21st Century Mario.
Mario’s been on a lot of adventures recently, and in turn, much conversation has commenced surrounding the risk of saturating the market to the detriment of the brand. However you feel about it, Nintendo’s response—that each Mario adventure brings something entirely new to the table—has mostly held true. Perhaps, that is, up until the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2—which for many gamers and critics alike felt mostly uninspired and conspicuously recycled. Nevertheless, just three months later, New Super Mario Bros. U seeks to once again offer a convincingly fresh and worthwhile romp through the Mushroom Kingdom—but can it?
For better or for worse, NSMB U doesn’t seek to redefine the series. This isn’t Super Mario Galaxy. Above all else, it’s more side-scrolling Mario, and it follows all the basic rules: rock-solid gameplay, plenty of power-ups and secrets, and excellent level design. It’s evolutionary, notrevolutionary. You might (quite accurately) call it paint-by-numbers Mario, but the fact is—however true that may be—that alone can’t guarantee a classic game. For evidence of that, see our review of the 3DS installment, which is still fun in its own right, but which falls far short of the standards set by the best of the franchise.
Blue Yoshis... yep, you guessed it: spit out bubbles
The most obvious (and perhaps most overdue) evolution here is the marriage of Mario and High Definition. Perhaps that fact alone is enough to get excited about—and the game most certainly looks great in its 21st century resolutions, even if it’s far from the complexity and hand-drawn wonderment of Rayman Origins. Everything feels so spacious in HD, and at times, the extra real estate is truly leveraged, such as in one level where three different Lakitus at three different altitudes are displayed on screen simultaneously above Mario. It’s still pretty simplistic overall in its presentation (far from the most impressive of its style), but in some ways, that serves it better—as it’s easier to keep track of Mario when the environments aren’t as busy as they are in some other modern platformers.
But ultimately, what truly matters in Mario is gameplay and level design, and it’s here that the game shines. The focus placed on these critical aspects of the franchise fused with some of the more classic elements—a cohesive world map, lots of hidden secrets, and a respectable challenge, among others—results in what is almost undoubtedly the best two-dimensional Mario adventure since the SNES days. This is better than any previous entry in the New Super Mario Bros. series; it all comes together in a way that feels more like a direct sequel to Super Mario World than a fully separate branch of the series.
It's easy to forget the fleeting wonderment that a good Mario title inherently provides while writing such a review.
The first hint that NSMBU adopts this refreshing allegiance is its massive, multifaceted, interconnected world map, only comparable to that of Super Mario World itself. From the very start, the map can be scrolled and viewed in its entirety, providing a visible structure to better tie the courses together. Also much like SMW (and NSMB games before it), there are a number of hidden exits from particular courses which lead to secondary paths through the world. Your reward for finding these deviously well-hidden paths is always an additional level within that world followed by a nifty shortcut to a later world. Since everything’s connected, Mario is depicted traversing these shortcuts by way of clever modifications to the world map, such as a series of platforms rising out of the ocean or a beanstalk extending into the clouds above.
There are also power-ups to be collected scattered around the map, as well as enemies that, if touched, trigger a short battle sequence. And, of course the usual assortment of Mushroom Houses still applies. The end result is something of a blend between Super Mario Bros. 3’s brilliant map innovations with Super Mario World’s sense of interconnectedness and cohesion. It is an experience that immediately harkens back to the golden days of 2D Mario.
Easily one of the most visually creative levels in the game is a tribute to artist Van Gogh.
Speaking of power-ups, the usual NSMB staples are back, including Fire Flowers, Ice Flowers, the Mini Mushroom, and Yoshi. New to the series is Flying Squirrel Mario, which allows our hero to glide through the air and perform a single angled upward boost. NSMBU also adds differently-colored baby Yoshis, which can not only eat enemies but—depending on color—can be used illuminate the environment, blow up like a balloon, and spit bubbles. And finally, there are a couple of bonus power-ups tossed in for the post-game experience.
What about the courses themselves? NSMBU, thankfully, recommits to its focus on balance, fun, and challenge, leading to some of the most rewarding level design of any of the 2D Mario reboots. Many of the courses are clearly intended to be the subject of a speed run, and in fact, such perfection is encouraged (we’ll get to that in a bit). And while the earlier stages are appropriately inviting, later in the game even seasoned players will be sweating—much more so if every Star Coin is sought, a task which required three solid days of play for me to accomplish.
While even the 3DS game featured good quality level design, its biggest misstep was the staleness of the ideas, something which ultimately upsets the balance of the formula and which is never acceptable in a Mario game. Fortunately, NSMBU is different in this regard. Although most of what we’re doing here has been done before, NSMBU pays particular attention to the balance and variety of gameplay concepts, and it’s careful to never let a particular mechanic overstay its welcome. This greatly benefits the overall experience, which, as a result, never really becomes tiring from start to finish. Even as you die repeatedly in later levels (some of the hidden courses are pretty brutal), you’ll still find yourself compelled to return and conquer.
An obvious nod to Super Mario Bros. 3's World 4.
And that brings us to the challenge. NSMBU is absolutely the most difficult of any of the new 2D Mario games, and that isn’t just considering the 80-something “normal” Story Mode levels. While a handful of those are nail-bitingly difficult, wait until you see Challenge Mode. Here, you’ll find five menus of expanding challenges (they unlock as you go), rated by difficulty and sorted by category. They include Time Attack (speed run central), Coin Collection (collect as many as possible within the allotted time), 1-Up Rally (perform combo stomps on enemies to earn as many 1-Ups as you can), Special (various challenges such as flying to the goal without touching the ground and dodging projectiles under extreme circumstances), and Boost Mode (co-op play where the second player wields the Wii U GamePad and assists Mario by placing lifts and stunning enemies).
Many of these challenges feature original courses (meaning they’re totally new and specific to the challenge), and most of them are very tough. Your performance is ranked once you’re finished, and you’re awarded a bronze, silver, or gold medal to suit. Gold medals, by the way, just about require perfection. There are dozens of these challenges waiting to aggravate even the most expert players (twenty-five Time Trial challenges alone, with fewer of the rest).
In addition to Challenge Mode, there’s also a separate Coin Battle mode (very similar to the one found in NSMBWii) and the “Boost Rush” mode, which is in some ways similar to NSMB2’s Coin Rush, but with auto-scrolling levels instead. The scrolling begins rather slowly, and as more coins are collected, it speeds up. Once it reaches maximum speed, collecting a number of coins will boost it forward even more quickly for a few seconds—while dying halves the speed as a penalty.
Yellow Yoshis provide a burst of light, much like in Super Mario Galaxy.
Of course, Coin Battle isn’t the only form of multiplayer in NSMBU. Up to five players can join in on the action simultaneously (four Wii remotes and a Wii U GamePad). The Wii remote players partake in the same sort of chaotic co/counter-op gameplay that defined the Wii installment, but the GamePad wielder has a different role. He can tap the screen to stun enemies and add blocks for players to jump on (or to obstruct them if he’s a punk). Each consecutive block that players land on raises his power meter, which, when full, grants him temporary power to defeat enemies by tapping on them.
Before you begin to think that this might make the game too easy, however, keep in mind that in most circumstances, Boost Mode is purely incidental in its assistance. Certainly you could, for instance, guide a player up to a pipe that is out of reach unless a P-block has been activated (thus subverting the challenge), but the same can be done with a P-Acorn (similar to Mario 3’s P-Wing), and the opportunities for such level-breaking mechanics are dampened both by the slow nature of such deliberately strategic gameplay and the fact that the lifts disappear after a short period of time. Besides, the handful of truly challenging courses can’t be fazed by such techniques.
You can sometimes pick up baby Yoshis on the world map and bring them to a particular level.
But there are some drawbacks, of course. The biggest one of all—in spite of its relative insignificance in context with the series—is presentation. Although the game looks fantastic in HD, it’s far from truly decorated or even all that detailed. For the most part, it’s colorful, sharp, and fluid, and that’s primarily what matters.
But the sound design is a different story. Sure, the music is catchy and memorable, but Nintendo’s committed a pretty shocking sin with NSMBU: it literally reuses the exact same songs from many previous games in the series without so much as any modification or improvement to them whatsoever. Something like 75—80% of the game’s music is straight out of either New Super Mario Bros. Wii or New Super Mario Bros. 2, which is seriously disappointing. This sort of lazy sound design should never apply to a flagship title, much less one which spearheads the introduction of a new console. Sadly, it means that, if you’re like me, you will probably be tired of some of the music before you even realize it’s in the game.
Also, while we’re on this subject, can we be frank here? Enough of the wahs. Since sidescrolling Mario was rebooted, they’ve been a regular inclusion in every song, and they lost their appeal years ago.
In spite of these problems, this is nevertheless the best game yet in the New Super Mario Bros. series. It’s by far the defining title of the Wii U’s launch—and that’s in spite of its lack of any sort of GamePad gimmickry (beyond the sideshow that is Boost Mode). I thought I’d had my fill of 2-D Mario this year after NSMB2, but U happily has proven me mistaken.