The ‘New’ moniker is getting a bit old since there have now been four New Super Mario Bros games, and one already this year. They have all been barrels of fun so I’m not complaining about the games existing, just the irony in the title! New Super Mario Bros U is yet another great addition to the series, even if it is more of an iteration in a series than the overhaul it was on the Wii with the inclusion of multiple players at once. Nintendo have created a game with its own identity, feel and challenge, so even if you’ve played the others this one is well worth your time.
The big and most obvious change in New Super Mario Bros U is the high definition graphics. It really is the most attractive looking Mario game I’ve seen, with beautifully detailed character animations and a ridiculous number of parallax levels in the backgrounds. Mario, for example, generally jumps up with his right hand punching above him, but every now and then he uses his left hand instead with a different animation. Every animation flows smoothly into the next and the controls are just as responsive as ever, even when playing with the GamePad (you can play with the TV off if you want too, using the GamePad only). There is every now and then a moment when you can see the compression artifacts on the Pad’s screen (since each frame is compressed, streamed to the pad and decompressed), but having those HD graphics so close to you helps you to see the detail in the artwork, so it’s a great way to play the game.
Not only is the artwork really good, the concepts of the worlds are too. Gone are the simple Ice World, Fire World, etc, although the familiar ice, fire and desert concepts are still included but twisted into something new; in New Super Mario Bros U we have worlds that are more inventive, places like Meringue Clouds, Soda Jungle and Rock-Candy Mines. These are places I’d love to visit! The main Story mode is big: over 80 courses are included and most of them challenging enough to entertain the most seasoned Mario player. A good metric of the difficulty is how many times the green exclamation block appears (the one that triggers an assist mode which gets you through the section you’re in if you hit it). In New Super Mario Bros 2 it might have appeared two or three times while I was playing. In New Super Mario Bros U it appeared at least 10 times, possibly more. The later stages are fiendish, although the real difficulty is only encountered if you try to get the three big coins in a level, something you don’t have to do to complete the game.
The Miiverse integration is a great way to vent your frustration or share your glee at completing a level. The game shows little balloons next to some courses on the World map, and if you zoom out you will see someone’s comments about that stage. It’s so cleanly done – friends’ comments will trump others, but even if you have no friends on your Wii U you will still feel like you’re sharing the experience with others, especially if you post a drawing of your travails and others give it a ‘Yeah!’
What remains unique and impressive about Mario games is the way you can play them on many levels. They’re clearly designed to allow beginners to play with the straightforward goal of just getting to the end of the course. You can apply power-ups like the flying squirrel suit before you enter a level too which makes it possible to sail over difficult areas. But they’re also clearly designed for those looking for more challenge – the three big coins are sometimes in nasty spots, there are lots of little secrets or hard to reach 1-Up mushrooms and a different way of getting to the top of each flagpole. You can play each stage by running along the ground, or you can hop from platform to platform above ground, sometimes even flying in the air on a cloud.
If you finish the courses and want a real challenge there is a true Challenges mode. In this mode the developers have reused and remixed stages to provide over 50 crafted challenges which have bronze, silver and gold targets to achieve. They are really addicting because the gold medal is tough to get but always feels possible too. There are a number of different types: Time Attack (finish in a target time), Coin Collection (finish with a target number of coins), 1-Up Rally (finish with a target number of 1-Ups), Special (which involves different goals like finishing a stage without touching the ground) and Boost Challenge, which are challenges using Boost Mode. Boost Mode requires a player on a Wii Remote who controls a character (Mario, Luigi or one of the Toads) and a player on the GamePad who interacts with the world by tapping on enemies or placing temporary platforms. You can also use this in Story Mode to make things a little easier (or more difficult if you have a vindictive person on the GamePad), another way to self-adjust the challenge you want to enjoy.
This is not ‘just another Mario game.’ Nintendo have thrown out the Propellor and Penguin suits and added just one new suit, the Flying Squirrel suit, while keeping the Ice Flower and Mini-Mario power-ups. In doing so they’ve gone back to basics in creating the courses with simple running and jumping in mind, but they’ve pumped up the variety in the levels themselves. There is no sign of creativity running out other than perhaps in the music, of which there is sadly very little new stuff and much repetition of some of the annoying tunes that have been in all the ‘New’ Super Mario games.
The transition to HD graphics has not meant the Mushroom Kingdom now looks less cartoony – if anything the colours are more vibrant in their variety and detail and the extra levels of animation the higher-powered console allows has been put to good use in the parallax backgrounds and foreground animations. The backgrounds are marvelous, especially the moving impressionist painting of the Soda Jungle. The enemy models are superb too – Bowser and his ships are very impressive, for example. All of this, along with the Challenges, Boost Rush and the beautiful map (a la Super Mario World but better, much better) make New Super Mario Bros U a very welcome addition to the series and differentiate it from all that has come before while remaining very much a Mario game. Knowing Nintendo’s modus operandi from their past actions this is likely to be the only 2D Mario on the Wii U; I can’t wait to see what all the creative energy of the Mario team conjures up next!