Platform: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EAD
If the minigame-heavy Nintendo Land is akin to throwing new Wii U owners straight in at the deep end, New Super Mario Bros. U is designed to gently ease players into their new console. It's a 2D Mario game. We know how they work. You (and potentially three friends) will caper through some colourful environments, stomp some Goombas, find some secrets and generally frolic in the cheerful timeless fun of it all.
However, Mario's latest outing has drawn a fair amount of pre-launch criticism for a perceived lack of innovation. Or to put it bluntly: it's another "New Super Mario Bros" game that plays out much the same as the Wii, DS and 3DS versions. Instead of a Galaxy, Sunshine or 64, it's an oddly conservative affair that plays to the strengths of the franchise - not the platform.
These criticisms may be valid, but New Super Mario Bros. U has a trick up its sleeve. Rather than being a Wii U tech demo or Gamepad proof of concept, it's just an exceptionally enjoyable and well-crafted game. With inflatable singing Yoshi babies.
A truly enormous number of stages play host to much of the same well-paced Mario platforming that we've grown to love over the years. Fire flowers and ice flowers. Boos and bosses. Koopas and Goombas. Mini Mario power-ups to collect, and even a brief Penguin Suit cameo. Taking most of its cues from Super Mario World - yes, that does mean Yoshi - NSMBU is a masterclass in Mario engineering that continually introduces 'new' challenges on a stage-by-stage basis without ever overwhelming the player. Though many of the levels will seem very familiar if you've played New Super Mario Bros on the Wii, DS or 3DS, several backdrops and situations are brand new (including enormous rotating stars studded in a night sky and a stage featuring massive roaming plant life), while some old chestnuts are frequently subverted in interesting ways.
Of course, it looks exquisite. Mario games have always been packed with colour, vibrancy and quirky humorous touches, but the Wii U's HD grunt makes a world of difference. Pin-sharp sprites, smoothly-animated models and detailed backgrounds conspire to create a truly gorgeous feast for the eyes, and graphics that finally live up to the art direction. It's worth noting that a 2D platformer isn't a particularly useful test of a console's performance and specifications, mind, so we have yet to find out exactly how powerful the Wii U can be in graphical terms. At the end of the day, however, a fresh lick of paint can only go so far if all you've got is old material.
But. But But But. Despite what some naysayers might tell you, this isn't just a rehashed experience dredged up in a desperate attempt to fill out the launch window lineup. Intricate level design, a riotous sense of unpredictability and sheer scale elevates NSMBU above previous 2D Mario games, and indeed, plenty of competing platformers on the market. From cavernous depths to the tops of the clouds, Nintendo has absolutely gone to town on creating some of the best levels to ever great the franchise.
Every offering is absolutely stuffed with surprising secrets, hidden power-ups and tricky Star Coins stashed in the most bizarre places. Some tricky coins require you to bring in power-ups from other levels or make leaps of faith, drastically increasing replayability as you delve back into completed levels just to find out the myriad things you missed the first time around. Old friends sometimes behave in different ways to throw you off rhythm (wait, Lakitu's not supposed to throw full-size piranha plants!?), and will frequently assault in much greater numbers than ever before. Not to mention much bigger sizes. For every design element or background that looks or feels familiar, there's a section that will catch you out or force you to think twice.
This mix of old and new makes for an exceptionally varied gameplay experience, but NSMBU also manages to throw in a couple of unique twists on the formula. The Flying Squirrel Suit acts as the only truly new power-up on offer, differing little from the Tanooki suit save for the ability to gain some extra height once per glide. However, a selection of colour-coded Yoshi babies absolutely steal the show; providing powerful abilities that are as useful as they are hilarious. The pink infant, for example, can eat enemies on contact or inflate himself into an enormous hot air dinosaur that lets players float through the air. Better yet, they sing along and harmonise with the music, which can only be described as the most adorably brilliant thing we've ever seen.
On a raw gameplay level, New Super Mario Bros. U manages to make its classic material feel fresh and vital, like revisiting an old friend who's in the prime of his life rather than a decrepit shadow of his former self. No buts. Don't knock it, as they say, until you try it.
A Super Mario World-style overworld map serves as one of NSMBU's greatest strengths, which is liberally stuffed with detail and fun little surprises along the way. You'll sometimes have to time your movements to avoid running into a roaming crew of enemies who moves when you do, or actively seek them out for a fight and item. Every once in a while, a pesky Nabbit will appear in a random level and challenge you to catch it, turning the action into an insane speedrun. You'll have to remember the locations of any number of level-shaped voids that will doubtlessly yield up secrets once you've fulfilled their requirements. Unlike the other 'New Super Mario' games, it comes close to feeling like exploring a fleshed out world, lending context to what would otherwise be a disparate collection of stages. Even though you're just moving through some linear tracks, there's a real sense of exploration and progression to be found here.
The map also plays host to the MiiVerse functionality. If you manage to complete a level in fine form or find yourself losing out, you're prompted to write or draw a written message that's automatically posted onto Nintendo's social network. However, messages from other players will appear in your world, bringing you closer to that wonderful connected family that MiiVerse so desperately wants to be. If more games follow Mario's example, I can actually see it happening.
Like its predecessors, NSMBU can be controlled using up to four traditional WiiMotes (Motion+ not required), making for some suitably rambunctious multiplayer shenanigans in the main campaign or some weighty challenge modes. Playing with others is an absolute blast, since a healthy dose of competition and power-up jealousy always keeps things interesting. Beware, however, that the new Pro Controller cannot be used because Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. Or something. Frankly, the real reason Nintendo purposefully shafted a key peripheral in a major launch title won't make any more sense than my cultish ravings, and I've just managed to shoehorn Lovecraft into a Mario game review as a bonus.
The Gamepad doesn't affect the core gameplay experience beyond simultaneously displaying the action on its LED touchscreen. Interestingly, you can't turn it off: whatever's on the big screen is instantly reflected on its smaller counterpart. Having a bright and colourful moving image on the edge of your field of vision can become tremendously distracting, but in fairness, the ability for someone else to sit down and start watching television while you continue playing is a blast (you could even change the channel for them using the built in TV remote functionality). The visuals look impressively sharp and crisp on the Gamepad touchscreen, while the integrated speakers are used to blare out extra sounds and melodies that compliment the background track, creating a pleasing 3D effect. Ensure that you turn the Gamepad volume slider up.
The tablet peripheral can also be used in a unique multiplayer gametype, entitled 'Boost Mode.' The four Wiimote-equipped players will jump, stomp and romp as per normal, but the tablet-holder is tasked with placing extra blocks and platforms into the levels to help (or occasionally hinder) their chums. Sometimes they'll be able to stun enemies by tapping on them, but otherwise, the mode will feel a little vestigial to many players. Skilled Mario fans will hate being relegated to Gamepad duty as it essentially forces them to watch other people having fun from the sidelines.
And yet Boost Mode ends up being a surprisingly thoughtful new addition to the franchise, with strengths that are become apparent when you play the game with someone of a vastly different ability level. Should a parent want to play New Super Mario Bros U with their kids but not interfere directly, they can hop into Boost Mode and help their children through the stages, getting involved without being obtrusive. Similarly, if a new player wants to play along with some experienced friends, they can place platforms and feel like part of the team without holding anyone back. It's a neat and uniquely inclusive feature that will likely be further explored by future Nintendo properties.
New Super Mario Bros. 2 proves to be absolutely superb, then, but Nintendo still stick to a few annoying traditions because that's how they've always done it. Case in point: many of the sound effects are lifted wholesale from the 3DS and Wii versions, which dates what should always feel like a totally new experience. Worse, Nintendo still hasn't realised that autosaves have become an industry standard; instead, you'll lose hours of progress if forced to leave (or the power gives out). Temporary quicksaves create a save state before automatically dumping players back to the main menu, and have to be triggered manually. This antiquated system feels ridiculously archaic on a 21st century console, especially one that's desperate to 'next-gen.' Don't even get me started on whether we still need a lives system in a game that's supposed to encourage exploration and experimentation...
These ancient conventions, not the core gameplay, hold back Mario's Wii U debut from feeling like a next generation title.
It's clear that the Wii U needs a true killer app: a Mario game that delivers a totally new and innovative gameplay experience that shows off the system to advantage. New Super Mario Bros. U is not that game, but to dismiss it solely because of that would be idiocy. If you're buying a Wii U at launch, this should definitely be one of your first ports of call.
- Intricate, exciting level design makes Mario feel fresh and revitalised
- Stuffed with secrets, detail and content
- Crisp HD graphics make the colorful art design shine brighter than ever
- Inflatable singing Yoshi babies, oh yes
- Archaic quicksave system, lack of autosaves
- Boost Mode multiplayer will leave some players cold
- Fails to show off the Wii U to advantage
- Doesn't support the Pro Controller for reasons beyond our comprehension
The Short Version: New Super Mario Bros. U may not be a revolution, but its tight level design, unpredictability, new features and thoughtful MiiVerse implementation make it one of the most enjoyable Mario games in years. A nigh-essential purchase for early Wii U adopters despite not being a perfect ambassador for the new system.