Now here's the story of a guy named Mario.
It's an old story. You've probably heard it before. Princess is lounging around, minding her own business. Giant turtle jumps out of the sky. Drags her away. Sticks her in a cage and waits for Mario to follow.
The specifics might change every now and then — a frog suit here, a toy planet there — but the story's always the same. Mario's always going to power up. He's always going to make those jumps. He's always going to save the girl.
That's not why we play Mario. We play because of the real story. The one that's hidden in the details.
*** It would not be unreasonable for you to wonder, when picking up New Super Mario Bros. 2, which is out this Sunday for Nintendo's 3DS, why it so prominently features the word new. It sure doesn't look new. There are Koopas and fire flowers and raccoon tails and blocks and Goombas and mushrooms. It all looks and sounds much like the first New Super Mario Bros., released in 2006, which by video game standards is almost 400 years old. Definitely not new.
You'd be right to jump to that conclusion. This is not an innovative, boundary-pushing platforming experience like Super Mario Galaxy or even last year's Super Mario 3D Land. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a bedtime story, another incarnation of a timeless set of tales that never seem to get boring. It's warm. It's familiar. It's well-tread. You know exactly what you're getting.
The story of New Super Mario Bros. 2, like the story of all Mario games, is told in split-second moments. It's the little burst of joy that surges through your body when you make a jump that's just high enough to clear the next ledge. The sudden brain pulse telling you to dive into that pit that looks a tiny bit out of place. That groan you try to hold back as you enter a new stage and see nothing but a pond and a pipe, a sign that this is going to be one of those water levels where Mario moves like he's carrying a pound of anvils.
Like all the best stories, New Super Mario Bros. 2 can be enjoyed both in short doses and marathon sessions, although your marathon sessions might not last very long. This is not a large game. There are six main worlds, each of which has fewer than 10 stages to play through. Padding this out somewhat are three secret worlds — and I use the term "secret" rather loosely, as they're clearly marked on your system's bottom screen — and a bunch of hidden levels, some of which I still haven't figured out how to reach. Hardcore speed-runners could probably plow through the whole game in mere minutes, though it took me a solid eight or nine hours to get through each level and take apart its secrets.
Really, it's those secrets — the hidden little stories you can find in every nook and cranny — that make this game worth experiencing. While hopping my way through deserts and caverns, I found myself addicted to the thrill of chasing down the optional, hidden Star Coins on every stage. I couldn't stop hunting for secret levels, extra blocks. I re-discovered the joy of accidentally unleashing a vine that could take me to a set of treasure-stuffed platforms in the sky. I gobbled up those tiny nuggets of brain-tickling satisfaction. It was almost like the game's designers were talking directly to me. "You got us," they would whisper. "Nice work!"
What's brilliant about these secrets is that they're never unfair. Mario games are crafted to reward curiosity, and this one is no exception. Jump up where it seems like you can't reach something? There's an extra life. Try to slip through a hole in the wall that looks inaccessible? Here's a hidden world.
Maybe you're a collector. Maybe you're addicted to achievement-hunting and level-grinding and gamifying your life as much as possible. New Super Mario Bros. 2 has got you covered. The game tasks you with collecting a million golden coins — a goal that seems mostly like unreasonable tedium. After beating every level — and taking my sweet time with each one — my coin counter hovered somewhere closer to 40,000, way short of that million-dollar mark. Reaching that number will probably take a great deal of your time.
But there are coins everywhere. Big coins and small coins. Coins from boxes and coins from enemies. A box that temporarily turns Mario's head into a coin-spurting volcano. Golden fire flowers that transform all of your enemies into coins. This is Mario not just for explorers but for wanton number hunters. Same story, different audience.
It's a story that could have been told in better ways. Some new music would have been lovely. The bulk of the game is set to a single song. The boss battles are an insult to your intelligence and curiosity, each fight following a simple, repetitive routine that feels like it was thrown in just because Mario games have to have bosses. They don't, do they?
The story of Mario is one that has been passed along for many years now. It's the story of secrets and coins, yes, but it's also the story of a perfectly timed jump off a Koopa Troopa's shell, of a duck-and-slide through a narrow gap that leads you to a mushroom that will make you grow to screen-sized proportions so you can rampage through a level, splitting pipes in half and knocking down everything you see. It's a story about saving a princess. But it's mostly a story about the things you find along the way.