Mario has always been a champion of Nintendo's innovation. If there was some new gaming feature to push, Mario was there to explain to it us. Using a control pad instead of the joystick that Atari made famous was the mission for the NES. Super Mario World showed just how much information the SNES cartridges could hold with a world that was three times the size of Super Mario Bros. 3 (oh, and it introduced Yoshi), and Super Mario 64 showed off the 3D possibilities of gaming, with analog joystick control. Super Mario 64 is still considered one of the greatest console games ever.
So now that Nintendo has brought the new Wii U to market, once again Mario has been called to action. But the question is, what exactly is the great innovation that the great mustachioed one is showing us? After all, the Wii U is more like a Wii on steroids, and the GamePad, while an incredible piece of gaming tech, hardly needs Mario to show off its power. In fact, it doesn't, really. But I'll get to that.
New Super Mario Bros. U is actually the fourth in the New Super Mario Bros. series. It started with the Nintendo DS's New Super Mario Bros. in 2006, and carried over to the Wii with New Super Mario Bros. Wii in 2009 and earlier this year with New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo 3DS. While the original was originally heralded for updating the gameplay and graphics back in 2006, now, six years later, the lack of further innovation was starting to wear thin in NSMB 2. Luckily, NSMBU bucks that trend in a couple of good ways, and puts the franchise back on a path to eventual growth.
The story is near timeless: Bowser once again attacks Princess Peach and Mario, Luigi and a couple of nameless Toads team up to save her. While this has been the plot of most major Mario games since 1985, gamers and fans aren't expecting much of anything different. I for one look forward to the final Bowser battle, as they usually are epic in scale. The journey to that point is the bread and butter of the game series, and NSMBU continues that streak.
There are eight worlds, each with a handful of levels. Each world usually has a mid-way sub-castle guarded by a Koopa Minion, and later levels have Ghost Houses as well. Each world ends with a Koopling battle in a castle.
While that seems like the same old, same old, there are a couple of unique additions to the mix. Mario has a new suit, called the Acorn suit, which turns him into a flying squirrel. It works a little better than the Tanooki suit of previous New Super Mario Bros. games in that it allows Mario to glide, but also make a nice super jump at any time. The only drawback of the Flying Squirrel suit is the fact that it allows Mario to latch on and hold onto walls. This is terrible when trying to execute a perfect wall jump to snag the last Star Coin on a level. Also, there are a handful of new enemies scattered throughout the eight worlds that make some things interesting.
Even with the new duds, what really makes New Super Mario Bros. U unique are two new features. For the first time ever, Mario is in true, 1080p HD (provided you have an HD TV and use the included Wii U HDMI cable). A game series so deeply rooted in the cartoony graphics and wide color palette benefits immensely from the jump to HD. The colors just pop off the screen, and the intricate details, down to the pockmarks on Bowser's face are breathtaking to behold. There is zero blur or flutter as Mario (or Luigi or the two Toads) zip across the screen, pounding blocks for coins and crushing Goombas with his size 8s (editor note: we have no proof that Mario wears Size 8 shoes, but it sounded like a good, round number).
In fact, Mario and the gang have never looked better. The Wii U's powerful processors really present the Mushroom Kingdom in a way that it has never been shown and it speaks volumes as being one of the prettiest, colorful, eye-popping games in the launch lineup.
The second feature is in the interface. For the first time, FIVE people can play a Mario game together. The Wii U allows for four Wii remote controllers, and the fifth person uses the Wii U's GamePad to "control," or Boost, as it's called in-game, the action to help the four players find the star coins, secret exits, or just survive. It adds a whole new level of gameplay as the person holding the GamePad can choose to be helpful or hurtful, depending on their mood. By touching the GamePad screen, the "controller" can create blocks in midair for the other players to use. In turn, the controller can also use these blocks to hinder a player, stopping runs, disrupting jumps, and just causing great amounts of havoc. The controller also sees secret moon icons on their screen, which can be tapped for three 1-Ups. If a player uses a chain of GamePad-built blocks, a star meter fills up on the GamePad that, once full, the controller can touch and use the ability to tap and kill any enemies on-screen. Again, it gives the controller a purpose and lets more people in on the fun.
I originally didn't think much of these features until further into the game, I needed help with blocks, as did my wife, and suddenly NSMBU went from a usual solitary experience to a true co-op. I'm happy to report it works splendidly, though it must be mentioned that block building is severely hindered once a player maxes out their 1-Ups at 99. The blocks appear as tiny squares that only last a second or two, so the benefit is cut drastically.
As for the game itself, New Super Mario Bros. U features a full compliment of game modes to accompany the story mode. There is a Challenge mode, in which the players compete to finish levels, or sections of levels, within a set time to earn medals. It is very addictive, especially when playing against a Mario Savant, like my wife. Each time a medal is earned, new challenges are unlocked and at present, there are a ton of levels that we are still going through.
The Boost Rush mode is similar to the same mode in the New Super Mario Bros. 2 3DS game. Three levels are grouped together and the player must finish all three without dying to earn credit. The fastest times are then recorded and can be competed against. Nintendo has promised new levels in the Boost and Challenge modes via DLC.
The last extra game mode is the Coin Battle. This is just what it says. Go head to head with up to four players and compete to collect the most coins. Players can also create their own Coin Battle courses using the GamePad to edit the placement of coins. All in all, all three extra game modes add a level of replayability to New Super Mario Bros. U that hasn't been seen since Super Mario World (which had a ton of hidden stuff, including levels and worlds that players could seek out post-Bowser battle).
Also, New Super Mario Bros. U takes full advantage of the Wii U's Miiverse social networking feature by allowing players to leave messages or to draw pictures on the GamePad touchscreen after completing levels, which are then posted outside the levels. I've used these to my advantage as heeded warnings, as well as dropping hints myself. You can choose to hide them all if you don't want help, or to read other player's comments, and you can opt out of participating completely, though it is a neat feature that really made me feel connected to this group of like-minded gamers.
The one drawback in the message feature is that the game is random in when it asks you to make a post, unless you get all three Star coins in a level, complete the level without taking damage, or die a bunch of times in a row. It is pretty frustrating to be asked, "Hey, you want to leave a message?" after dying for the 30th time in a row. And if you're wondering, no, you can't post expletives.
While the innovations to the NSMB series make this game shine like a coin hanging in mid-air, I cannot help to wonder if there was more that could have been done with the GamePad in terms of control. Yes, the Gamepad acts as a controller (and does it quite well as it is my preferred way to play), and yes you can also switch the TV and GamePad screen and play the entire game off the GamePad itself, which is awesome when someone wants to use the TV, or New Super Mario Bros. U came be taken into another room and played (depending on the distance to the Wii U and certain types of housing construction). But with Nintendo Land showing off so many interesting and unique controller functions, I just can't help to think that maybe more could have been done to utilize the touch screen and built in gyro-controls. If there was one drawback to New Super Mario Bros. U as a launch title, a supposed system seller, and a celebrated new Mario game, it is that: there could have been so much more done with the GamePad and unique interface of the Wii U system.
New Super Mario Bros. U is a great game, as most Mario games are. You know what you are getting when you first boot it up, and Nintendo does not fail to deliver. It's also a marvel to look at. The graphics have never popped like this and it is quite a beautiful game to look at. The character models are near Pixar-animation quality in 1080p, and the last Bowser Battle, surrounded by dark skies and hot, molten lava is pretty incredible, as it should be. The new Acorn suit and small handful of new enemies don't make up for the lack of "new" everywhere else in the story mode.
New Super Mario Bros. U really takes off when playing with friends (or enemies) and in the additional game modes that give the game a much longer play life. Fans of Yoshi will also be pleased to know that he is back for a few levels, and so are the Baby Yoshis, last seen in the Yoshi's Island game series.
There is something nice and fuzzy about playing a new Mario game on a new Nintendo system. It's nostalgic on one hand, and new and fresh on another. The New Super Mario Bros. series has toed that line the last few years and while mostly successful, New Super Mario Bros. U is by far one of the best. Hopefully a new Mario Galaxy, or any 3D Mario game is also in the works, because the Wii U is a system that begs for new innovation to be explored, even by the oldest of plumbers.
- Jon Hueber
Shop for New Super Mario Bros. U for Nintendo Wii at Amazon.com (November 18, 2012 release date).