The chaotic multiplayer from the Wii edition returns for this latest installment.
It’s been awhile since Mario has graced a new Nintendo console with his appearance at launch with the last time being 1996’s Super Mario 64, not counting the disappointing DS port of said title in 2004. However this isn’t an evolution of the mainline series of games, rather a new iteration of the increasingly frequent New Super Mario Bros. releases. While New Super Mario Bros. 2 earlier this year may have felt rushed in order to speed along 3DS sales the same seems less likely of New Super Mario Bros. U.
As always Princess Peach finds herself taken captive by Bowser and Mario must save her. The opening cinematic depicts Bowser staging a home invasion into Peach’s castle and in the process kicks Mario, Luigi and the two Toads unfortunate enough not to own their own mushroom hut outside of the castle to the farthest end of the world map. The setup is brief and amusing as Nintendo seem to now only focus on the method in which Peach and Mario are separated but as always there is no emphasis on any kind of narrative as has been the case with Mario ever since the original Super Mario Bros.
Controlling Mario is largely the same as the previous entries in both the New series and the franchise in general. Players have access to the familiar running jumping, twirling and wall-jumping action that they have come to expect and it feels as slick and responsive as ever. There are a few minor alterations in how slippery icy surfaces are but otherwise veterans are going to be able to race through levels without wrestling with any uncomfortable new physics.
Borrowing the overworld map from Super Mario World, U does actually feel like the player is heading towards a goal rather than just running through a selection of arbitrary, disconnected worlds that have been the case with a lot of the New Super Mario Bros. series. Of course there are the usual assortment of desert, ice, night and forest themed locations but each level within these areas has a unique aspect whether it be certain enemy types, terrain or power-ups available to the player.
Star Coins return again and can be used to access secret levels.
The main goal of each level is to reach the flag at the end but there are occasional secret exits which lead to hidden levels. The Star Coins from previous games also make an appearance which players need to collect to be able to access all of the post-game content which in combination with the secret exits does make a compelling reason to return to various locations and explore them further. Occasionally a creature called Nabbit will appear in a level where players can then chase and pin him down to earn extra power-ups.
All of the power-ups will be familiar to Mario veterans as the Fire Flower, Super Star, Ice Flower and Mini Mushrooms all make an appearance. The major addition to this particular title is the Squirrel Suit which functions like a majorly nerfed Magic Cape from Super Mario World as Mario is able to slow down any descents as well as being able to carry the wind to extend his fall. Yoshi makes a return and is once again able to devour enemies and slightly extend the range of Mario’s jumps with his flutter. By feeding him berries he will also lay an egg containing another power-up to aid the player. Baby Yoshis make a return and depending on their colour can grant certain benefits such as lighting up an area, lifting Mario up by transforming into a hot air balloon or blowing water bubbles at enemies.
The difficulty has been pitched just about perfect in New Super Mario Bros. U. Players familiar with the series will be able to breeze through the early levels with ease but will eventually begin to get challenged later in the game. Fortunately even when the game is easy it still is a lot of fun running and jumping through the levels thanks to the varied level designs. Should players find themselves dying repeatedly on a course they can get a hint from Luigi showing them how to complete the level.
Unfortunately relying on nostalgia so much for the New series there aren’t any real genuine surprises in this latest iteration. Baby Yoshis, a World Map, the Squirrel Suit and even the post game content are all lifted from Super Mario World. The Super NES classic constantly offered up surprises from the starting island all the way through to the final confrontation with Bowser and beyond in the form of secret exits, hidden routes, shortcuts and bonus areas all of which have been merely briefly acknowledged here and there. The world map could easily have been cut up into various separate worlds as was the case with New Super Mario Bros. Wii and it wouldn’t have made too much of a difference in how players would progress to the end. Although the New series is supposed to be a celebration of Mario’s legacy it would be nice if Nintendo would allow it to take on a life of its own after four games.
Each level feels genuinely unique with no ideas being recycled to pad the game out.
Apart from the Story Mode U features a genuinely difficult Challenge Mode. There are various challenges such as speed running through levels, dodging enemy attacks and acquiring 1-ups by constantly hopping on enemies whilst not hitting the ground. Mario veterans will no doubt find the most fun in attempting to achieve a gold medal for each of these challenges right down to the most controller hurlingly difficult tasks that Nintendo has set for them in a long time. Despite its difficulty it can also be used as a tutorial of sorts for some of the games’ concepts that some may not be familiar with such as the aforementioned 1-up collecting.
The multiplayer mode from New Super Mario Bros. Wii returns allowing up to five players to run through the whole Story Mode and two players are able to attempt specific tasks in the Challenge Mode. A player using the Wii U GamePad can plant temporary platforms that can be used to either aid or obstruct other players in reaching the goal. If playing solo and using the GamePad rather than a Wii Remote then the tablet display will mirror the action on the TV screen, making it possible to play through the entirety of the single player campaign and challenges without even needing to switch the TV on. The only disadvantage of playing the game exclusively viewing through the GamePad is the lack of visual fidelity in comparison with a HDTV display as there are quite visible compression artefacts around icons and occasionally characters as well although they never distract from the experience too much.
Another interesting feature is the integration of the New Super Mario Bros. U community on Nintendo’s Miiverse social network. By fulfilling certain criteria such as not getting damaged, collecting all three star coins or finally finishing a level after a few attempts a prompt will appear asking you to post to the Miiverse where you will be able to either type a short message or draw a black and white picture. By looking around on the world map it’s also possible to see the messages other players have left in a similar fashion to Dark Souls with players either boasting about their achievements, giving small hints, asking for help or just sharing a doodle.
The challenge modes are a welcome addition for players who perhaps find the main story to be too easy for them.
If there is an area that New Super Mario Bros. U falls short on it is undoubtedly the visual design. Although technically the graphics are crisp, clear and fluidly animated the overall aesthetic style still feels rather lifeless when compared to the likes of Super Mario World, Yoshi’s Island or even more recently the Super Mario Galaxy series. There are improvements to the previous games in the New series of titles as this entry does have some beautiful environmental artwork in the shape of the Van Gogh inspired forest levels, although the already established character artwork seems quite out of place on top of the new artwork. Despite the conservative visuals there is never any issue with foreground and background elements blending together and causing confusion as some other sidescrolling games have issues with.
As ever the New Super Mario Bros. series disappoints with its musical score. The recycled bopping soundtrack must be the most lazy aspect of the entire production. For a series which has produced some of gaming’s most recognisable musical themes it still disappoints that this aspect of Mario’s legacy is treated in such a throwaway manner in this supposed celebratory line of games.
New Super Mario Bros. U is by far the best of the New series of games taking a lot of the best elements of the old 2D platformers. It’s entirely possible that many players of New Super Mario Bros. 2 and its predecessors may feel as though the series has run its course which is only exacerbated by the exact same art style that has been present since the DS game came out in 2006. On its own terms however the game is the best 2D Mario since the Super NES days with the challenge mode ensuring that the more masochistic players will more than likely be returning long after they’ve fully completed the main story mode in order to get all those gold medals and boast about them on Miiverse.