We're all very aware of him. This ubiquitous Italian plumber, with his bright red hat and bushy moustache, has dominated gaming for over three decades. His portly shadow has stretched across many consoles and almost every genre - platformers, role-playing, kart racing, sports. He's appeared in over two hundred games since 1981, six in 2012. He's become an indelible symbol of the childhoods of several generations.
But when we think of Mario, we don't think of Mario the kart racer, or Mario the planet-navigator, or Mario the brawler, or Mario the educational time traveller. Mario is, first and foremost, the pudgy little man running from left to right on a screen. He's the one stomping goombas, the one collecting coins, the one bouncing on the heads of end-level bosses, the one tracking the Princess from castle to castle because she's not in this one.
That's the Mario everyone's known and loved since 1985. That's the Mario embedded in the public consciousness. That's the Mario adapted for that terrible Bob Hoskins film. Super Mario Bros. is not just the game that popularised the formula of the side-scrolling platformer - it is the formula.
Nintendo’s latest spin of the franchise wheel is New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo 3DS. A clear division of planes in the level design means that the 3D is manageable enough, if unfortunately predisposed to blurring the background in order to create depth, and the varied palette of colours and charming, sometimes goofy production design sees this latest instalment continuing a proud tradition of embracing the joy inherent in Mario as a character and as a figurehead of platform gaming.
The game's control scheme and easy difficulty curve ensure accessibility, but more dedicated Mario fans will also discover additional incentives that capitalise on the characteristic sensitivity of Mario's movements and the expected challenges of the obstacle courses he faces.
All the same, new features are thin. The only notable addition is Coin Rush, a challenging but slight one-life, 300-second gauntlet run through three levels in pursuit of as many coins as possible. The addition of this new feature alone isn’t enough to distinguish New Super Mario Bros. 2 from the titles that have come before it, but the game’s philosophy is a departure from the series’ tenets.
The coin counter is evidence of this change. Sitting on the bottom right hand corner of the top screen, the counter's seven digits are the first indication that Mario’s chief goal isn't to save career hostage Princess Peach. Other pointers abound - the gold, Minecraft-esque box mask power-up that spills coins as Mario runs; boxes that tick through 5, 10, 50 and 70 coins depending on when he headbutts it; the rings that turn enemies into gold; the existence of Coin Rush.
The game's emphasis isn't on the story, the joy of the colourful world, or the dextrous challenge of clambering through challenging obstacle courses - it's about plotting a course to get the most coins, to get the best coins, to achieve that ultimate goal of a million of them. It's about revisiting worlds and going to extreme lengths to get that sweet, sweet gold long after the story has been beaten, because Mario only has 12000-odd coins after beating the story and the number of zeroes in that seven-digit coin counter quietly suggest that's not good enough. New Super Mario Bros. 2 is excess consumption, obsessive compulsive behaviour, and quantifiable perfectionism.
That's not to say it's revolutionary, especially in the age of achievement-hunting. But it's such a change of pace for a series that's been content to challenge the player in other ways that it almost feels fresh and provocative. The game doesn't suffer for the change - it's still the same format underneath Mario’s newfound lust for currency - and it doesn't get substantially better for the change; it just feels different.
Outside of hardcore players striving dutifully for their place in the million-coin fellowship, there's a subconscious acknowledgment of the importance of coins in the wider scheme of things, and even the most casual of players will start stretching themselves to get that one large coin that's just out of reach, or to get that one batch of coins they missed on the last playthrough, or to find that secret room with a 'P' button that throws up a whole load of blue coins. In doing so, players expose Mario to new risks, new ways to die, and new ways to play in the process. It's a new language for Mario, and it codifies a way of play that has never been all that important in the Super Mario Bros. series.
Further, the addictive joy of coin-chasing fits with the joys of Mario past. It's no different to a particularly difficult level in Super Mario Bros. 3 or working up to Bowser in the first Super Mario Bros., but it fits so well with modern convention that it is, at least, timely.
Being topical doesn't stop it being timeless, however. New Super Mario Bros. 2 still has everything that made the series great - all of the colours, all of the chirpy tunes, all of the split-second jumps and inconvenient Koopa shells and hidden sections only accessible by pipes.
It's still faithfully wedded to its classical framework, but by manipulating the way the audience thinks about what has always been one of the most arbitrary elements of the Super Mario Bros. series, it makes the game even more of a challenge than before. There are new dangers to confront and new reasons to repeat worlds, and this prompted seachange in the way we think about Mario yields results both fascinating and entertaining.