It has been 16 years since Nintendo has had a new installment of the legendary Mario franchise ready for one of its console launches. To find the last such instance, you're going to need to go all the way back to September of 1996 and Super Mario 64. Since then, the company's history has played out in ways one would have thought unimaginable upon first getting their hands on the Nintendo 64; a decline, an identity crisis, and a return to prominence that many argue was built on the backs of the existing fan base. Today, the Wii U marks Nintendo's sixth entry into the console market, and if headlining launch title New Super Mario Bros U is any indication, this one aims to serve as a complete return to form.
What Is It?
New Super Mario Bros U is the fourth installment in the New Super Mario Bros series, which first arrived as a DS game in 2006. The return to the traditional side-scrolling formula immediately won the support of long-time Mario fans and the attention of a whole new generation of players who had up to that point only known Mario from his 3D titles like Super Mario Sunshine and the aforementioned 64. In contrast, New SMB typically earns its paycheck on the tried-and-true gameplay of the 80s and 90s rather than through ongoing efforts to reinvent the wheel. This approach has served it well.
This first Wii U installment is also a major milestone for the franchise, serving as Mario's HD debut. This doesn't have any profound effect on the gameplay, but it's hard to deny the appeal of finally getting to run around the Mushroom Kingdom in beautiful 1080p detail after all these years.
Like any 2D Mario title, New Super Mario Bros U implements tried-and-true gameplay mechanics with a couple of individually defining elements that set the game apart from the rest. This time around, the main new item is the Squirrel Suit, which allows Mario to glide, double-jump, and hang onto walls briefly. It's not an outright flight mechanic like the Tanooki Suit or Cape Feather of years gone by, but it's still a lot of fun to use, and gives Mario a degree of vertical mobility that he hasn't really enjoyed until now.
Why Should I Care?
2D side-scrolling Mario is the definitive Mario, and producer Takashi "Ten Ten" Tezuka has certainly figured out how to translate the classic formula into modern success. Replay value is achieved in a number of ways, ranging from the multiplayer mode that has a tendency to turn players against each other as they work their way together through the game's levels, to the completist task of collecting all of the game's star coins.
That's all well and good, but those elements have been there for most of the New SMB series already. The new twist for the Wii U installment involves the multiplayer mode built on the system's "asymmetric gameplay" concept. For this, an extra player takes up the Wii U's touchscreen-equipped gamepad and the role of god. This player has no onscreen representation to speak of, but uses the touchscreen to assist the players by placing extra platforms on the screen or attacking enemies simply by clicking on them.
Of course, following series tradition, gamepad players can just as easily use their powers for evil rather than good, instead choosing to troll the players by obstructing their paths at crucial moments or guiding them into obstacles with a maliciously placed block. Players aren't powerless to remove unwanted blocks from their path, but it definitely serves to add another layer to the multiplayer mode's long-held reputation as the "divorce mode" of the game.
None of this would matter, though, if the core gameplay wasn't absolutely brilliant. New Super Mario Bros U is the realization of the New SMB series' potential, tapping into the essence of both Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World to make an instant modern classic. There are a good number of moments where you realize that this can only be the result of actual effort by Nintendo to shed their recent reputation of making horrifically easy games. In fact, some moments are even worthy of the old term "Nintendo Hard," and that seems to be the ultimate point being made here: Nintendo Hard is back. This game dares to give its players credit and really challenge them in some spots, especially toward the end — a risky prospect for a company that has developed a reputation in recent years of handling its audience with kid gloves. It is very refreshing and very welcome, showing good signs for things to come.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
Every system launch wishes for a game like New Super Mario Bros. U, but only occasionally comes up with a SoulCalibur or Halo to show for it. This is the big one — the game out of the Wii U's launch crop that we'll still be playing for years to come. The main quest isn't going to demand a huge time commitment from you, but it will leave you wanting so much more that you just won't be satisfied until you've been through all the modes at length, gotten through every route, gold-medaled every challenge, and collected every single star coin. If this game is at all indicative of Nintendo's new identity, the Wii U has an especially bright future ahead.