Developer: Nintendo EAD / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: Wii U / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Everyone [Comic Mischief]
If you’re thinking of New Super Mario Bros U as a stopgap until a real Mario game comes out, I wouldn’t blame you. It’s obviously not as groundbreaking as Super Mario 64 or even Super Mario Galaxy, but judging it on that alone would be a real mistake. This is the best 2D Mario game yet, and yes that includes Mario 3 and World. It’s not simply a time killer until the real Mario comes — Mario Bros U is the launch Mario we used to expect with new Nintendo systems, and it’s absolutely worth your time.
In terms of overarching structure, Mario U doesn’t shake up the formula too much. Yes, Bowser kidnaps the princess and it’s up to you to save her by generally running to the right and jumping on flagpoles. This, at least, is the same Mario we’ve seen for almost 30 years and it still works as well now as it always has.
There are some substantive additions, though. The flying squirrel suit gives Mario the ability to cling to walls, glide, and even do a one-time climb in altitude. The ability to stick to walls and change direction mid-glide reminded me of the NES Ninja Gaiden of all things, and allows you to pull off some really tricky moves. You can also pick up a derpy, wall-eyed baby Yoshi at certain points that gives you new abilities depending on its color: red will inflate into a giant balloon, blue spits out bubbles and so forth. Oh, and if toting around a fat, stupid Yoshi wasn’t cute enough, they sing too.
The real secret to Mario U’s quality is the level design. While the levels do dip into familiar Mario territory like deserts and snow levels, you also have entirely unique stages like a water level where a giant eel chases you the whole time or a level composed of giant, shifting blocks that you have to thread your way through. Nearly every level has some new quirk or mechanic, and it’s wonderful to see the 2D Mario series stretch again.
Not only are the levels original, but there’s a ton of them too — over 90 by my count, and I haven’t even found all the secrets yet. Finding all the large coins and secret exits in this game is an undertaking, and yes there’s even a star world filled with ultra-hard levels. If you’ve found past Mario games wanting for challenge or content, neither of those will be a problem here.
The game’s content doesn’t stop there either. The consummate Mario expert can even move on to the game’s challenge modes, which set specific goals for carefully crafted levels. This will push your platforming skills to the absolute limit. Additionally, an entirely new mode called coin rush puts an original spin on forced-scrolling levels. This mode ranks you by how quickly you complete a level, and you can only increase the scroll speed by picking up coins. Not only do you have to keep up with fast scrolling, but you have to keep picking up coins the whole while. It sounds easy but trust me, it isn’t.
Put it all together, and you have the most content and feature-rich Mario game ever. Yes, it’s that impressive.
Mario U’s multiplayer is built on the standard four-player co-operative / want-to-stab-your-friends-in-the-face mode that was introduced in New Super Mario Bros Wii and it’s still just as maddening and ridiculous. However, the levels in Mario U feel much less cramped so those clusterfucks of player congestion are less common.
Mario U mixes up that formula with boost mode, which allows a player with the Wii U gamepad to place platforms by tapping the gamepad screen. This sounds like a fairly boring addition, but in practice it has far-reaching gameplay implications. Aside from the obvious ability to screw with someone by boxing them in with platforms, you can also use it in coin rush and challenge mode. In coin rush, opportunely placed platforms can help players maintain momentum, which is vital when the screen starts scrolling quickly. I initially dismissed boost mode as a way to appeal to less-experienced Mario players, but ushering four spastic players through screens full of madness will put any gamer at his or her perceptive limit.
Challenges built specifically for boost mode are absurdly difficult too. Simply collecting falling coins becomes a real challenge when two players have to work together. It requires a sort of wordless co-operation and complete mastery in both players. It’s one of the most inventive and challenging modes I’ve played in any platformer.
Mario in HD looks so good it’s aggravating that it took so long for it to happen. Rather than rely on bombastic effects and superfluous filters, Mario U is extremely clean, bright, and focused. Mario and his roster of enemies retain the smooth, rounded, cartoonish look they always have, which doesn’t exactly push any boundaries but still looks great in motion. The backgrounds, though, are jaw-dropping. From thick forests with rays of sun filtering through to Van Gogh-style starry night scenes, the background art gives the levels a sense of depth and scale that hasn’t been seen in a 2D Mario game yet.
Sound effects in Mario U don’t stray far from their 8-bit inspirations, but there’s a richness to the bleeps and bloops that prevents the game from sounding horribly dated. Mario’s expressive grunts and cheers return again without much deviation from past performances. Disappointingly, the game’s soundtrack is heavily recycled from previous New Super Mario Bros games. While the music is still good, I was looking forward to some new tunes.
Tight control has always been the secret to Mario’s success and Mario U is no exception. The game can be played either with the Wii U gamepad or a Wii remote, and both work extremely well. In fact, I found the Wii U gamepad exceptionally comfortable. The wider grip feels natural after a few minutes, and contours on the underside of the gamepad provided a perfect resting place for the rest of my fingers.
And, thanks to the Wii U’s particular freedoms, you can play Mario U directly from the gamepad without a TV. Within the first day I’d already played it in the bathroom, the bedroom, and on the couch with a pair of headphones while my fiancee watched a TV show and it all worked perfectly. Your mileage may vary depending your apartment or home layout, but it’s a feature that I love.
There are curmudgeons out there who will skip this game because of the liberal Mario throwbacks, but they’re missing the forest for the trees. Inventive level design, loads of content, and the shockingly profound boost mode make this one of the best 2D platformers out there. If you’re picking up a Wii U there’s no question – let Mario U remind you why the series is one of gaming’s best.
+ Original level design
+ Inventive, challenging multiplayer
+ Tons of content