Recent side-scrolling Mario games have lost some of that magic we grew up with. Sure, New Super Mario Bros. Wii was an excellent platformer, but it streamlined the Mario formula into a much more linear game, while also lacking any significant or rewarding challenge—a definite step back from the days of Super Mario World.
That’s where New Super Mario Bros. U comes in. Leading up to the game’s release, Nintendo promised a return to form – a throwback of sorts to the days of classic Mario on the new Wii U.
For the most part, Nintendo has succeeded in this endeavor. Even though rescuing Princess Peach (again) is pretty easy, collecting each level’s star coins and unlocking secret stages will delight those in the market for a tough challenge and a return to the days of Mario’s prime.
When I say tough, I mean tough. Much like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, each level is home to three star coins placed with cunning malevolence. For instance, one coin might require you to enter the level a different way (such as the sneaky back entrance of a castle), while others may require you to wall jump off platforms spinning precariously above a pit of bubbling poison.
Each world zone also has at least one level with a secret exit. Once found, it unlocks a shortcut through the world map, as well as a challenging secret level to complete. Like the star coins, these exits are extremely hard to find. For many of them, I had to backtrack and search each level thoroughly.
It certainly helps that Nintendo crafted creative, unique levels, so exempting a few annoying levels, replaying stages for secrets and coins is much more of a convenient excuse rather than a chore. Each level offers something new, such as a giant eel that stalks Mario as he swims through the level, or a stunning stage with visuals based off of Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. To top things off, Nintendo included a wealth of mechanics and imagery from games like Super Mario World. Snake blocks and climbing fences, for example, make a nostalgic appearance.
For the hardcore Mario fan, it’s no longer about reaching the end of the level and kicking Bowser out of Peach’s castle. It’s about finding those damn coins and levels, which can take a very long time. Of course, tracking down all of those star coins wouldn’t be worth it if there wasn’t some reward involved. Without spoiling anything, those who hold a special place in their heart for Super Mario World will no doubt enjoy the homage to the SNES classic for their extended efforts.
To find all these coins and secrets you’re going to have to jump a lot and make use of several power-ups and different Yoshi forms, as is Mario’s wont. Iconic powerups like the fire flower and ice flower are still there, while the new super acorn gives Mario a flying squirrel suit, which allows him to glide. The new ability is delightfully reminiscent of the Mario World cape and the Mario Bros. 3 raccoon tail.
Yoshi also returns in standard form, as well as the baby Yoshis from Super Mario World, though their involvement in the game is minimal outside of a few specific levels and instances. Even then, there are only a couple of times when a Yoshi is required to reach a star coin or complete a level. Their inclusion feels like more of a nod to fans rather than a gameplay necessity, but it’s a welcome one nonetheless.
All isn’t peaches and mushrooms in this latest foray into the Mushroom Kingdom, however. The co-op gameplay from New Super Mario Bros. Wii returns, and it is as clunky and frustrating as ever. While it can sometimes be hilarious, adding up to four players to the mix requires an extreme amount of communication to avoid bumping each other into bottomless pits or kicking shells into other players.
New Super Mario Bros. U also supports a fifth player to use the Wii U’s GamePad. The person in control of the pad taps the touch screen to spawn floating blocks that other players can stand on for a short time. But again, without near flawless communication this feature just lends itself to frustration. I can see an experienced player helping an inexperienced one play with the GamePad successfully, but outside of that the feature doesn’t mesh well with traditional Mario gameplay.
New Super Mario Bros. U also marks the first high definition Mario title. Since Mario is one of the most influential series in videogame history, one would expect his first foray into HD to be a momentous occasion. Unfortunately, Nintendo thought otherwise. The visuals are clear, crisp and simple; the game isn’t going to delight or wow based on its looks. In fact, it’s almost as if Nintendo took the New Super Mario Bros. Wii graphics and merely cleaned them up. It’s disappointing.
Nearly every aspect of New Super Mario Bros. U—from game mechanics to nostalgic imagery—allows the game to succeed as the best 2D Mario title in a long time. It’s just a shame Nintendo missed an opportunity to make Mario a modern graphical powerhouse.
That being said, this return to form makes New Super Mario Bros. Wii U a must for those who grew up with the plumber and his dinosaur pals.