Its overall cautiousness holds it back, but in its level design New Super Mario Bros. U stands proudly beside the best sidescrollers
After a lull of two generations, Nintendo decided to go back to its roots and release, alongside a brand new system, a fresh Mario game. However, differently from what other Mario adventures that came before it and that kicked off a new Nintendo generation, New Super Mario Bros. U is by no means a glorious display of what more powerful hardware can do. Instead, it opts to safely bet on the gold mine that the sidescrolling Mario series has become in recent years and decides not to shake things up in any significant way or form.
Such matter-of-fact description may seem inherently negative, and indeed – for most studios – that choice would be a recipe for disaster, especially considering that, upon its release, New Super Mario Bros. U was the fourth New Super Mario Bros. game to come out during an eight-year interval. Yet, what surfaces from that path is a game that, through all its more than sixty stages, pulls off exciting and unexpected tricks using the same old mechanics that have been established decades ago, hence giving birth to an effort that – while certainly neither original nor groundbreaking – was certainly worthy of being the opening note for a new console.
First, it is important to get the bad stuff out of the way: there is nothing incredibly mind-blowing or impressive about the bricks with which New Super Mario Bros. U is built. The series’ art style has not received any tweaks, neither significant nor minor, which means that it is still mostly generic and ordinary; the songs and sound effects remain as unchanged as they can be; the enemies and bosses are all incredibly familiar in their behaviors, looks and weak spots; princess Peach is once again kidnapped by Bowser and his offspring; and even the themes used for the worlds are commonplace, not only in their nature, but also in their order, as Mario will start his adventure on some calm plains, move on to a desert, to a snow-covered land, and a few worlds later, wrap it all up among waves of magma.
Nintendo is so aware of the repetition that they do not even attempt to conceal it; they, instead, choose to resign themselves to those constraints while attempting to thrive on them. Those issues, save for the reused story, which is more of a humorous staple than a flaw, are undeniable. Yet, it is arguable that, when everything is said and done, the mundane nature of pretty much everything about the game works in favor of one true king: the stage design. After all, extracting so much greatness from general dullness only serves to highlight the sheer glorious brilliancy of the courses contained within the package, which stand like a beautiful diamond among a sea of sameness.
In its core, that is what New Super Mario Bros. U is all about: stage design. The tricks Nintendo is able to land with a limited set of tools, which has the return of the raccoon suit as the only real difference in relation to its Wii predecessor, is utterly flooring.
As usual, things start slowly and simple in the first world, but as the plumber moves on towards the desert, New Super Mario Bros. U starts picking up speed, and – before one realizes it – the game becomes a train of fun going downhill at full-speed with nothing in sight that could possibly stop it. Within the same world, or even inside the boundaries of the entire game, Nintendo barely re-utilizes or recycles any mechanics, making every single stage an entirely different creature and turning the adventure into a big chain of impressively engaging obstacle courses, which reach an overall level of quality the sidescrolling series has not seen since its 16-bit days.
If there is a noteworthy change in the game’s structure, it is its overworld. While not being a new concept – it was, after all, introduced in 1988 by Super Mario Bros. 3 and greatly improved a few years later by Super Mario World – the game features a single overworld map that presents the individual worlds in a fully connected manner. Players can, literally, walk from stage one to Bowser’s place continuously, without any screen changes or apparent seams.
Though that construction is equal to what Super Mario World brought to the table, it is plain to see that – here – the map is better designed. As players clear courses, especially the secret ones, the scenario will creatively shift its shape to open the way to new places that are truly hidden, often unveiling paths that will leave one world, go through a nearby one, only to end up in some remote location found on a third distinct place. It is even possible to argue that a big part of the joy of finding a secret stage is seeing how the world map will transform to accommodate it.
For those who have been rightfully complaining about the ever diminishing difficulty of Mario games, New Super Mario Bros. U is an oasis. Though simply finishing the stages isn’t exactly painfully hard, going after the star coins will almost invariably lead to the need to perform complicated maneuvers that require both skill and timing. And, as a good sign that the game stays on the right side of the line separating frustration from difficulty, it does not matter how many times Mario falls to his death, players will always feel the urge to try once more. If looking for full completion, newcomers to the series will find one daunting task whereas veterans will encounter a great deal of challenge, especially on the secret and special stages, which are worthy of their fame for being brutally tough.
New Super Mario Bros. U might not be an impressive display of the Wii U’s technical capabilities, but – as the first Nintendo-made title on a new console – it worked as a solid blueprint of how games can interact with Miiverse in an effective and game-improving way. Whenever players clear a stage while performing any significant achievement such as collecting all star coins, not taking any damage, or getting to the flag really fast, the game will automatically prompt them for comments on the stage so that they can be posted on the game’s community on Miiverse.
The same will happen in frustrating situations; for example, when Mario loses a number of lives on a stage and said value goes over a predetermined threshold, the text box will also pop up, allowing gamers to spill their anger. In cases like this, the game will humorously ask players to send out warnings or angry letters to Bowser on how tough the stage is. Not only are those interruptions brief and seamless, therefore not disturbing the game’s pace, but the manner with which comments are integrated into the game (either being shown in the overworld or while the stage loads in-between attempts) adds to the experience.
The stages are astonishing, the graphics are smoother than ever (something that does not completely make up for the dull art style), the multiplayer can range between cooperative (with two players) to maddeningly chaotic (with four players), and the disc is packed to the brim with extras such as time-centered, coin-collecting, and enemy-defeating challenges that extend the game’s twenty-five hours of adventure into a package that can last for over forty hours of fun. Nonetheless, from a freshness standpoint, all of those aspects are trumped by the novelty of the game’s social factor.
Although such interactions have become increasingly commonplace and even deeper as the Wii U has progressed through its life-cycle, New Super Mario Bros. U was the game that established the starting ground for those features. Sharing achievements, failures and angry outbursts will be entertaining to many, and the constant reminder that there are tons of people around the globe going through the same ordeals somehow makes the whole game more fun, and it will certainly motivate some players to look into every corner of the game for every secret or achievement that is possible to find or accomplish.
At first glance, New Super Mario Bros. U does not seem to do justice to the past Mario games that debuted alongside new Nintendo systems, as it is devoid of any visual leaps or visible gameplay improvements. In the end, though, it is certainly worthy of carrying that legacy forward, not only because, in a way, it set the parameters for how the Wii U’s social components could be integrated into a game, even one belonging to a genre in which such a connection is hard to establish; but, most importantly, because of how ridiculously fun it is.
As it is usual for a Mario sidescroller, New Super Mario Bros. U shows gaming at one of its purest and funnest states, where everything exists for the sake of gameplay, and the outcome is the strongest game of the New Super Mario Bros. saga; one whose design goodness is comparable to the heavenly course-creation art achieved by Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 even if some of its safe decisions keep it from being a true masterpiece.