New Super Mario Bros U review: New ideas layered on a familiar blueprint
15th Nov 2012 | 18:15
What better way to christen your brand spanking-new dual-screen Nintendo console than with a classic slice of dual-faced Nintendo magic? New Super Mario Bros U's riotous multiplayer sees Ninty at their duplicitous, treacherous, hilarious best.
But Mario's HD debut is, as football pundits might say, a game of two halves. At one end of the scale, it's a genteel, family-friendly co-op game which epitomises Ninty's recent 'No-one left behind' mantra. At the other, it's a brutal gauntlet of single-player dexterity tests that will push even the most hardened of Mario veterans to the brink of their endurance. No one left behind? No one left alive, more like.
Somewhere between those two extremes you'll find the tipping point where Mario Bros U will click for you. Despite its relative brevity and lack of new ideas, Mario U is a diverse and puckish platformer which goes to great lengths to ensure that this, truly, is a Mario for all seasons.
News of New Super Mario Bros U's hardcore appeal will come as a surprise to those who have only loosely been following its promotional trail. Early footage proudly focused on the game's asymmetrical multiplayer, which appears to relegate the experienced player to the role of protector of the lame and inept. The concept is simple and (on paper, at least) not necessarily a palatable one for the Gamepad user: while up to four other players commandeer a Wii remote and hop, skip and wa-hoo their way across the Mushroom Kingdom in time-honoured fashion, the player left cradling the Gamepad has to abandon their dreams of controlling a little virtual plumber/Mii/Toad thing of their own and instead assume the role of Grand Overseer.
The Gamepad user's main input is to place up to four temporary platforms for the other players to use anywhere on the screen, by tapping on it with the stylus/finger/your enlongated object of choice. A second tap removes the platform but this is rarely necessary, since after a few seconds of hanging in the air, the platform will slowly retract and then disappear of its own accord.
We were worried we'd feel like something of a third wheel when using the Gamepad - like a wallflower hovering passively on the periphery of the dance floor while everyone else links hands and does the goomba-stompin' dance. But as ever with Wii U, the proof is in the prodding. While being The Holy Platform God can feel a little pedestrian in two-player, sync up a few extra remotes and your living room will suddenly catch ablaze with laughter, mischief and perhaps even a few swears - and you'll be right at the centre of it all.
As with New Super Mario Bros Wii before it, the simultaneous multiplayer mode contrives to make muppets of even the most accomplished players. Since the characters are physical entities capable of bumping and colliding with one another, gameplans which serve you well in single-player suddenly begin to malfunction, with uproarious results.
It's a simple matter of mathematics. More specifically, of subtraction by addition. With four times as many plumbers, you've got four times the butt-stomping power, but only a quarter of the platforming space to play with. With crushing blocks and grinding cogs a common theme, players invariably end up tripping over themselves in an attempt to slot themselves into the one square inch of land that isn't about to be pummelled by the underbelly of a Thwomp. Things aren't any less slapstick in the skies, with mid-air collisions being a particularly common cause of death.
So far so New Super Mario Bros Wii then, but here's where the Gamepad storms onto the scene to shake things up further. As The Platform God, your job description is to bring order to the chaos by using your platform-creating skills to protect the players from harm. But when the game is in full swing, this proves to be the ultimate in Sisyphean tasks.
With a calm wind, everything is plain sailing - a cheeky platform here and Grandma can collect that Star Coin, an even cheekier platform across the top of that pipe and you've prevented Grandpa from being swallowed by the World's Biggest Piranha Plant.
But then snake blocks start snaking and see-saw bridges start tilting, and before you can get a grip on what's happening there's a deluge of tumbling plumbers raining down your screen. Attempting to save them all feels like trying to catch the Niagara Falls in a tea cup.
Assuming the responsibility of the Platform God is a huge cross to bear then, and much of the time despite your good intentions you end up doing more harm than good. (Causing players to plummet into a pit because you've placed a platform slightly too high for them to reach, so they smash facefirst into it instead, is a common ailment.) But that's okay, because the entire set up is geared towards comic mayhem rather than precision play.
It's a mode where, you sense, you have to be content to progress not through skill but by muddling through it together. But in the right company (that is to say, with a couple of useless boobs chucked into the equation), it delivers one of the funniest gaming moments you'll experience all year. And as a social Boxing Day activity it's got 'staring dead-eyed at Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa while pretending you don't have a hangover' beat, gloved hands down.
Besides, experienced players looking for a challenge will find it elsewhere on the disc - although, curiously enough, not in the main game itself. Although NSMBU tries hard to reach out to the hardcore Mario fan with several nods to the past - such as a world map similar to the one in Super Mario World, and the return of classic baddies such as Monty Moles and Munchers (those black bitey plant things from Mario Bros 3) - it is destined to leave them disappointed. It simply doesn't put up enough of a fight to satisfy Mario vets.
Ghost Houses aside (they're a complete nightmare in this; an impenetrable tangle of multiple doors and circuitous paths), Mario Bros U doesn't begin asking any meaningful questions of the player until they're seven worlds in. By then, it's almost too late. Despite a late flurry where the designers awaken from their slumber and begin pulling their most innovative tricks, Mario Bros U's difficulty level falls well below the standard set by New Super Mario Bros Wii, which was cement-hard in places. Any reasonably competent player can expect to complete Mario Bros U in a single weekend.
But there's completing a Mario Bros game, and then there's completing it. As with the other titles in the New Super Mario Bros series, each stage is garnished with three Star Coins each, and collecting them all is the key to unlocking the usual extracurricular fun that lurks beyond the remnants of Bowser's last stand.
Pleasingly, Mario Bros U takes its cue from the 3DS' New Super Mario Bros 2, by making a really good fist of hiding the Star Coins out of sight. Many require you to get to grips with the squirrel suit, Mario U's sole new power-up - which, as it happens, is the best new power-up to appear in a 2D Mario game since Mario World's cape. It's nowhere near as good as the cape, of course (they're never going to better it, are they?), but the it's streets ahead NSMBWii's rubbish propellerhead thing.
Once you're all squirrelled up, the suit allows you to glide across the screen in a downwards trajectory, with one additional jump being granted per glide. In capable hands this allows for some daring feats of acrobatics, such as swooping down to collect Star Coin floating precariously above a lava pit, and then using your jump to pull up at the last possible moment. There's more: when Squirrel-Mario reaches a vertical wall, he'll cling to it like a horrible bat-thing, rather than just bouncing off. This gives you the opportunity to bide your time, waiting for a platform or an ambling para-koopa to move into the perfect position - before pouncing.
The remaining power-ups are the usual suspects - Fire Flowers, Ice Flowers and Mini-Mushrooms, and certain levels are garnished with Yoshis. Again mirroring NSMBWii, Adult Yoshis are locked to the levels you find them in, but every so often you'll encounter a Baby Yoshi. These gluttonous dinos are yours to keep for as long as you can keep them in your mitts. (Although they can't be bothered to help you out in Ghost Houses or Castles, we notice. Kids today, huh?)
Baby Yoshis come in three different 'flavours' - each boasting its own unique special power. Pink Yoshis inflate like a hot air balloon on demand, blue Yoshis burp out killer bubbles, and golden Yoshis will light up pitch-black caverns when issued a spin-jump cue.
But these powers are secondary to their use as a mobile shield. Yoshis, as is known, will consume pretty much anything that moves, so dangling one in front of you means that you're free to sprint through the levels, safe in the knowledge that your fledgling will wolf down any baddies you might happen to bump into. The only disappointment is that, unlike in their previous appearance in Super Mario World, they never grow up.
However, for all the talk of inflating Yoshis and squirrel gliding, there's little in the main game that will tax or surprise anyone who's played any of the previous New Super Mario Bros games. But there's a good reason for the game's apparent ease. In previous entries of the series, Nintendo's level designers have painstakingly designed each level so that they work on two levels - one, as a fun playground for new players to explore, and two, as a carefully crafted speed run challenge, where entire levels can be completed without ever touching the floor - Bullet Bills, Goombas and Koopas are perfectly placed to the very last pixel to ensure expert players can sprint from start to finish without ever once loosing momentum.
New Super Mario Bros Wii's Super Guide videos showed players glimpses of high-level play, but didn't go as far as to provide them with a compelling framework to encourage them to try it for themselves. Mario Bros U fixes that with a separate Challenge mode, packed full of snack-sized trials that only last a minute or two each, but will keep you glued to the screen(s) until the crickets begin chirping.
These challenges range from death-defying speedrun challenges where you have to slide underneath falling icicles and skip over tumbling statues, to a game of 1-Upmanship where you attempt to earn as many extra lives as possible by bouncing on top of an endless supply of Bullet Bills, Penguins and/or Koopas. As you progress through the challenges, the more creative the designers dare to be, with later stages including 'coinless runs' (complete the level while collecting no more than five coins - tougher than it sounds) and daredevil runs where you can't touch the floor from start to finish. There's even a stage where you have to coax a Monty Mole to the finish line.
Freed from the burden of having to design the challenges around a base level that's easy for grandad, Nintendo EAD has been able to dream up a succession of tough, supremely demanding challenges that will keep top-level players plugging away deep into next year's inevitable game drought. Hopefully you'll be able to compare scores with your friends via Wiiverse, but Nintendo were unable to confirm this at time of writing and thus, unfortunately, we're unable to take that possibility into account when considering the score.
Rounding off the package are a couple of additional multiplayer modes. The best of the pair is easily Boost Mode, which asks players to take the skills they've learned from playing through the main game co-operatively and put them to the test in a succession of vicious push-scrolling levels which speed up in accordance with how many coins your team collects. Frantic is too weak a word to describe the scenes which unfold in the latter half of the 'Expert' packs. Then there's the rather self-explanatory Coin Battle, which while still amusing, is somewhat less compelling. Its main hook is that you have the option of altering the coin layouts on each level via the GamePad's touchscreen, but after you've written a rude word into the sky once, the novelty value runs dry.
Nevertheless, it all combines to form a deceptively complete 2D package which will delight newcomers and old-hands alike - if not always at the same time. Of course, for all its charms, it's no reason to shell out £300 on a brand new console in and of itself - it plays it all a little too safe to be a system seller. But when New Super Mario Bros U is in full flight - be it a death-defying squirrel dive, the chaotic hilarity of a four-way snake block road trip, or a manic timed sprint through a crowd of Boos - it serves as a timely reminder of the Nintendo magic that, sooner or later, your wallet will find hard to resist.