It would be easy to believe that New Super Mario Bros U. is a simple cash-in; something to give the masses of early Wii U adopters as some sort of peace offering until a real Mario game arrives for the new system. Even its name is a bit of an insult; as the fourth game to fall under the “New Super Mario Bros.” calling it “new” is an affront. A nostalgic stab in the face, it’s not quite as ground-breaking as something like Super Mario Galaxy, but dismissing it would be a grace offense – because it’s the best damned 2D Mario since the 16-bit era’s Super Mario World. In fact, I think it might even be better.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem to shake up the established formula. Yes, Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach for the millionth time, and it’s up to you, as the moustachioed plumber and it’s up to you to save her, mostly by running to the right and jumping the heads of things that get in your way. You’ll jump on flagpoles, dispense with Bowser’s Koopalings and do all those other things you’ve been doing in Mario games for the last 30 or so years. For this one though, Nintendo seems to have looked back at the long history of Mario games, and cherry-picked the very best thing about each of them, layering new concepts and quirky ideas on top of entrenched doctrines.
It’s actually the first 2D Mario to launch alongside Nintendo hardware since super Mario World, and its fitting; the game seems more like a spiritual successor of that game than the easier, more casual focused, watered-down New Super Mario titles. That becomes immediately apparent when you first start that game, and see the return of the atlas-like overworld, instead of the set linear progressions of levels. It’s opened up the game again, and allowed the game’s designers to throw in all sorts of new secret exits to go along with each level’s ridiculously clever design. And it’s just gorgeous in HD, the newly afforded visual fidelity giving depth and breathing life in to the Mushroom Kingdom.
There’s some pretty delightful Miiverse integration, adding a bit of a social veneer over the world map. You can see posts from users all over the world, detailing their trials and tribulations, whether it be for the purposes of bragging, admitting defeat or leaving helpful clues to the locations of hidden Star Coins. It’s a largely throwaway feature, but one I can’t imagine giving up.
The lengthy story mode, of course spanning eight worlds distinct worlds and over 90 levels, starts off a little slow. I’ll admit that halfway through the second world – naturally, a desert – I straddled the line on the brink of boredom. Sullen, I was convinced I’d be playing through another collection of rehashed uninspired and unchallenging levels, burdened by Mario fatigue – but then something happened. The game ramped up both in difficulty and creativity, with levels that begged, no, screamed for exploration as it went on and I was taken aback with that wide-eyed awe and wonder given by games that shaped me when I was just beginning to fall in love with videogames.
There is, by my count just one new bona fide power-up, and its not just welcome, but necessary. Collecting an Acorn gives Mario (or his cohorts) a squirrel suit that, much like the Raccoon from Super Mario Bros 3 or the cape from Super Mario World grant the ability to gain extra airtime, drift through the air and hold on to walls, making some of the game’s especially tricky jumps a little easier. Yoshi, and more crucially Baby Yoshis return, with each type adding a new, fun ability
Play on your own and you can switch between playing on the TV or the GamePad, watching that action, absolutely lag-free, on its embedded screen. It’s feature of the Wii U hardware I found myself, embarrassingly, using far too much. I played Mario on the couch while the kids were watching the rubbish that passes for children’s cartoons these days. There’s something magical about playing Mario, in HD from the comfort of bed, and yes, I even played in the Bathroom.
Like its Wii-bound predecessor, the game supports four player co-op, with you and your friends jumping in to the bouncy shoes of Mario, Luigi and some nameless Toads – but to do that you’ll need a handful of spare Wii remotes. The game curiously doesn’t support the hardcore-focused GamePad Pro, but that an oversight I’m sure Nintendo can patch in. You can’t use the tablet GamePad to play the game traditionally in multiplayer either; it’s reserved for the something called Boost mode. Another player can join in the action – whether there’s 1 or more on-screen heroes – by busting out the stylus an tapping on the screen to create additional platforms like some sort of external deity. With that divine power comes responsibility and the tablet player can both help; by creating platforms to avoid fatal falls or hinder; by putting the blasted things in the way. It’s a bit like Galaxy’s co-op mode, only with more substance. Intentions may start out noble, but there’s a sort of maniacal evil glee in making an already maddeningly challenging game even more difficult.
If you’re a Mario veteran and don’t find the challenge up to snuff, Nintendo’s created a few supplementary game modes that’ll push even the most hardened platform junkie to his limits. The consummate professional can tackle the game’s challenge modes, which set specific goals for levels carefully crafted to make achieving those goals as difficult as possible. It’s joined by a repurposed, more intense Coin Rush from NSMB2. It puts a spin on forced scrolling levels. It ranks you on not just how quickly you complete level, but also by how many coins you manage to pick up; the trick here is that picking coins up also increases the speed, and when played in multiplayer it’s the most deliciously frantic fun.
This is the most feature-packed, and dare I say fun 2D Mario game in decades. If you own a Wii U and love Mario, platformers, fun and just plain good games, there’s no reason not to get New Super Mario Bros U.