I originally wrote this article for Nintendo3DSDaily.com
Over the last 5 months I have devoted time every Sunday to practice this Mario Medley composed by Andrew Johnson. The piece is very "Mario" in that it works with the original theme that scored my childhood and my love for video games. And unlike other Mario medleys, Andrew's sticks with that classic SMB World 1-1 melody. Yet in a very different way, the piece borrows pieces of piano classics from great composers in music history. Now, after putting in half a year of Sunday practice only to have progressed half way through this 8 page masterpiece, I'm convinced that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is one of the greatest platformers showing why great real-time gameplay is more like music than anything else.
SMB 1-1 depicted in musical notation.
Maybe A Musical Metaphor will Mend your Mario Malaise.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is both familiar and novel. The seemingly contradictory, oxymoronic juxtaposition between the new and old is evident in the title of the game. It's a new game that's a direct numerical sequel to a older game that re-designed the style of the classic NES game Super Mario Bros. In New Super Mario Bros. 2, Mario is still Mario. He still runs, jumps, and sounds the same. He even looks exactly how we... remember him looking; after all, back in the day the crisp pixel edges of Mario's sprites were blurry at best on our TVs. Indeed, Mario is a man of few words and a game of few changes if you're the kind of gamer who only judges games by their graphical exteriors. But if you do so then you'll miss what Mario is really about.
While we're on the topic of visuals, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the best looking 2D Mario platformer. Like that original NES aesthetic, NSBM2 often features simple almost monochromatic scenery to create a stark color contrast between the interactive foreground and the non-interactive background. At the same time, Mario's world is filled with depth and texture. The block bricks and cave walls and rough walkways are displayed in all the high resolution detail that we love from next-gen gaming. Yet, with just a flick of the 3D depth slider, the backgrounds drop away into the back of the screen and blur for a very photographic effect. The look is fantastic, but it does even more for gameplay. The stereoscopic technology of the 3DS allows developers to use depth to distinguish between layers. It's nearly impossible to be confused about whether something on the screen is interactive or just in the background.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 is familiar; some say too familiar. Mario. Fire Flowers. Goomba. Koopa. Reznor. Bowser. We've seen it before. Even Koopa Kids, Tanooki Tails, and co-op play aren't "new" enough for some. Others say NSMB2 is too easy. Just store a powerup, farm enough 1ups, or just die enough times and you can White Raccoon Mario your way to victory. Dwelling on low skill floors and the number of new gameplay elements in NSMB2 distracts from what Mario has been about since turning Super in the first place. Gameplay! In other words simple and engaging mechanics, layered level design, interesting choices, clean feedback, and enough dynamics to pull it all together. And the best way to understand how NSMB2 exemplifies these attributes is by thinking of playing Mario as playing a musical instrument.
The most meaning in Mario comes from it gameplay. Not its story. And not the newness of the game setting, music, or visual style. The point of New Super Mario Bros. 2 is to engage with its platforming gameplay, to recognize the challenges and the options you have to overcome these challenges, and to ultimately build your skill to play at increasingly more competent levels. I wouldn't suggest doing any of this work if it wasn't worth it. Aspects of gameplay experiences are difficult to express, for reasons that I won't get into here. But I want to say clearly that when I become skilled at playing Mario's design, I gain the ability to read Goomba and Koopa like musical notes, marking the places where I must act. And though these marks move dynamically across the screen, my interaction with them and around them makes something like music. I set my own pace by refusing to release the run button. I freestyle and improvise my way to victory one jump at a time.
Super Mario Brothers 2D platforming game design is something like a musical genre. This genre uses a set of now familiar elements and conventions to create a refined mode of expression. With the lofty goal of achieving new levels of excellence with every title, the Mario platformers were built upon the foundation of Super Mario Bros for the NES. There's no need to reinvent the Goomba. Since the beginning Goomba have served a unique design role as a basic enemy that falls off of platforms and doesn't chase the player. In other words Mario has a solid history of design forms, functions, and conventions that allows designers to leverage the knowledge that many players have to deliver something new.
Nowadays, I suspect that most gamers who will play New Super Mario Bros. 2 have some Mario experience. But Nintendo understands that there are many who don't. There are many gamers who struggle just to see the ending credits in games. So Nintendo has made it relatively easy to beat NSMB2. Beyond just beating the game, it's moderately challenging to collect all the star coins in each level. And it's tricky to discover all the levels and secrets without any outside help. But for those who really want to put their years of Mario experience to the test, there's Coin Rush mode. And it's here where NSMB2 gameplay really sings. It's not a matter of if NSMB2 is a top notch platforming experience. It's only a matter of if you can see why.
The problem is, the greatness of Mario's gameplay cannot be understood merely by playing the game once and beating it. Twice through isn't going to be enough either. Like all complex systems, we have to study a game to best understand it even down to how the smallest pieces work together in a harmonious design. Music is the same way. They say music is a universal language, but there's more to this phrase than most realize. Sure, the abstract and aural qualities of music allow it to be easily perceived and enjoyed by any nation, race, creed, and tongue. But this doesn't mean that all people can instantly grasp all the meaning in music upon hearing it for the first time. It aslo doesn't mean that people can immediately enjoy music either. If music is truly like a language (universal or otherwise), this means studying the equivalent of musical vocabulary, grammar, and history helps us extract and embrace the more complex, subtle, and powerful meanings within music.
"The first, reports The Atlantic, is that "when listeners hadn't previously encountered a certain chord, they found it nearly impossible to hear the individual notes that comprised it." Not that they didn't like it — they literally didn't even process it. Is that like hearing a word in language you don't understand? That it's just so much noise, so to speak?" ~NPR.org
The ability to identify tones and thus enjoy harmonies was positively correlated with musical training. Said study co-author Sarah Wilson, "This showed us that even the ability to hear a musical pitch (or note) is learned." ~theatlantic.com
Study, learning, practice, and repetition are required to unlock the structure, form, and ultimately the meaning in New Super Mario Bros. 2's gameplay. Fortunately, this process is made incredibly fun because we're talking about playing a highly polished, top quality video game. If you're looking to embrace the game in a detailed and deep way, one of the best ways to do so in NSMB2 is by embracing the challenge of Coin Rush. With limited time and one life to live, Coin Rush forces players to put their skills to the test. You'll have to weigh how much you're willing to risk as you plan routes though levels, go out of your way to uncover secrets, and combo enemies. It's gameplay of a golden gamble. Coins are such an elegant way for players to measure their Mario skills. I suggest going fo a high score, and then try to beat your score over and over. Challenge your record and share it with anyone you walk past. Or search on youtube to get a feel for what's possible.
If you do put in the work, you'll find that NSMB2 is a game unlike any other Mario game to date. The golden coin brick hats and the gold fire flower are wonderful gameplay elements that are likely never to return. The golden fire flower in particular allows players to combo level and enemy elements to obtain serious coinage in new, yet familiar ways. Whether you're reaching 30k in your coin rush totals, battling for the top slot for the Nerve-Wrack Pack global leader boards, or white Raccooning your way through the game, the point is to have fun dancing and platforming your way through the game to the beat of your own song. The point is the jump and to fall and to rebound and to run in a way that's not only fun for you, but in a way that also embraces the fun that the developers so meticulous designed. This is what makes New Super Mario Bros.2 a wonderful platforming duet between player and designer.