After his first prominent appearance in 1985, Mario became a legend in the video game world, and infamous among some for being completely unoriginal since the releases of Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario 64. It’s not difficult to see why many people dislike the idea of buying a Mario game every year – or in the case of 2012, three – since all he does is jump on Goombas, remove unsightly turtles from their shells, scare the transparency out of Boo, and save a princess in distress for the umpteenth time.
Still, Super Mario Bros. has always helped Nintendo’s systems along, and has often demonstrated the capabilities of the console or handheld. Super Mario 64 showed off the exciting power of 64-bit graphics, and Super Mario 3D Land features the best use of three dimensions among the not-so-encouraging library on Nintendo's 3DS. Because New Super Mario Bros. U is a launch title for the Wii U console, you would hope that the game is worth buying after dropping $300 or more on the new system.
But even if you aren't a fan of Mario, it’d be hard to pass up this game. This is the first time that Mario has made the jump to HD, and the hero’s new adventure is filled with unbelievably fun levels, challenges, and a co-op mode. However, New Super Mario Bros. U is essentially just another Mario game. The high-definition alone was enough to sell me, even though I felt overly saturated on the franchise this year.
New Super Mario Bros. U has more to offer than the most recent installment, New Super Mario Bros. 2, and certainly doesn't look like an attempt to gain more money (though that’s obviously a factor). The beautiful color-bursting graphics of the Mushroom Kingdom have never looked better, and it’s amazing what character details Nintendo managed to create after decades of standard-definition. I’m going to have a difficult time returning to earlier Super Mario games thanks to hopeless longing of eye candy that isn't there.
There's even a reference to Van Gogh's Starry Night.
Yet the superb presentation doesn't detract from the familiar gameplay. The controls are as tight and simple as you would expect, the classic and arguably overused “Save the Princess” story hasn't been tampered with, and the music retains its lighthearted sound. I was even surprised at the quality of the audio coming through the Wii U's GamePad, leading me to believe my personal speakers are worse than the controller’s.
The lack of support for the Wii U GamePad in single-player mode was slightly disappointing, beyond being just another screen to play the game on. If you start co-op mode, called Boost Mode, the player using the GamePad has the ability to place blocks under the person or people playing with a regular Nintendo Wii controller. While the person using the GamePad can’t actually join in the platforming, that player can see secrets only viewable in Boost Mode and enable creativity during levels otherwise absent in single-player.
And once you get past the GamePad’s incapabilities, you’ll have a lot of fun playing NSMBU. While not nearly as difficult as compared to older Mario games, you may still die many times trying to make your way to the flag. Three hidden Star Coins per level add some replay value and frustration, as some are so inconveniently placed that you may be screaming at the TV or GamePad when Mario won’t jump on the flying Koopa. Each of the eight areas (rather than worlds, since this game’s environments blend together on one continent) provides a large variety of levels to match the habitats of the overworld. The courses are also filled with invisible paths, which lead you to extra lives and Star Coins, and secret exits that allow you to bypass entire levels or pursue an alternate route if you find a course too difficult.
In each of the eight areas, you’ll discover labyrinthine ghost houses, the usual magma castles, and very distinct environments from deserts to clouds to tropical islands to fire and brimstone. A lesser boss waits at the end of every sub-castle, as do one of Bowser’s Koopalings – each with their own attacks and abilities – at the end of each normal castle. None of these bosses are very hard to defeat, the level itself often being more challenging. I was especially saddened with the final boss fight. While definitely original, the encounter felt less spectacular or shocking than previous Mario games. Super Mario Galaxy caught me off guard with epic music, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii nearly made my jaw drop with a gigantic Bowser chasing me through his castle. This makes New Super Mario Bros. U the first time to disappoint me with an ending, even when I knew exactly what was to come.
Yes, this is as fun as it looks.
But New Super Mario Bros. U would not be a Mario game without iconic power-ups. The usual Mushroom, Starman, Fire-Flower and Ice-Flower are included, minus the Tanooki suit and Penguin suit, which has become one of my favorites since New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Both Yoshi and baby Yoshis also aid Mario on his quest to save Princess Peach, but the only new power-up is a Super Acorn, which transforms the plumber into a squirrel that can glide, gain a short burst of height while in the air, and cling to walls for easier wall-jumping.
Three different baby Yoshis further simplify each level, lighting up dark areas, floating like a balloon, or spitting bubbles, turning anything that touches them into coins. Although they make reaching some very difficult Star Coins much easier, baby Yoshis also have an immense appetite, swallowing everything its own size to act as a shield for Mario. Then there’s the plain old Yoshi, who can jump on just about anything and remain in the air longer than Mario without a Super Acorn.
For those still struggling, Nintendo added a Super Guide should you die more than five times in a row on a single course. While it isn't the same as turning into an invincible Tanooki capable of flying over the entire course, it still gives you a free pass. Luigi will play part of the level, and you have the option to jump in any time once he's passed a difficult segment. But since I don't believe in using get-out-of-jail-free cards, the pinging exclamation block proved more aggravating than helpful whenever I died trying to collect the same Star Coin for fifth time.
Despite the trivial downsides, Nintendo adds New Super Mario Bros. U to a growing list of memorable Mario titles. While I don’t believe this is a “must buy" Wii U game, especially if you played a Mario game in the last six months, the high-definition presentation, precise controls, cheerful music, and usual Nintendo spirit that radiates from their famous plumber make this release worth playing just to watch Nintendo’s mascot rescue his damsel for the first time on the shiny, new Wii U.