While skepticism surrounding the merits of the Wii U meant that Nintendo was unlikely to launch a their third consecutive home console sans a day-one Mario title to boost sales, I was a bit dismayed when I heard it was going to be another installation in the “New” line of Mario games.
Coupled with the mediocre presentations of Nintendo’s previous two Mario games, Super Mario 3D Land and NSMB2 on the 3DS, along with how soon after those releases we were being presented with yet another serving of the moustachioed mascot, I was nervous that the big N was going to phone it in with this title. They knew it would sell a boat load of copies on launch day just based on being available, and whether or not you think it’s worth dropping $350 to play a new Mario game on day one, there is no arguing that the Italian plumber from Brooklyn is a system seller.
The good news is that New Super Mario Bros. U is far from mediocre. It borders on greatness. With a bit of refinement, this could have easily been the best game in the franchise. What it’s lacking doesn’t take away from the overall package, it merely keeps it from being perfect.
NSMBU is every bit as fun to play as SMB3 and SMW, but it lacks a sense of being; a feeling of awe that not only pushed you forward through the levels, but made them memorable. While I was never expecting Nintendo to reinvent the wheel with this outing, it lacks the little story elements in the latter games that always stuck out in my mind – the kings having their wands stolen and being transformed into animals, the letters from the princess encouraging you to keep going with inclosed power-ups, or even the little cut scenes at the end of each castle in SMW where Mario would blow up the fortress in a new and hilarious way each time.
There is none of this in NSMBU. I mean, Bowser doesn’t even bother to kidnap the princess this time (which every other review out there seems to overlook) but in fact, he’s holding her prisoner in her own castle. How lazy is that? There is nothing driving you forward other than knowing that eventually, you’ll get to the end, fight Bowser at the end and get a kiss on the head from the princess.
Now, I hope I’m not making this sound like a grind, because in no means is it. There is certainly a lot here to keep you playing. I just wanted to get the only negative point out-of-the-way. The level design is great and innovative. From riding fast-moving roller coasters to the giant enemies of Soda Jungle, everything is very much a Mario game, and this has rarely been something to complain about. There are a few stand out, eye-catching courses, like the van Gogh inspired Painted Swampland that I wish there were more of, but with over 90 levels to play and perfect, there is enough to keep players coming back.
The game only really gets as challenging as you want to make it. Most levels, other than a few exception that demand a perfect run, are pretty easily completed on a few tries. You can up the difficulty a little by collection the three gold coins per level which have become standard in NSMB games. Some are difficult to find, requiring multiple runs, while others demand precise jumping or the proper power-up to avoid an untimely death.
The boss fights are also a lot of fun. Most of them can be defeated on the first try and their patterns are easily predictable, though this was never a complaint. A bit of personality would have been a nice touch, even just a line of dialogue before and after the fight. We all know how Nintendo feels about dialogue, though. I’m just happy they mixed things up a bit, as opposed to in NSMB2 when every single mini-boss was Reznor. Man, did that get old quick.
Like every Mario game, the controls are impeccable. When you die, it’s always your own fault. You can never blame the game. Another thing that can be said about this and every other “New” Mario game; you’re in little danger of ever seeing the Game Over screen – for every live you lose, you’ve likely collected 3 more. As I write this review, I have the game beaten and most of the secret coins collected and I sit with 87 lives. I honestly have no idea what the game over screen looks like, and may actually start a second profile and kill myself off, just to see what happens.
The few new touches that they’ve added are all excellent. The flying squirrel power allows you to however long distances but not outright fly. It allows you to grab only walls, Ninja Gaiden style and while similar to both the tail from 3 and the cape from World, it never really feels like a rip-off of either. It feels new. Yoshi is back with his boost jump and you’ll find yourself sending him to his death, more often than not, when you come up a bit short on a leap. The different coloured/powered, chubby, baby Yoshi’s may be the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. Don’t waste your time trying to feed them until they grow like you could with the babies in SMW, these guys stay young. Why Nintendo left that out is beyond me. The little guys do add an extra degree of head-exploding lovableness when they sing along to the background music. It’s enough to make you diabetic.
In fact, almost everything in the game is in time with the music: from enemy movement to background animations and even the power ups – everything jumps and jives to the beat. This may seem like a cute little addition, but in reality, serves as a fun mechanic that keeps you paying attention to everything around you and immersing yourself completely in the world. When it comes leaping off an enemy to reach a high-up ledge, you’ll find yourself nodding to the beat, waiting for that moment when they’ll catch the groove and be forced by the rhythm to stop moving and bust out a quick dance move – the perfect time to strike.
The challenge and time trial modes add longevity and challenge for the more experienced players and those older Mario fans who are more about high-scores than achievement points. Boost mode is fun, and so are the coin challenges, that demand perfection. The campaign multi-player can seem as frustrating as it did in previous NSMB games. Mario was never meant to be played with four player simultaneously. The addition of communities, while interesting and a time-killer, doesn’t really add a lot to the game. People can place comments after beating levels and are often encouraged to include tips and pointers, or write messages to Bowser and then post them to the world map for other players to read. I’m not sure how Nintendo decides who gets to see which comments (don’t worry, there are never more than 10 or 15 spread across the entirety of the world map), likely it’s completely random. While it’s a neat addition, but there is no way to interact with these people or even ad them to your friends list. While Nintendo has come leaps and bounds in the online world, leaps and bounds for Nintendo still leave them sorrowfully behind both Microsoft and Xbox. Online multi-player would have owned in this game. Damn, Nintendo, just let me talk with other gamers online and play games with them. Stop being my dad.
Visually, this is the Mario game we’ve all been waiting for and frankly, deserve. It’s bright, colourful and cartoonish. It’s a visual masterpiece and while playing it, I would repeatedly ask myself why it took Nintendo so long to realize how amazing their titles would look with high-definition graphics. I’ll never understand but I’m certainly glad the time is here.
If the king and queen of 2D Mario platformers; Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, were to have a child, only to abandon it to be raised by a family of wolves, it would likely grow up to become New Super Mario Bros. U: it’s a game that bears striking resemblance and pays much homage to the two greats; yet it lacks many of the refinements and small charms necessary to hold a seat at the head table as prince in this royal court. This is still the best platformer in years and easily one of the best Mario games ever made, no matter how old the “new” title is getting.