Monday, February 4, 2013

Review: "New Super Mario Bros. U"

Welcome to New Super Mario Bros U!  The game where the coins still don't matter but surprisingly little is recycled...

As I'm sure you may have gathered by now, I'm not a huge fan of Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. series.  As I outlined in my review of the previous game, I find that the series tends to do shockingly little to deserve the "New" moniker attached to it's title.  So, needless to say, when I discovered that Nintendo was choosing to launch its shiny new Wii U console with not only another New Super Mario game, but also the second one within only a few months, I was less than excited.  I figured it would be yet another romp through the safe and sterile world seen in the previous three games.

I was wrong.

New Super Mario Bros. U is leaps and bounds ahead of it's predecessors in virtually every way.  Developed by the same team that created the Wii iteration of the series, New Super Mario Bros. U brings far more "new" to the table than any other installment in the series thus far.  Whereas NSMB2 remained so painfully faithful to previous games that it offered virtually nothing in the way of new ideas, NSMBU dishes out fresh content on a regular basis.  It took six years and three attempts on as many consoles, but Nintendo has finally crafted an experience that feels like a legitimate sequel to the original 2006 DS game.

In terms of basic design and structure, New Super Mario Bros. U still closely resembles New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  In terms of gameplay itself, its effectively identical.  Mario controls exactly the same as he did in NSMBWii and a great many of the features introduced in Wii that were absent on the 3DS make their grand return here.  Four player co-op with some new tricks for a fifth player on the Game Pad, Yoshi, quick saves, the Ice Flower, the spin jump, and more are all back in full force after disappearing for NSMB2.

Yoshi, in particular, is great to see again as he tends to make Mario games more fun wherever he shows up, even though his role in this game is seemingly even more limited than it was in NSMBWii.  The new Baby Yoshis that Mario can carry around offer updated versions of the propeller and light blocks ideas first seen in NSMBWii.  Similarly, the new Flying Squirrel suit plays very much like a combination of the Propeller Suit and the Raccoon Suit from previous games.  (It's also a little disturbing, in my opinion, thanks to its half-clothing-half-squirrel-skin appearance...)

But while previous New Super games have been content to simply offer up more of the same, New Super Mario Bros. U takes the foundation set by the previous games and builds on it considerably.  Most of the old Mario 3 gimmicks pop up again, as expected, but they are often used in ways that haven't been done before, or combined with other new gimmicks to create fresh types of experiences.  NSMBU still doesn't stray too far from traditional Mario territory, but instead of doing more of the same types of the gameplay, it does more with those same types of gameplay.

Additionally, NSMBU has quite a few new tricks up its sleeves.  Some of the new ideas are pretty subtle, but some are quite significant.  I lost quite a few lives playing through this game, though not because it is especially difficult.  Rather, it was because it caught me off guard.  New Super Mario Bros. 2 was almost boringly easy because if you were familiar with previous Mario games, you knew exactly what to expect in every level.  The game could never surprise you, so most of the traps and enemies posed no threat.  New Super Mario Bros. U, on the other hand, turns these expectations against you.  Familiar elements suddenly do something new or unexpected.  The vast majority of the levels had at least one moment where I would see what was happening on screen and think to myself, "Whoa.  I've never seen that before!"  NSMBU offers up lots of little surprises that I don't dare spoil here.

The game even plays with the standard Mario design in some basic but noteworthy ways.  For example, pipes often jut out of the ground at all kinds of different angles this time around.  Mario levels have traditionally been very straight forward, to the point that slopes of any kind have actually been pretty uncommon in most levels up to this point.  Pipes especially have always been precisely vertical or horizontal with few exceptions.  But in this game, they're angled all sorts of different ways, which allows pipe-dwelling Piranha Plants to pop out in spots you might not be expecting.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii introduced the idea of shifting and spinning set-pieces.  New Super Mario Bros. U takes that idea and goes crazy with it.  Levels are now much more dynamic in nature, with large sections of the level sliding back and forth, spinning around, bobbing up and down, and more.  The end results are levels that feel much more lively and distinct, as opposed the stale and static levels seen in past New Super games.  Even when playing relatively basic levels, it's touches like these that manage to make the Mario formula feel fresh again.

New Super Mario Bros. U also holds the distinction of being the first high definition Mario game.  I fully admit that if you expect to be blown away by the visuals, you will be disappointed.  There's not much on show here that couldn't have been on the Wii.  Donkey Kong Country Returns was just as visually impressive several years ago.  That said, NSMBU is still a much nicer looking game than New Super Mario Bros. Wii, don't get me wrong, but that's primarily because NSMBWii only looked marginally better than the DS original.

Indeed, it's not the technical side of the visuals that makes NSMBU stand out but rather the artistic side.  At last the boring repetitive level themes of the first three games are gone and in their place are worlds with far more personality.  The colors are much bolder and the scenery is significantly more inventive and unique.  For example, the desert worlds no longer feature generic cacti and pyramids.  In their place are giant melting ice cream cones and Easter island heads!  NSMBU still follows the same progression of world themes as the previous games. (Grassland, desert, beach, poison forest, and so on.)  However, by giving all of these worlds a brand new look, they finally feel somewhat fresh again.  The worlds are also connected together by a single sprawling world map this time, instead of the individual map screens of the previous games.

The game even explains this change of scenery with a slightly more evident story.  This time the adventure is taking place to the left of Peach's castle instead of the right.  Instead of starting out at the castle like the previous three games, you're trying to make you're way back there.  Oh sure, it's still your basic Bowser-kidnaps-Peach story, but thanks to some sporadic cutscenes sprinkled throughout the game, NSMBU is given a bit more of a coherent and humorous narrative.  It's not Paper Mario, but it still goes a long way toward giving NSMBU its own identity.

But for all of its efforts to feel distinct from its precursors, NSMBU does have one huge glaring shortcoming that I find inexcusable.  Just like NSMB2, almost the entire soundtrack is recycled directly out of New Super Mario Bros. Wii.  Nintendo did at least listen to complaints that the main theme was getting old, because a new main theme is present this time around and it's quite nice.  But evidently that was all the effort they wanted to put into the soundtrack because once you play the first level, you've pretty much heard all the new level music you're going to hear in this game.  It was absurd that they recycled the soundtrack once.  It's beyond absurd that they would do it again.  That means that of the four games in the New Super series, three of them have nearly exactly the same soundtrack.  Given the amount of effort that was clearly put in to give NSMBU its own style and feel, I find it ridiculous that Nintendo wouldn't also take the time to have new music written to match, or at least do new arrangements of the old music.  It feels incredibly cheap and lazy.

However, aside from the music, there really isn't that much to complain about with New Super Mario Bros. U.  It's far from revolutionary, but it's not the stale retread that New Super Mario Bros. 2 was either.  Lots of new level features and gimmicks ensure that the main mode feels fresh and distinct from its predecessors and a sprinkling of new modes means there are plenty of reasons to keep playing after the adventure is done.  New Super Mario Bros. U truly does feel like it deserves to have the word "New" in its title and, at last, feels like a real sequel to the original DS game.  It's a great way to break in the Wii U and easily the finest traditional 2D Mario game since Super Mario World.

Now then, Nintendo, how about finally writing some new music for the next one, eh?

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