By Leo Stevenson
At this point in time and space, some 25 years after the series' debut, reviewing a Mario game is basically an exercise in redundancy. Those who are already fans will buy the game regardless of what is written by anybody. God himself -- and by God I mean Shigeru Miyamoto -- could come out and publicly decry a new Mario as the worst thing ever and fanboys would still buy it in droves. Similarly, those with no interest in Nintendo and their stocky plumber are unlikely to be convinced of his merits by this or any other review. What I can attempt with this review is describe how the Wii U changes the experience, for better or worse.
The very first time I ever played a video game I was four years old. The year was 1989 and the game was Super Mario Bros. on the NES. As a child, I adored cartoons and would spend literally dozens of hours in front of the TV instead of outside playing. My dad brought home a NES and showed me a cartoon that I could control. I was amazed and entranced. I couldn't believe that I could make the cartoon man jump and run. I felt true wonderment for the first time in my life and I've tried to hang onto that feeling and relive it throughout my video gaming career. Only a few times have felt as truly wondrous as that first game of Mario and while I'm no longer a one-eyed, bias Nintendo fan boy, just learning about a new Mario game is enough to make me start feeling like a boy again.
New Super Mario Bros. U comes at a time when I'm spending much of my gaming shooting anonymous enemies in the face, speeding in eye-bleedingly realistic digital recreations of real world cars or escaping from the latest form of zombie apocalypse. The landscape of gaming has definitely changed, at times it seems as though the humble platformer has no place, unless it's pushed by some new indie darling or released for handhelds. I'm here to tell you that there is always room for a good platformer, especially when it's as well put together as New Super Mario Bros. U and so successfully causes me to relive the same childhood sense of wonder and joy that came from my very first gaming experience.
The game begins as all Marios do. Peach is kidnapped and Mario sets out to rescue her. Simple stuff we've seen over and over again. Let's face it though, nobody is playing NSMBU for it's in depth analysis of the Koopa/Plumber wars and the taking of P.O.W.s. As has been reported ad nauseam, NSMBU marks the return of the much loved world map first seen in Super Mario World on the SNES. While I knew it was there and new what too expect, it was still an delight to behold. The subtle -- and not so subtle -- animation of various elements on the map, the ability to scan the entire map to see what lay ahead and the implementation of Miiverse comments make the world map more of an integral character than a function of getting from one level to the next. More delightful still is viewing a Nintendo game in HD. While this may not seem like such a big deal - after all we've had HD consoles for a long time now - it really is a joy to see Mario and the gang in HD after all this time.
The gameplay in NSMBU is exactly as you would expect from a game in the New franchise. Old school, side scrolling level design, coupled with some newer moves -- the ground pound and triple jump -- and a combination of old and new power-ups. If you've played New Super Mario Bros. 2 you'll find that nothing much has changed. The addition of the "flying squirrel" adds some verticality to the levels but nothing too far removed from previous "flying" power-ups.
Yoshi makes a welcome return as do his baby varieties, with each colour having a separate ability including gliding, blowing bubbles and lighting up darkened levels. Oddly though upon completion of a level containing Yoshi, you'll dismount at the end of the level and not have him available as you proceed. It seems you're only able to use Yoshi in very specific levels. Perhaps having him in others would make things too easy? With or without Yoshi, you're still proceeding from left to right or bottom to top while searching for coins, power ups and hidden exits. While some elements may feel tired or stale, on the whole the classic Mario formula still provides plenty of fun and excitement.
There is one caveat though. I absolutely cannot stand the multiplayer in New Super Mario Bros and NSMBU is no exception. Instead of an exercise in sharing fun and helping one another, the game becomes a true test of patience as you bounce off other players, watch as they fall down hole after hole or get hit by the same enemy ten times in a row. Why the game doesn't allow you to pass through each other -- or alternatively give you an option to enable that functionality -- is beyond me. Even the new "Boost Mode" can't help. In this mode one player uses the GamePad while up to four others use Wiimotes to control characters on-screen.
The GamePad player is able to tap the screen to create "Boost Blocks" to help the players reach higher levels or save them from certain death. At best it's an unnecessary addition and at worst it's yet another way to annoy and infuriate players and hinder progress. If you can convince an experienced and trustworthy player to use the GamePad you may, may have a good time. Otherwise give "Boost Mode" a wide berth.
The other function of the GamePad is to provide a simultaneous feed of what is displayed on-screen. It works perfectly and I often found myself playing with my TV off or showing something else while I gamed on the GamePad. It's a reminder of the nature of the GamePad and one of the most important features of the Wii U. Not every game needs to shoe-horn GamePad functionality if playing off-screen is viable.
The Miiverse integration in NSMBU is great and is an excellent introductory way for Nintendo to "sell" the service. At certain points in the game, after clearing a level without taking damage, or failing several times, you'll be asked if you want to post to Miiverse. If you do, your message will appear on the map screen of other gamers as they play and can serve as advice or a warning. It's a little thing, but it truly helps to establish the Miiverse as a community.
Finally, in my opinion the best -- and my favourite -- addition to NSMBU is the challenge mode. Featuring several categories of multiple levels each, "Challenge Mode" is where the replayability of the game will come from. Time trials, coin collecting, 1-up challenges and more are waiting to be unlocked and tackled with bronze, silver and gold medals up for grabs. Every time I would complete a few more levels in "Story Mode" I'd jump back into the challenges to check if I'd unlocked anything new. Once I had I'd spend more than a few hours completing and perfecting each one (Mini Mountaineer and 200 Clifftop Coins I'm looking at you). Perfect for the obsessive compulsive gamer in us all, "Challenge Mode" will have you coming back for more long after the story is done.
New Super Mario Bros. U is the best entry in the New series and an excellent addition to any Wii U owners library. The GamePad functionality is simple but perfectly suited and while there may be some frustrating elements, on the whole the game is a winner. Seeing Mario in HD for the first time is a real treat and the "Challenge Mode" is a welcome and unexpectedly addictive addition. New Super Mario Bros. U succeeds for me as it makes me feel like that small boy making the cartoon man jump all over again. I hope Nintendo and Mario can continue to engender that feeling in old and new Mario fans alike for many years to come.