featured. While part of that is certainly my basic tastes, it’d be hard to make any serious series with the same conceit and skip most of these games. There was certainly a lot to talk about, with each Mario game representing a seismic leap forward. But, starting with Super Mario 64 the focus of the series shifted to 3D. By the time we hit 2006, there hasn’t been a mainline1 2D Mario in 15 years. And in general, 2D games in this period were viewed as less than, something you’d only make on a platform that couldn’t handle 3D. This attitude was slowly changing, and while New Super Mario Bros. certainly isn’t the first game to buck the trend2 it’s definitely arriving fashionably early. So, what does Nintendo think about 2D? What do they still want to do in the medium?
Unfortunately, I’m not sure New Super Mario Bros. ever comes up with a good answer to that question.
The first problem is that this is a game too dedicated to proving its bona fides. Levels end with flagpoles/castles. The second level is an underground one, while the third takes place on tall mushrooms. You can run over the exit pipe in the aforementioned second level to find a secret. The game’s not entirely derivative, but it’s definitely playing the hits as it were. In some ways it serves as a litmus test to determine which elements of the 2D games have stuck in popular memory enough to be part of the Brand and which ones haven’t. We get ghost house levels and alternate exits, but the overworld has a pretty strong Super Mario 3 vibe, eschewing the complexity of World. The flagpole ends (non-boss) levels, winning out over the roulette block or ticker tape. The Super Mushroom, Fire Flower, and Starman are here, but none of the other games’ powerups stuck around.
But one of the problems here is that some of the elements that calcify have no business being in a 21st century video game. New Super Mario Bros. features a positively archaic saving and lives system. You may only save your game after beating a boss or unlocking a star door on the overworld map. That’s it. If you run out of lives you have to reload your save, potentially replaying several levels. It’s just…there’s no need for this. It wastes the player’s time. Going back to Super Mario 64 I’ve covered 10 games in this series: 4 don’t feature lives at all3, 4 have lives but no significant penalty for a Game Over, and 2 have Metroid-like save systems that are honestly a bit orthogonal to this conversation. You have to go back to the mid-90s for genre leading platformers to routinely feature lives as a serious impediment to the player. They were an element in all the NES/SNES Marios because that was the style at the time, but including them here just feels…thoughtless.
And “thoughtless” is a good word for how a lot of this game feels, honestly. One of its most prominently marketed new features is the Mega Mushroom, which allows Mario to become truly gigantic, filling about half the screen, and go on a rampage, destroying nearly all stage elements in his wake. It’s fun enough, and deployed to good effect in World 1-1 as a “see we’re doing new stuff too” reassurance. But it only reappears naturally in a handful of other stages. Mostly, you’re meant to get it from bonus levels in the overworld and then deploy it in the level of your choosing. Theoretically a neat way of having an organic “this level’s giving me problems, I’d like to skip it” system. Except, so many of this game’s levels don’t feel like they were designed with the Mega Mushroom in mind. It’s shockingly common to encounter a chokepoint that’s too small for Mega Mario to fit through, forcing you to just wait out the timer on your wasted powerup before progressing. There’s a lack of care here that’s honestly a bit shocking for Mario. This is what one of the most vital series in gaming is putting out?
Now, there are some new additions that fully work. New Super Mario Bros. incorporates some moves from the 3D games, like wall jumping and ground pounding, which feel like natural additions4. The wall jump especially helps NSMB feel modern, since its time as a common platformer mechanic was after Super Mario World. The Star Coins are also excellent. These are 3 optional collectibles you can find in each level that serve as an extra challenge/reward for players who want to flex a little. This is the change to the 2D formula that feels most essential, and it’s no surprise that this system (or a nearly identical equivalent, such as Green Stars) has appeared in almost every linear Mario game since, becoming part of the “standard package”.
But unfortunately New Super Mario Bros. doesn’t have enough of those to feel vital itself. It feels most like a brand extension. I don’t think it’s coincidental that most Super Mario merchandise you can buy these days tend to feature art of classic elements from the NES games done in a smooth 3D style, ie the exact art style of the NSMB games. It’s all the elements of the series that are most remembered, preserved in an art style that’s “timeless” in the sense that it lacks an identifiable personality. It treats its forbearers, not as a jumping off point, but as sacred texts that must be adhered to as closely as possible in all the most superficial ways. (Note, for instance, how each Mario game on the (S)NES featured a new and different doohickey at the end of the level, while NSMB just brings back the flagpole because the most people remember that one) I mentioned last month how the platformer genre was losing its primacy and popularity in this era, and New Super Mario Bros. feels like a consequence of that. A game that views both its genre and its own predecessors as artifacts of an earlier age rather than part of a vital current that it also shares.
- Another consequence of the platformer’s decline is that I wrote this article at all! New Super Mario Bros. is not an especially exciting game, but I really couldn’t find anything better. We’ll see what the comments have to say about this, but the years of being spoiled for choice are mostly in the rearview mirror
- This is a very petty complaint, but there’s an invisible block in World 5-Ghost House that’s required to get one of the Star Coins that is also just obviously placed wrong. It’s exactly two spaces above the ground, meaning that if you’re small Mario you can hit it just fine, but if you’re Super Mario you’ll need to crouch before jumping, otherwise you’ll pass right through and not even know it’s there. There’s no reason it can’t just be three spaces up instead. Y’all need to have an internal metric for this shit or something, put it on the internal wiki
- The last segment of the last level features the exact same gimmick (and possibly same layout?) as Super Mario Bros.’s last level. This game is drowning in callbacks
- This game introduces “Dry Bowser”, a skeletonized version of normal Bowser, who logically must therefore be Wet Bowser.
Other 2006 platformers of note:
Listen, it was legitimately hard for me to not dedicate the headlining spot to Sonic the Hedgehog (2006). This game is a legendary failure. Everyone knows about the minute-long loading screens, the overwhelming number and variety of bugs, “It’s No Use!”, Eggman looking Like That…
This game is a massive technical failure. If platform certification weren’t just for show it would have been denied release on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, that’s how dire things are. This is a game so bad that it effectively killed the Sonic series. Not in terms of ending or even pausing releases, but in terms of its reputation. If you’ve ever wondered why “Sonic was never good” gets so much more traction than with any of its contemporaries, this game is why. Its ineptitude reverberated throughout the ages.
Listen, the whole trend with 3D Sonic games so far has been “this Sonic gameplay is pretty good, if only they’d stop messing around” and Sonic ’06 gives us that! It’s a Sonic game based purely on action stages, with cameos from other characters with slightly differing movesets just to keep things fresh. You can squint your eyes and see the form of a pretty solid game that never got to be. Indeed, there are several fan projects that are attempting to do just that5. Sonic ’06 isn’t just some buggy mess best left forgotten6. There’s something there, something compelling at least to us Sonic fans, if not to the general public. Also, “ew Sonic kisses a human woman” grow up. It’s 2022, furries are cool now.
Next Time: If 2D Mario is disappointing, does 3D Mario at least retain the spark? We play Super Mario Galaxy and find out.