The Wii U was released in Europe on November the 30th and has been causing quite a stir. The innovative new Gamepad controller with its multifunctional 6.2 inch touch screen has opened up a realm of new possibilities but now is not the time to review the hardware as a console’s worth can only be measured by the quality of its games of which there have been precious few so far. Nintendo Land, a game I’ll be reviewing in due course, is undoubtedly the centrepiece attraction from Nintendo designed to showcase the functionality of the console and controller. But to Nintendo fans an old-school Mario sidescroller is a much bigger deal.
The latest in the recent series of New Super Mario Bros. games does everything you would it expect it to but with a refreshing new high definition gloss, something Nintendo fans have missed over the last few years. It’s the same setup as ever; you must guide Mario and Luigi through eight worlds of familiarly structured levels. The game features for the first time since Super Mario World a proper map screen that gives some welcome geographical context to the journey and is pleasant to come back to after every level. All the familiar tropes return including ghost houses, castles, airships, secret exits and boss battles with the Koopalings.
The main game is about as long as any 2D Mario platformer with just enough secrets to keep you exploring and the usual challenge of collecting three cunningly placed star coins in each level. It’s an extremely satisfying and rounded package as you’d expect but the best part is the challenge mode which offers dozens of extra tasks to challenge any veterans not satisfied by the main story. These range from simple time attacks to coin collecting challenges including some where you must reach the goal without getting coins that make you look at the levels in a very fresh way. Then there are the very tricky one-up challenges which usually involve bouncing on enemies repeatedly as well as a range of unique tasks for which you might be asked to dodge fire thrown by fire bros with little room for manoeuvre or reach a goal without touching the ground as mini Mario. There are gold, silver and bronze medals on offer depending on how well you perform. The variety is excellent and the degree of difficulty can be colossal especially for anyone aiming for perfection. It’s a real treat for the hardcore and the best new idea in the game.
Nintendo Land might be the game to show the world what the Gamepad can do but you’d still think New Super Mario Bros. U could make better use of the hardware’s unique features than it does. In the co-op multiplayer option Boost Mode one player uses the Gamepad while up to four others control characters using Wii Remotes. The player on the Gamepad will have the same image showing on the TV screen streaming in front of them and they can touch the screen to place platforms to give the players a boost, or, if you prefer, hinder their progress. It can be entertaining but its gets dull quickly, offering little variety and the fact is that sometimes placing blocks can just get in the way. The integration of the Wii U’s new online networking service Miiverse is better as it allows you to post comments and clues about specific levels which other players can then see on their map screen.
The gameplay itself is brilliant but familiar, the controls superbly tight and is complimented beautifully by the imaginative level design. What New Super Mario Bros. U lacks is a true spark of originality. Practically every trick here has been done before and the game plays out like a tribute to old triumphs. What few new ideas there are amount to power-ups such as the Flying Squirrel Suit which enables you to glide and cling to walls (rather like Knuckles) and even perform a double jump and while it’s fun to use and the mobility is quite empowering it’s somewhat trickier to use than it sounds. Meanwhile the game also introduces the idea of baby Yoshis which you can carry around to illuminate dark areas, blow bubbles or inflate to gain height. All solid additions but none of them are really inspired.
Visually the game does the minimum of what you’d expect and nothing more. It’s a good looking title with polished, crisp graphics that bring Mario’s vibrantly colourful world to life but the designers haven’t let their imaginations run wild as you’d like. It’s all a bit conservative; functional, pleasing but ultimately underwhelming. The same is true of the audio which features a number of familiar tunes alongside the odd new theme that fits the style of the game well but doesn’t stick in the head. There are few flourishes in the sound design (although listening to baby Yoshis sing along to the music is amusing) but at least everything sounds good.
The feeling one gets from New Super Mario Bros. U is that Nintendo knew they needed Mario at the launch of their new machine and put together a highly competent but rather unambitious 2D game fairly quickly and played it safe with the design. However the fact is that these games are what the industry is built on and Mario games are always top quality. It is never dull and at this point seeing Mario in HD is a nice novelty. There will, without doubt, be many better Wii U games from Nintendo in the coming years but this is still a fine place to start.
Design – 7
Gameplay – 9
Graphics – 6
Sound – 6
Content – 7
It might fall well short of the creative brilliance of Mario’s best but New Super Mario Bros. U is still tremendously entertaining and the Wii U launch title of choice for Nintendophiles.