Game Review

by Dave Riley,

New Super Mario Bros. U

Wii U

New Super Mario Bros. U
New Super Mario Bros. U is, in many respects, the sort of rehash we've come to expect from the "New" Super Mario line. However, the addition of the gamepad's "boost mode" provides for a very different Mario experience, even if many of the individual pieces seem familiar.

That they're still calling it "New" Super Mario Brothers comes off as a little crass, if not outright insulting. These games tend to introduce precious few "new things," where, across three whole games, the best we could call new is a penguin suit, a flower that shoots ice (instead of fire), and a mushroom that makes you tiny instead of a big.

This one hews a bit closer to Super Mario World (lots more secret exits and optional paths) and it has a flying squirrel suit. So we've traded out our tummy-sliding penguin suit for the ability to glide, but otherwise New Super Mario Bros. U appears to be the Mario we remember. It is, at least, the Mario we remember from six years ago on the DS, which means the jumps are a little floaty and the platforming is a little slidy. It is also the Mario we remember from three years ago on the Wii, which means the co-op is insane and hectic -- with Marios and Luigis and Toads crashing into one of another and inadvertently shoving each other off of ledges and into bottomless pits -- frequently frustrating, and usually more fun if you're more in the mood for trolling your friends than you are for a hardcore platforming experience.

There's an ice level and a sand level and a forest level and a lava level. There are a few not-significantly-different enemies lumped in there among the Koopas and the Hammer Bros. and the moles and groundhogs, whose Mario-land names are less memorable. It's a substantially shinier game in 1080p (Mario was not formerly known for its exquisite lightning effects) and it's a bit cuter (when squirrel-suited Mario hugs onto the side of a wall for a few adorable seconds) but the thing that's really, significantly different about Mario Bros. U is "Boost Mode."

By now everybody knows about the Wii U's extra-special Gamepad with the mini-sized screen. You can play with 1 to 4 Wiimotes, or you can sub out one player (or add a fifth) to toy with the Gamepad in Boost Mode. The Boost Mode player taps on the screen with the stylus to affect the world instead of interacting as a Mario-avatar. Tapping builds temporary platforms for other players to stand on, stops Mario-crushing blocks before they crush their Marios, and stuns enemies/de-wings Koopa Paratroopas.

This initially seems like a natural extension of Mario Galaxy's second player option: a wimpy bit of busy-work for an ancillary player, maybe a young child, to do while watching the real game. But, despite having no on-screen presence, the Gamepad player's role is surprisingly more pivotal: they can pop life-saving footholds into existence under Mario's feet, they can throw up roadblocks to stop wayward power-ups from sliding off ledges and into oblivion, and, perhaps most cheat-ily, they can plunk down a series of platforms that ensure a 1-UP is gained by hitting the top of the flagpole at the end of every level.

So that's what we like about Mario Bros. U: something feels dirty about it, and unfair, because the Gamepad allows us to muck about with the design of these carefully crafted levels, to put platforms where there ought not be platforms, and to punt fireballs out of the air, and to pop the protective bubbles of respawning players so they don't have to bob around helplessly. It doesn't seem fair, but it doesn't seem fair in a good way, where we are finally allowed to turn the tables on the game. And what six year old in 1985 wouldn't rejoice when you told them that the trick to ruining a Buzzy Beetle's day is simply to give them a little tap to force them back in their shell?

This seems like it would make the game too easy. Sometimes, maybe it does. It also gives an unrelenting sense of freedom to players on the TV who can now safely run at full speed, confident the Boost Mode player will have their back. It fosters a deep sense of responsibility in the Boost Mode player, who needs precision timing to tap three Dry Bones to dust in a row before the speeding Marios and Luigis crash into them. It strikes a delicate balance. The game is not a pushover. Yet the abilities granted by the Gamepad feel so awesomely powerful such that, when playing without the multi-colored platforms springing into the TV players' world without warning or apparent cause -- as if some omniscient being in the Mario-verse is helping from on high -- everything feels a little more hollow.

As with its predecessors, the pastel colors and dancing flowers do nothing to warn of the positively wretched mood that permeates a room full of friends when when two players prematurely end a level by crashing into each other during a wall-jump and plummeting into a pit of lava. Just like its predecessors, Marios Bros U is at its best when its players are just clowning around, haphazardly completing levels when they're able, and trying not to get too pissed off when they fail. It's a game where friends can pick other players up and hold them hostage on a whim. It's a game where everyone can laugh like mad when they reflexively bubbled themselves at the same time, forcing an immediate cutesy Mario suicide pact.

The addition of the Gamepad functions may seem like an innocuous change, or maybe just a proof of concept for some new hardware, but in practice they allow the subversion of every Mario rule since there was a Mario in the first place. That it is Nintendo-sanctioned makes these subversions feel no less naughty, and all these tricks and techniques are inarguably more "new" than any animal costume or flower projectile.

The New Super Mario Bros. sequels always feel a little cynical around the edges: as if all it takes to get us to buy another one is shilling to our nostalgia as hard as possible. We aren't that simple. We know that, to a certain extent, these games are about repackaging the old and gluing on just enough veneer to make it seem fresh. Yet, when a baby Yoshi ensnares an enemy with a storm of floating bubbles, or when a player is saved from certain-death by a quickly distributed Gamepad platform, how can we do anything but smile?

Overall : B
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : C+
Gameplay : B-
Presentation : B+

+ Some of the better level design in a New Super Mario game, Gamepad play is thrilling, lots of secret levels
Doesn't completely avoid the feeling of "been there, done that." Platforming is as squishy as in other New Super Mario games

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