There was once a time when side-scrolling, 2D Mario games were few and far between. In fact, 2006′s New Super Mario Bros on the Nintendo DS was the first such release in 14 years. Since then, Nintendo has released 3 more side-scrolling Mario games, culminating in the releases of New Super Mario Bros 2 for the 3DS and New Super Mario Bros U on the WiiU a scant 3 months apart. While side-scrolling Mario games are the closest thing to an institution that gaming has, a few chinks in the armor are starting to appear.
New Super Mario Bros U is the first HD Mario game, which should itself be a cause for celebration. The art in Mario games has always been strong, and NSMBU is no different. The colors are bright and beautiful, and there are nice little touches such as particle effects on ice and lava. The characters are nicely detailed and rendered, and the backgrounds, though mostly static, look fantastic. NSMBU also does some interesting things with lighting in some underground stages, which are dimly lit, save for small lights on some platforms. They can be fully illuminated by using a Baby Yoshi (which we’ll get to), and the effect is breathtaking. Everything here is cute, yes, but it’s also put together with a ton of care and an eye for detail.
I wish the same could be said of the sound design in the game. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be a Mario game without a certain suite of songs and sound effects, but NSMBU rips off the music from past entries in the series, instantly making this game feel old. Sure, there are some aurally pleasing elements (the way the sound fades in and out when transitioning between worlds is a smooth little touch), but this is the same Mario game you’ve heard before. Having the world react to the music (“bop!”) was cute in the first New Super Mario Bros game, and an genuinely inventive idea, but Nintendo has driven that into the ground here. I was hoping that the first HD Mario game would have some new music to accompany it (or at least a new interaction between the world and the music), but Nintendo is comfortable with being complacent.
This same sense of complacency extends to the gameplay as well. Basically, if you’ve played any past Mario game, you’ll feel at home here. Some of the level designs feel like they were just lifted from Super Mario Bros. 3 and dropped into the world here, down to enemy and jump placement. The bosses aren’t any better, as the first few encounters are just basically replays of boss encounters from past Mario games. It’s one thing to be in familiar territory, but NSMBU rips off the history of the series at every turn, again making the game feel dated within minutes.
There are some new elements to the gameplay, though. There’s the obligatory new suit (this time a sort of flying squirrel/raccoon hybrid) which can be used to fly or glide short distances (or both). There are also Baby Yoshis littered throughout the game, each with their own abilities. However, the integration of these new elements to the tried-and-true Mario gameplay leaves something to be desired. In both cases, abilities are either hidden (I discovered the squirrel suit’s flying ability with an accidental button press) or poorly explained (my first interaction with a Baby Yoshi involved me trying to jump on it until we both fell to our death, instead of picking it up). The new abilities are also quite imbalanced, making the game much easier when using either of them. Baby Yoshi’s eat pretty much every enemy in addition to serving some function which undercuts a level’s “hook.” For example, in the dark levels we discussed previously, a Baby Yoshi can illuminate the entire level with a pull of the trigger (this is also something discovered by accident). The squirrel suit makes traversing levels simple, as players can simply fly and float as long as they can take at least one step on a platform. Tricky falling or rotating platforms are rendered simple obstacles when one can simply jump and flit away.
Despite the game being easier overall, the progression curve is all messed up. Levels within a world don’t build on any core idea, often throwing new things at players in an effort to trip them up. The difficulty curve doesn’t smoothly increase, with weird spikes in difficulty (the end of World 2 is a good example of this) peppered in between easy levels that can be coasted through. It seems as though the 2D Mario games are increasingly being aimed at players outside of the typical videogame demographic (under 10 and over 40), so things like progression and difficulty curves matter even more than usual. There seems to be this idea at the core of NSMBU that players have seen it all before, so Nintendo needn’t bother making sure things are explained and balanced properly. It’s nice to have a common language in the games we play, but Nintendo relies on this common language to the game’s detriment.
By far the most fun to be had in the game is in the mini-games, devious tests of skill that start difficult and eventually reach “Kaizo Mario” status. Seasoned players will want to jump into these quickly, and their brisk pass-and-play pace make party play raucous and engaging. There is also an asymmetrical aspect to multiplayer gaming, as a player with the gamepad can tap on the screen to create platforms for other players. There are challenges specifically for this type of play, and two good Mario players can achieve some amazing looking feats.
In a lot of ways, New Super Mario Bros U feels like an HD remake of Super Mario Bros 3. There’s very little creativity here in terms of design outside of the challenges, and it feels like Nintendo expects players to “just know” how to do a lot of things without feeling the need to show or explain how certain mechanics in the game work. The design is empty and lazy in many ways. Yet, it’s still a 2D Mario game, which has a certain level of quality almost by default. Sure, the level design feels “samey” but the source material is so good that it’s almost forgivable. Almost. Without the challenges and asymmetrical gameplay, this entry in the Mario Bros canon is a waste. Thankfully, those elements, along with strong art design, save this from being an average game. It’s still an average Mario game, but that’s still just good enough on its own.
A Copy of New Super Mario Bros U for the WiiU was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.