Mario's back - and this time he's HD.
While Nintendo has returned to the concept of a 2D Mario time and time again in recent years, none of these retro revivals have recaptured the quality of their predecessors. Rather than developing proper evolutions of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, the New Mario series watered down successful formulas to the point where it was good, but not nearly as great as its legacy. In other words, the brilliance of the NES and SNES formulas has eluded Nintendo's modern teams.
New Super Mario Bros. U changes that pattern. Though it doesn't necessarily redefine Nintendo's iconic hero, it still manages to capture the sense of carefree adventure that many of us felt as kids. More importantly, the game contains a significant amount of challenge, both within its story mode and outside of it. This game has clearly been designed by a team that regards Super Mario World with as much affection as those of us who grew up with it. Were it not for the game's weak graphics and audio, plus the return of the irritating chaotic, bouncy multiplayer mode, this game might rival some of Nintendo's better 2D accomplishments.
For many of us, Super Mario World shifted the Mushroom Kingdom from numbered, sequential stages to something more organic. The term "world" never felt more appropriate. New Super Mario Bros. U is the first 2D Mario game not only to return to that approach, but to take it subtly to the next level. The vast, seamless overworld not only houses the requisite levels, fortresses and castles, but also features items that can be picked up off the ground, roaming enemies that must be defeated, secrets, alternate paths and even some boss fights that occur within their own context, outside of any platforming sequence. Why Nintendo ever moved away from this approach seems even more baffling now that it's returned.
so simplistic you'd be forgiven for assuming nothing greater lies ahead. Yet the game continues to escalate in complexity, with layouts that beg for exploration, numerous hidden secrets and an overworld that subtly updates as you progress through the game. New enemies, power-ups and threats continuously introduce themselves along classic ideas in a perfect balance that will call back to old NES and SNES adventures while still feeling fresh.
The level of difficulty feels just right, allowing you to keep moving at a reasonable pace while killing you plenty of times along the way. You'll never run out of lives, but if you're anything like me, you'll still lose enough of them to feel like you're being challenged. If that wasn't enough, collecting all of the game's Star Coins will certainly push your skills - and there is definitely a reward to doing so. Finding this balance haunted New Mario games in the past. None of them have been particularly challenging. None of them felt like they were anything but a routine trip back into 2D Mario, tamed to appeal to all audiences without regard for players that wanted a test of their skills. What's more impressive about Mario U is that while its Story Mode does serve up some of that challenge, Nintendo opted to do even more. They created an independent challenge mode. And it will kick your ass.
Challenge Mode shatters the traditional Mario experience, and will truly test a player's resolve and ability. It places you on narrow platforms with enemies hurling projectiles at you, simply seeing how long you can survive. It forces you to traverse an entire level without killing an enemy - or perhaps not touching the ground. That even some of the simplest tasks will cause you to throw down your controller in frustration - and then immediately pick it back up to try again - is precisely what the Mario series has needed. In some respects it overshadows the Story Mode, and it'd be interesting to see if Nintendo can find a way to work more unconventional ideas like these into its main adventure. The diversity would be more than welcome.
New Super Mario Bros. U does have two critical technical flaws. Its visual and audio designs aren't nearly as its contemporaries, merely reaching the bare minimum of expectations for a HD Mario title. Wii U is a powerful system, and should be more than able to create a stunning platformer with layers upon layers of depth, great lighting and particle effects, and another world-class soundtrack. Mario U feels like it's just achieving the minimum in any of those areas. The improvements from New Mario on Wii surface immediately, but that's not nearly enough in an era where Rayman Legends also exists. Mario U features moments of graphical brilliance - particularly in later worlds and a the sublime level featuring Van Gogh's `Starry Night' - but they only serve to reinforce that difference. This isn't a bad looking game. It just fails to be memorable.
The same applies to sound, where much of the game's music feels like a retread of the past. Familiar Mario themes are certainly present, and they're as good as always, but the routine, generic `New Mario' theme is back as well - the one that features the emphasized beats that cause Koopas and Goombas to briefly stop mid-step and dance. Much like the visuals, nothing here is outright bad. It just doesn't reach the standard set by its predecessors. Considering some of the brilliance contained in recent 3D Mario games, it's frustrating to see Nintendo not attempt the same here. Mario games are known for their music. That should always be the case.
Wii brought multiplayer to the Mushroom Kingdom, but many players were put off by the chaotic four-player format. The same problems apply here, as so many characters attempting to leap and run through an environment simply leads to more deaths, not more fun. And there's certainly no reason to have more than one player present - everything is achievable alone. Adding a fifth participant in the form of someone who can place blocks with the GamePad doesn't help either. Players still ricochet off each other like pinballs, and deaths and power-ups still momentarily pause the action for everyone. Families and friends might enjoy the madness for brief moments, but if at any time anyone is actually trying to accomplish something, playing with others isn't really a suitable option.
It's difficult to find freshness or brilliance in a 2D landscape. Mario's world is now three decades old. That would seem to suggest new territory is scarce, and in some ways the formulaic New Mario series had come to reinforce that fear. But New Super Mario Bros. U demonstrates there's not just life left in this type of game, but that it can be modern and nostalgic at the same time.
Nintendo's approach here strikes a great balance in all areas, ranging from its difficulty to design to enemies and bosses. And for everything the basic Story Mode does right - and that's a considerable amount - the Challenge Mode will be remembered as a key moment in the life of the New Mario series, where Nintendo realized it didn't have to sacrifice the core gamer's experience at the expense of a more casual audience. This is how Mario can and will appeal to everyone.
For two decades, Mario's 3D adventures have stolen the show. New Super Mario Bros. U reminds us there's life in 2D.
Score - 9.1 - Amazing
+Brilliant Challenge Mode
+Retro, yet fresh
+Great difficulty balance
- Satisfactory visuals, audio
And The Wii U's flagship title rings in and it's good. I mean is anybody surprised? No one? Yeah, thought so.
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