Through the years, Nintendo has largely managed to steer clear of subtext and politics. You want war games? You want virtual manifestations of angst? You want arty articulations of loneliness like Journey? Go elsewhere, subtext-seeking gamer. But if you’re in the market for plumbers fighting lizards, well then, take a seat and stay awhile.
The result: Although Mario has appeared in more than 200 games since the early ’80s, we know almost nothing about him. Of course, his tabula rasa quality is a key to his staying power. Project any fantasy you like in his direction. Old tofu Mario can accommodate it. Mario’s priority—or, as actors might call it, his “motivation”—has ostensibly always been to rescue Peach. It’s a chestnut that’s practically as old as stories (cf. Lancelot and Guinevere).
Yet if the Mario-Peach plotline ever had any juice or credibility, it lost it a long time ago. For years now, like parents who stoically stay together for the sake of the kids, both parties have seemed to go through the motions. These two inevitably share a showy, chaste kiss at the end of each game—“See, kids? Daddy still loves Mommy very, very much”—then, once the credits roll, they no doubt slip off to separate bedrooms in the Mushroom Kingdom castle.
In New Super Mario Bros. 2, Mario discovers an entirely new motivation: It’s not Peach that gets Mario’s blood up, so to speak, but rather the coins that litter the trail en route to Peach. To say that the new game doesn’t skimp on coins would be a gross understatement. Coins are forever erupting from every onscreen opening in the game. They blow like angry geysers from warp pipes. They jangle—ting, ting, ting, ting—single-file out of the posteriors of flying fish. There are countless moments when the game’s screen is flooded with so many bouncing, preening coins (and they do seem to be preening, mocking Mario for wanting them) that Mario can only scramble about like a doomed game show contestant, grabbing whatever he can.
The game keeps a running tally of Mario’s haul, with the ultimate goal—which winds up eventually feeling more like an absurd burden—being to rake in no less than one million coins. Note: As of this writing, after a solid week of playing the game, I had 14,594 coins to my name.
Merely adding millions and millions of coins wasn’t enough. So Nintendo carried things a step further and added a gold Fire Flower power-up, which turns Mario into a golden Mario statue. The fireballs that Gold Mario emits, à la King Midas, turn every brick in his vicinity into a coin. The designers also added a bizarre, blockhead-type “hat” into which Mario can squeeze his pate. Whenever he wears this unfashionable piece of headgear, which feels like something a naughty boy would be forced to wear in a Grimm’s fairy tale, Mario suddenly sees the entire world around him through coin-colored glasses.
The game doesn’t have the courage to take this bit of fairy tale imagery further. Considering the nature of fairy tales, there should be a downside of some kind to Mario’s rampant greed (more of a downside, anyway, than wearing a weird hat for a brief while). As a result, the one-note message from New Super Mario Bros. 2 seems to be this: Keep on collecting coins, folks, and everything will eventually be all right. This is an awfully thin premise on which to hang a game. Worse still, Mario’s sudden coin craving comes off as antiquated, piggish and mean-spirited, particularly in a post-Occupy Wall Street world. One possible alternate title for the game: Mario’s Krazy Coin Quest To Join The One-Percenters.
Even when players lose the blockhead power-up, which happens whenever one comes into contact with one of the game’s enemies, the soundtrack is—oddly enough—right there to offer a round of canned studio-audience applause. It’s difficult to say who or what the applause is for. No matter how clumsily you perform while wearing the blockhead, as long as you manage to stumble across 100 coins (no lofty feat), you still get the applause. It’s in these moments that the “doomed game show contestant” feeling is most potent. Things that aren’t funny still get laughs, things that aren’t remarkable still get applause, and everyone goes home with a year’s supply of Turtle Wax.