Whenever video-game companies stretch out popular franchises for financial reasons rather than creative ones, disenchanted customers call it a "money grab." It's a charge Nintendo has largely been immune to, even though its most popular character, Mario, has starred in hundreds of games.
That changes with "New Super Mario Bros. 2" (Nintendo, for the 3DS, $39.99), which takes the whole money-grab concept quite literally. The whole point of the game is to grab money — namely, the sparkling gold coins that have littered almost every Mario release since the mid-1980s. It's an oddly mercenary approach to Nintendo's lovable little plumber, and the result is one of the least inspired outings in his storied history.
That's not to say this is a bad game. It's exactly what you would expect: a collection of cleverly designed, two-dimensional environments for Mario to scamper through, dodging monsters and collecting treasures. The usual power-ups — flowers that let Mario shoot fireballs, a raccoon suit that lets him jump farther — are available in convenient locations. And most of the levels include alternate pathways, so there's motivation to return after you've conquered them.
But while I enjoyed my time in Mario's latest world, I couldn't help feeling like I'd been there before. The major new power-up is a golden block that screws onto Mario's head, creating a trail of coins. The familiar POW blocks now turn obstacles into, well, coins. And hoops scattered across the skies deliver ... more coins. Some sort of prize awaits if you collect 1 million of the things, but I only made it to 10,000.
And then there's Coin Rush, in which Mario has one life with which to race through three randomly chosen levels, collecting as much gold as possible. You can then challenge other humans to beat your score using the 3DS' StreetPass function. There's also a multiplayer mode in which Mario and his brother, Luigi, collaborate to collect double the loot. Both players need a 3DS and a copy of the game, and you need to be in the same room to team up.
Despite the "New" in its title, the latest Mario game is more of a look back to the 1980s, when we were all enjoying his antics on the original Nintendo Entertainment System. Nostalgia aside, it just doesn't offer the innovations and rewards of last fall's "Super Mario 3D Land." Two stars out of four.
The release of "NSMB2" coincides with the arrival of Nintendo's newest hand-held game device: the 3DS XL ($200), an extra-large version of the 3DS machine introduced last year. So you get your dual screens — one a touch screen, the other a three-dimensional graphics display — but they're both about 90 percent larger.
That's a huge difference to a gamer like me with vision problems. My eyes usually get tired after about 10 minutes of looking at the original model's 3.53-inch-diagonal 3-D display. The XL's 4.88-inch screen means I don't need to squint as much, so I can play for about half an hour without needing a break. As a game reviewer, that's a blessing when I'm facing a deadline, but I think you civilians will like it, too.
The entire package is still reasonably compact, fitting into an adult-size jeans pocket — though not exactly comfortably. If you resisted the 3DS when it came out last year, now's a good time to give it a second look.
Follow Lou Kesten on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lkesten