New Super Mario Bros U Review
Once again our portly protagonist is dumped into the bizarre acid trip world of the Mushroom Kingdom. An Italian plumber by trade he may be but Princess Saviour would be a more apt job description for his long term endeavours as protagonist in Nintendo’s premier franchise.
The big N have pretty much done away with any attempt to build another nonsensical and pointless narrative this time, offering a simple introductory sequence in which the Princess is predictably kidnapped by perpetual failure, Bowser. Seriously, why does he still bother? At this point in the bizarre and twisted love triangle you also have to question the Princess’ motives. Anyway, like Nintendo I have also given up hope of any form of narrative resolution to this Groundhog Day like tale.
In absolute contradiction to the title, there is nothing new here, unless you count one fresh power up and HD graphics as new. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad game, in fact, this is a very good game. If you like platform games you will love New Super Mario Bros U. It is a finely tuned retrospective romp, which while lacking in scope, is nigh on pitch perfect in its execution.
Direct comparisons with Super Mario World are inevitable and also invited by the developer in the games structure and level design. The first thing that smacks of the 1990 classic is the reintroduction of an overall world map. It is a small change in the overall build of a Mario game but a hugely significant one. The map serves to tie all of the levels together into a cohesive whole, giving the game more of the feeling of an adventure than a simple progression of platforming levels as has been the case in previous New Super Mario titles.
The world map is a brimming with character and whilst not as intricate as Super Mario Worlds equivalent it offers all of the usual settings, desert, forest, ice, water and a good smattering of surprises.
The Super Mario World remix theme continues throughout the actual levels, the first few stages feeling as though they are new variants of the classic intro levels, using similar enemy sets and comparable layouts. Yoshi even makes an early appearance in the title, again following cues from its 16-bit inspiration.
Visually NSMBU is a mixed bag. At times the game looks gorgeous, characters are lovingly animated and bulging with plump personality, backgrounds are colourful and well drawn. The additional screen real estate makes it possible for the game to send forth an onslaught of enemy characters, herds of Goombas advance in unison making for some hilarious head stomping fun and 1UP’s a plenty. At other times it appears dull, lifeless and suffers from poor textures. Mid level boss stages are a real issue in this regard, the backdrops looking low resolution, bland and stale.
Gameplay is super sharp and reminiscent of the 16-bit era having shed the floaty feeling physics of previous NSMB titles. Mario handles just as he should and guiding him through the well designed levels is immense fun. It is challenging too. For the first time in the NSMB series the difficulty level genuinely seems to have been upped from the off.
Latter levels actually drove me to the type of frustration I used to feel in the good old days. Happily my new GamePad remains intact and has no bite marks. It is clearly far too expensive a bit of kit to be abused in such a way.
The new levels are a blast to play through and are all made to be exploited at pace by the skilled player.
The additional screen width offered by a shift to HD makes for stages in which the player can see further ahead and therefore plan precision jumps more accurately. Nintendo have gone all out to ensure synchronisation of moving platforms, enemy placements and so on to create real time, chaotic set pieces.
At a high level of play, NSMBU can be made to look like a graceful and synchronised machine in which every part it perfectly fitted. Miss a beat however and everything comes crumbling down, returning the game to staccato rhythms of play. The only real criticism on gameplay is that the mid-level boss fights are simple, boring, repetitive, uninspired and ultimately not of any benefit to the game. Getting rid of them entirely would be an improvement.
Having commented on the games increased difficulty I have to admit that I didn’t once see the game over screen whilst playing the campaign. It is high time that the concept of lives is removed from the Mario format. What is their point? As a skilled player you effectively have infinite lives and if you run low on latter levels, going to earlier levels to collect a bunch more seems like a needless, antiquated grinding task.
Outside of the main adventure sits Challenge Mode, a great addition to the title that sets brief skill challenges along a theme. It can be coin collection, speed running or Goomba stomping with high scores totted up and medals awarded on completion. Think of it a bit like Special Ops in COD but without guns and everything isn’t brown.
Multiplayer aspects of the title are integrated throughout the game, offering co-op play in the games campaign, competitive coin collection mini games and a co-operative challenge mode that is truly brilliant. During the campaign, a skilled player will likely find the additional characters on screen more of a hindrance than anything else although it has to be said that the chaotic play that ensues is always fun. The rules of the mushroom kingdom hold fast throughout and are there to be exploited by the player in whatever means they may see fit.
This anarchic approach is topped off with the inclusion of “boost mode” in which one player takes charge of the GamePad’s touch screen and can help or hinder by placing temporary platforms into the game screen with a tap of the finger. It is in two-player Challenge Mode where this concept really shines. Brilliance is found in one of the most fulfilling and direct examples of co-op gaming I have experienced.
Challenges require absolute synchronisation between the GamePad equipped platform master, who can place and replace up to four tiles at a time and a skilled player to control Mario. It is fast paced instant replay gaming at its finest, leading to many lost hours whilst chasing gold medals on a difficult challenge. It also stands as a great example of the type of asymmetric gameplay that Nintendo are trying to push with their new machine.
One huge benefit of NSMBU is that it can be played, in single player, on the gamepad screen alone. This is a huge advantage for those of us who share a TV screen in the household with others who would become tired of the constant sight of a cheery plump plumber bouncing around and yelling “it’s Mario Time” every five minutes. Of course those of us with handheld consoles will already be aware of this concept but the ability to play fully formed console quality titles whilst sat on the toilet is cause for celebration. As a side point, NSMBU put the gamepad and more specifically its new d-pad through it’s paces proving it to be a fine controller indeed. It is precise and very comfortable through long periods of play.
Considering that this is the first Mario Launch title since Mario64 innovated in both graphical and gameplay terms back in 1996 it feels a bit of a missed opportunity to simply regurgitate the same old “New” formula. A new console launched with a new Mario that was built from the ground up to be the consoles killer app and showcase the possibilities of the brilliant new controller would have been a better move. Sadly it seems the big N don’t plan that well these days and has provided a perfectly good game for us to play whilst waiting for whatever Galaxy topping brilliance EAD Tokyo is currently working on.
Whilst it in no way innovates, New Super Mario Bros U is easily the best 2D Mario title since the 16 bit heydays, it is well balanced for both new and veteran players whilst ramping up the difficulty for those who really want it. The transition to HD has been kind to the franchise offering improvements in level layouts due to increased screen size as well as super cute and colourful, cartoon like graphics. It is without doubt the number one title currently available on the platform and an essential purchase for all Wii U owners.