Tuesday, February 11, 2014

New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U) (Nintendo, 2012)

New Super Mario Bros. U Cover

Among fans of classic Mario, the never-ending debate has been over whether Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988, 1990) or Super Mario World (1990, 1991) is the greatest 2-D Super Mario game. Those games are both over two decades old, and even as Nintendo has lately returned to the template for its New Super Mario Bros. series, none of the more recent offerings have seriously challenged the classics for all-time status. The most recent iteration, 2012's New Super Mario Bros. U for the Wii U, has a hard time distinguishing itself, because the fundamental gameplay, frankly, offers no substantial improvements upon, or even differences from, that of the original 1985 Super Mario Bros. Of course, none of the 2-D sequels have ever really changed the core platforming mechanics (the anomalous English-language regions' Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988) excluded), and that's a compliment to the design of Shigeru Miyamoto, who so flawlessly nailed the running and jumping physics in that first industry-shaping masterpiece, which still holds up perfectly today, such that there has never been any room for improvement. And the New Super Mario Bros. games exist primarily to feed a nostalgic hunger anyway, so nobody should expect them to innovate in the way that Super Mario 64 (1996) and Super Mario Galaxy (2007) have (the 3-D platformers being the true successors to Super Mario World in the Mario franchise's flagship series).

So, for the most part, New Super Mario Bros. U feels familiar in a good way. The physics are still spot-on, the platforming managing to deliver both functional precision and exhilarating speed. It remains one of the most intuitive designs on consoles, although any moves that have been added to Mario's repertoire—the spin jump from Super Mario World and the ground pound, wall jump, and triple jump from Super Mario 64—immediately stick out and feel forced in there. They have their uses and their moments, but none good enough to alter my opinion that the game would be stronger overall without those elements. I feel the same way about the various Yoshis, and about the one new power-up, the Super Acorn, which transforms Mario into the gliding Flying Squirrel form. I mean, it's exciting whenever you come across them, because they change up the experience, but, in retrospect, I can say that the moments when I had them mostly just felt gimmicky and less fun than the basic Mario experience.

Since there's no improving upon the original Super Mario Bros. mechanics, subsequent 2-D games have distinguished themselves more so by their unique power-ups and level designs. The most interesting power-up in New Super Mario Bros. U is the rarely found Mini Mushroom, originally introduced in the DS New Super Mario Bros. (2006), which makes Mario much smaller and lighter, so that he can perform long, floaty jumps, as well as run across water and even up and down walls. It literally changes the physics of the game and also adds a few fun abilities, without ever feeling cumbersome like Yoshi or Flying Squirrel mode. Still, there's nothing in this game matching the creativity of Super Mario Bros. 3's offerings, which included Tanooki Mario, Frog Mario, Hammer Mario, and Kuribo's Shoe.

As for the level designs of New Super Mario Bros. U, I don't think I can recall even ten truly memorable moments from the game, out of a total of more than 80 courses in the main campaign. The ones that do stand out almost all come from Superstar Road, the bonus ninth world, which is only unlocked after beating Bowser, and, even then, you have to also collect all of the Star Coins from one of the first eight worlds in order to unlock a single Superstar Road course. It's a real shame that Nintendo has chosen to force players to do all that work in order to access these levels, because it means the majority of players will never even get to experience the best parts of the game. These are white-knuckle challenges that cut out the fluff and demand mastery of the distilled platforming basics of running and jumping with exact timing and precision. My favorite course in the game is Superstar Road-2 "Run for It," where the only ground is the coins that you have to turn temporarily into bricks by pressing the P-Switches located at regular intervals throughout the level. It's a manic experience, since you have to run non-stop, and there is no room for error, as you sometimes even have to jump off Paratroopas to get to the next temporary platform.

Besides the Superstar Road levels, most worlds also include a secret course, which, although usually well-hidden, luckily demands nothing additional to unlock. These are also among the more memorable levels in the game, including "Flight of the Para-Beetles" in Soda Jungle, a vertically scrolling stage, where the player has to use the flying Beetle enemies as mobile platforms. These stages are memorable because they are challenging and therefore tend to require several attempts, it's true. But they're challenging in creative ways. The more straightforward levels that make up the bulk of the campaign are pleasant, but there's nothing particularly to recommend them over the essentially identical experience of the original Super Mario Bros. I would much have preferred that New Super Mario Bros. U had included far fewer courses overall, but more with the same level of creativity as the bonus and secret stages.

Structurally, New Super Mario Bros. U is a mix of the best ideas from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Like Super Mario World, there is a single seamless world map, including many secret paths providing shortcuts, but the different worlds also have their own distinct themes (e.g. desert world, ice world, water world, etc.). As in Super Mario Bros. 3, there are Toad Houses, where you can play mini-games to earn power-ups or extra lives, and also enemies patrolling the map, who will initiate short battles when encountered. Brand new to the series is the character of Nabbit, a thief who steals from Toad Houses and then flees to stages the player has already completed. When you return to those stages, you're then given 100 seconds to chase him down, which is usually an enjoyably frenzied experience. The Koopalings and Bowser Jr. return, but, except for the last few, nearly all of the boss and mini-boss fights feel like the same fight. The final Bowser battle is the best in this game, but it's disappointingly straightforward compared to the fantastic finale to New Super Mario Bros. Wii (2009).

The one major new feature that New Super Mario Bros. Wii introduced to the series was simultaneous multiplayer for up to four players. The signature feature of that game, it returns in New Super Mario Bros. U and is much the same. Players will definitely get in each other's way, and the game meanwhile provides virtually no means to directly aid your teammates. Even when it's not intentional, it is nevertheless inevitable that players will jump on each other at inopportune moments and end up costing people lives. Still, I would say playing cooperatively with others tends to make the game easier overall, since you can effectively blow through most situations by sheer force of numbers. There are very few obstacles in the game capable of wiping out an entire three or four players at once, and, as long as even one survives, the other players can quickly jump right back in, instead of having to return to the last checkpoint, as someone playing alone would have to upon losing a life. It's also definitely easier to collect Star Coins in multiplayer, since you can often simply jump off each other's heads to reach coins that, in single-player, one would have to skillfully wall jump or glide to reach. It's a nice trick, but it feels kind of like cheating—more a hack than something the designers actually intended. The novelty having worn off with the Wii game, multiplayer feels somewhat tacked on here, as though the game were designed chiefly as a single-player game, and they only tested multiplayer as needed to ensure that it didn't break the entire experience.

Even more tacked on is "Boost Mode," the one feature that takes specific advantage of the Wii U GamePad. Using the touchscreen, you can create temporary platforms or tap enemies to stun them. As with multiplayer, you could probably play through the entire game without ever utilizing this feature, and it would feel like just any other Mario game, but if you do take proper advantage of it, it can make the game considerably easier. The ability to manifest your own platforms at will especially helps with collecting Star Coins, and again it feels kind of like cheating. The worst thing about Boost Mode, though, is that it's implemented as a sort of "fifth player" mode, meaning that, in multiplayer, the player with the Wii U GamePad is relegated to only doing Boost Mode—tapping the touchscreen as some sort of formless guardian angel—while players 1-4, playing with Wii Remotes, are the ones doing the running and jumping as Mario, Luigi, and the Toads. Why can't they just let you control Mario AND Boost Mode with the GamePad in multiplayer? They're fine with letting you play as Mario with the GamePad in single-player, but, once into multiplayer, players 1-4 each need their own Wii Remote, while the GamePad is no longer allowed any functions except Boost Mode. I highly doubt it's a technical issue. Clearly, Nintendo did it this way deliberately to 1) encourage people to buy more Wii Remotes if they want to play multiplayer, or 2) force people to experience the GamePad's unique features (i.e. touchscreen), if they still want to play some form of multiplayer but can't afford to buy more Wii Remotes.

Rounding out the New Super Mario Bros. U package are a number of extra modes, including timed challenges and competitive multiplayer free-for-alls. These are actually not insubstantial and can extend the life of the game considerably, although they don't all accommodate multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer.

New Super Mario Bros. U may not be the absolute best 2-D Super Mario, and it's definitely not the most inspired. Still, the fundamentals are as enjoyable as they are familiar, and I wouldn't ever say no to a new 2-D Super Mario game that I can play cooperatively.

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