The year is 2006. I’m 13, excitedly plugging my first 2D Mario game into a Nintendo DS. Mario’s last new 2D adventure had taken place nearly 14 years ago (or 16, depending on who you ask). In the interim, there had been a few 2D re-releases and updates, but nothing wholly original in a decade and a half. Longer than I had been alive.
Then, two years after the Nintendo DS released, Nintendo dropped New Super Mario Bros. on the world. Classic Mario was back, but it wanted you to know it had changed. Before you’re even halfway through the first level, getting reacquainted with those classic controls, you stumble upon the mega mushroom. Pick it up, and you’re barreling through the very blocks that made the series what it was, leaving nothing but flat ground and chaos in your wake. A symbolic fresh beginning for the plumber, razing the past and blazing the way for the future.
Or, for some of us, a new beginning entirely.
It was an exciting feeling, playing a new iteration from one of gaming’s oldest icons. As a kid, New Super Mario Bros. was perfect, living up to every expectation I had for Mario, post Super Mario 64 DS. It was fast-paced with fluid, easy controls. The power-ups felt like game-changers, often tucked away in secret locations to be uncovered while playing. I would revisit levels time and time again to scour high and low for any of the star coins, the optional collectible of the game, I may have missed. I assumed that this was how every Mario game had been, rife with secrets and quick, tight platforming.
While I wasn’t entirely wrong, I didn’t know how different NSMB was. With the benefit of hindsight, I see how much went into NSMB to make it stand out from its 2D brethren. Super Mario Bros. and The Lost Levels are classics for a reason, but they’re also far more deliberately paced. The inability to move back a screen kept the player moving forward, but also encouraged a slower playstyle, reminding the player that they may miss something if they move too fast.
Super Mario 2 is its own beast, of course, being a localized Doki Doki Panic. That’s not to say its influences can’t be felt in NSMB, with recurring characters and lore adapted into every subsequent Mario game, but its more granular influences are far harder to nail down. Mostly because 2 was a surprisingly vertical maze of doors, something modern Mario is not.
3 and World are the most like NSMB, speeding up gameplay, adding more maneuverability options, and introducing branching paths. World even introduced collectible coins, though the dragon coins are far less enticing than the star coins of NSMB.
Nintendo clearly wanted to create something that was both a love letter to Mario’s history and a welcome mat to newcomers. The company took the best elements of Mario’s lengthy 2D history and added in a dash of 3D Mario maneuverability, introducing the triple jump and wall-kick to 2D for the first time. The result was a game that feels like the highs of every previous Mario game distilled into one DS cartridge. And while that’s definitely some high praise, it’s also what helps damn New Super Mario Bros.
I’ve 100%-ed NSMB multiple times at this point. For a good while, it was my go-to game for when I just wanted to relax and watch TV. But I’ll be damned if I can freely recall one level from it without actively struggling to remember. Everything about it is tight and focused, but also distinctly reminiscent of every other Mario game.
Mario 1 and Lost Levels are the originals and memorable just by the grace of being first. 2 was Doki Doki and weird as hell. 3 is set up like an elaborate play. World was a new paradigm for the series. NSMB is…. Undeniably a Mario game. There are levels, and you play them. Unlike the games that came before, I don’t know that I could pick out NSMB from a lineup, especially now that we have a multitude of “New” titles, where every game feels almost identical to the one that came before it, albeit with a new powerup or two.
When New Super Mario Bros. came out, it was rightfully recognized as the new hot thing. It was a reinvention of the classics, updated for modern audiences and it worked wonderfully. It felt like nothing I had ever played before, and I excitedly went back to it again and again. Now, fifteen years removed and with five additional New games, it just doesn’t feel as special. Every subsequent game chipped away at the novelty, leaving behind a tight, well-made game that struggles to remain memorable.