Mario has never looked better. As I quipped within hours of arriving back to the UK after a long haul Los Angeles flight, the clunkily-titled New Super Mario Bros U could have justifiably been named Super Mario HD, such is the visual impact of the step up from Wii to Wii U. The lavish colourful levels and adorable familiar characters pop out of the screen, crisper and sharper than ever before. In many ways, it's a new lease of life for the plumber and pals.
In others, however, it's not quite so simple. Rather than attempting to cram an inordinate number of Wii U gimmicks into their new flagship title, Nintendo decided to iterate on the Wii's New (old?) Super Mario Bros: the four-player 2D platformer. You'll still hop along platforms, bop onto enemies, collect some powerups and mischievously cooperate with a few friends along the way. Instead of a Wii U tech demo, it's a masterclass in classic Mario gameplay, designed to immediately resonate with the legion of existing fans and sucker in new players with its simple premise. A strategy which has proved somewhat divisive in terms of early player feedback, to say the least.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Though some gamers feel that a new Nintendo console deserves an entirely new Mario game, the three levels I played at E3 showcased everything we love about the series, not to mention a few nifty surprises involving the Wii U Gamepad and inflatable dinosaurs.
As far as world design and basic premise goes, New Super Mario Bros U really is a case of iteration over innovation. The three areas on show included a precarious forest canopy rife with beanstalks and clouds to jump over, and a sprawling sandy desert studded with moving plaforms and columns. By far the most impressive stage was a midnight romp through a moonlit mountainside, leaping across enormous rotating stars in a race to the finish. Each level contained star coins to collect, blocks to headbutt and Koopas to de-shell, newly detailed but incredibly familiar. Even the control scheme is old-school, to the extent where the Gamepad's thumbsticks have been disabled in favour of the D-Pad.
The 720p visuals certainly allows Nintendo's eye for gorgeous art design to shine through, and the day I tire of classic Mario is the day I take myself behind the tool shed with a shotgun [I'll do the honours - Ed], but New Super Mario Bros U superficially doesn't pack the wow factor we expected from what should be the Wii U's killer launch exclusive.
Yet there's a new depth to the design, a new level of thoughtfulness behind each platform and pitfall. Pleasingly tall levels now bristle with alternate routes and hidden star coin stashes, tucked into lofty perches or cavernous lower recesses. Players will be able to choose between the high or low roads (or all of them if played with friends), armed with some new tools to aid exploration.
A colour-coded creche of Yoshi Babies provide different gameplay benefits, useful beyond their years (and bound to rile up PETA at some point). During the demo, I was able to inflate an adorable pink Yoshi to act as a hot air balloon, carrying me upwards to grab otherwise unobtainable powerups and access lofty alternate routes. My new friend was also able to devour Koopas and Goombas, becoming an advance guard when thrown onto distant platforms.
The Flying Squirrel Suit serves as a logical extension of the Raccoon/Tanooki outfit, allowing Mario to glide long distances and gain altitude by shaking the Gamepad. By far its most useful new feature is an initially-minor ability to cling to edges of blocks, which comes into its own when you realise that many previously impossible manoeuvres can be chained together from this newfound foothold.
It's a small feature, and one that immediately becomes second nature, but it freshens up the gameplay no end; allowing players to better explore the wide, tall levels every time they play. That's what New Super Mario Bros U is all about.
As mentioned, this classic focus has somewhat limited the Gamepad's functionality for solo players, though we will be able to stream the action to the touchscreen in case family members or housemates want to watch the telly. However, you'll be much better off convincing onlookers to pick up a WiiMote and get involved. The expansive levels offer plenty of scope for 2-4 player frantic fun, and if you can scrape five players together, the Gamepad enables the imaginative Boost Mode.
Armed with their own touchscreen, the omniscient 'fifth man' is able to place blocks at will to help their fellows reach new heights, or mischievously hinder their progress by barring ledges and jumps, knocking them off course. It's a fun and empowering new take on the formula, and works well as far as it goes.
Hardcore gamers probably won't make the most of the Boost Mode, in fact, the whole concept of asymmetrical multiplayer may be anathema to some. When consigned to the Wii U Gamepad, you're set apart from the four players frolicking around in the Mushroom Kingdom, an observer whose role is to assist without really participating. Decide to hinder, and cathartic amusement will quickly dissipate when your friend simply asks you, "why?" But for parents who want to help their kids progress, and for casual players who want to be involved without the fear of holding other players back, Boost Mode will be an invaluable asset. It beats Super Mario Galaxy's take on multiplayer assistance, that's for sure, and allows families to cooperate in entirely new ways.
New Super Mario Bros U may not be as 'new' as its title suggests, but as far as I can tell, it's shaping up to be a damn fine Mario game that feels both fresh and comfortingly familiar. Whether that will be enough to satisfy the increasingly vocal fanbase - and Wii U critics - remains to be seen.