Gaming Comfort Food
When the Wii launched in 2006, one of the biggest complaints lobbied at its launch lineup was the lack of a Mario title. The first Mario platformer for Wii wouldn't actually be released until nearly a year after the console's launch.
This time around, Nintendo hopes to rectify that with New Super Mario Bros. U, the fourth installment in the New Super Mario Bros. subseries which got its start on the Nintendo DS in 2006. With three titles under its belt, including one released on 3DS barely three months before this one, there has to be at least a growing sense of tiredness amongst the players who bought and completed all of the games. For me however, this is the first NSMB game I have ever played for a significant amount of time.
The premise is the same as any Mario games both before and after this. Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser AGAIN, and you need to save her AGAIN. It's a timeless tale that will never ever be changed.
What has changed, is the presentation. For the first time ever, a Mario game is finally playable in full High-Definition graphics. While the graphical boost over previous titles is significant, it is also a lot subtler than the label of HD Upgrade would imply. In fact, looking at screenshots of this game, it's hard to tell if this is simply an original Wii game upscaled instead of a brand new game. In fact, it's more than likely running on the same graphics engine. Yet a closer comparison between this and New Super Mario Bros. Wii reveals some surprising differences. The lines are much cleaner and anti-aliased, the colors are far richer, and the backgrounds are filled with double the amount of detail. The cloud effects are especially impressive, leading to some stunning backdrops in the sky levels. That said the art style is still the same as the other New Super Mario Bros games : a combination of 2D levels with 3D models and backgrounds. As a result of the unchanged art style the HD graphics enhance and sharpen the look of the game significantly, but don't dramatically alter it. Technology can only go so far in changing a game's look.
But has there been anything new added to the classic gameplay? The answer is yes. While you'll still be running and jumping and collecting coins and doing all the things that plumbers don't do, there are a few new features this time around. First is the Squirrel Suit. When you collect an acorn (an acorn with eyes, naturally), you'll be able to use the squirrel suit to glide across gaps as well as give yourself an in-air boost by pressing ZR. Another new feature is the addition of a brand-new enemy: Nabbit. At random points in the game, Nabbit will steal all of your items and run to a random level. You have to chase after Nabbit by running through the level as quickly as you can until you can collide with him. Once you get your stuff back, you'll earn an extra "P" mushroom, which gives you a more powerful version of the squirrel suit.
The levels themselves start out very easy and almost uninspired, but later levels get significantly crazier, offering up secret areas and pathways, multiple large gaps, physics puzzles, and deviously placed hazards, all of which can, and will trip you up. The game's difficulty is interesting. You'll end up dying a lot, but the game gives you so many lives that unless you're completely new to Mario games, means you'll never run out and reach the game over screen. Saving the princess is pretty easy if you've ever played a 2D Mario. However, the REAL challenge lies in not beating, but completing the game 100 percent. To do that, you'll need to collect the three Star Coins on each level, including the hidden ones. Some of these are virtually impossible to find without a walk through or some serious trial-and-error. Collecting all of the coins in a land unlocks a corresponding, brutally-difficult level in the hidden Superstar World.
But that's just the beginning of the challenges that NSMBU offers to the player, as there are now two additional modes that are playable outside of the campaign. First is the Challenge mode. This mode consists of smaller levels that require certain tasks to be completed to a standard to earn medals, which in turn unlock new challenges. For example, you might have to race through a course under a certain time limit, or not touch the ground by jumping on enemies for as long as possible. It's incredibly addictive to try and complete them all, and for sure one of the best additions to any Mario title in years.
The other new mode is Boost Rush. Boost Rush turns Mario into a racing game, and no, I don't mean Mario Kart. The idea is to collect coins as the stage auto-scrolls. The more coins you collect, the faster the stage scrolls. The goal is to complete the stage in as little time as possible, but to do that you'll have to collect as many coins as you can without dying. Very fun, and another great addition.
Thankfully, you'll have some help overcoming all of these trials in the form of Miiverse. Miiverse is Nintendo's online social network for the Wii U. The idea is simple. Let's say there's a secret exit you can't find or a Star Coin that you just can't reach. Posting on Miiverse allows you to contact actual players who are also attempting to solve the same problems as you. You can even post a screenshot of the game you are playing to let everyone know exactly what you're talking about.
I've found Miiverse users to be responsive and often extremely helpful. In addition, you can also use Miiverse for other things, such as bragging to the world about how you completed that very tricky level without taking damage. It's a really neat system, and it opens up a level of player-to-player interaction and cooperation that gaming has never seen before.
The thing I hated the most about the game were the ghost house levels. These are some of the least-fun levels in any Mario game I've ever played, because rather than running from left-to-right, you're forced to go through a series of rooms in maze-like fashion until you stumble upon the way out. These have long been a staple of the Mario series, but they're taken to an absolutely obnoxious new low here, with some of the routes out being next-to-impossible to find. I actually had someone use a boost block to allow me to cheat my way out of actually finding the exit in one of these levels because it was so hard to find. If there's one thing I could remove from the otherwise great Mario gameplay formula, it would have to be these levels.
Speaking of hard-to-find pathways, there's a point in the game that requires you to find its secret exit in order to advance. The secret exit doesn't lead to an alternate path like it normally should, it is required to advance on the MAIN one. This completely breaks the fundamental gaming rules of secret exits always leading to alternate paths. What's worse it that there is zero indication that you even need to find a secret exit. I was stuck for quite some time because I thought that somehow my game glitched since I couldn't move on despite hitting the flagpole and completing the level. A quick post on Miiverse revealed that I had to find the secret exit in order to actually win. While I commend Nintendo for the Miiverse system, I have to say shame on the designers for making me think that the game was broken and forcing me to use Miiverse to figure out the problem.
Multiplayer is odd, to say the least. The entire game is playable with up to four players. However, unless everyone is an absolute Mario god, don't expect to seriously finish the game with a group of your friends. The player sprites can collide with each other, and this can lead to some very awkward situations when a platform is only a block wide or even when just jumping around.
Another weird thing about multiplayer is the game's usage of the GamePad. While you can play the entire game as a single player on the GamePad, as soon as someone joins in on a Wii Remote, the GamePad switches to Boost Mode. In Boost Mode, the player with the GamePad can place up to four blocks into the game world via the touchscreen to help the other players who perhaps aren't quite as adept with jumping. While an interesting idea, there are two problems I have with Boost Mode. First off, it's far too easy for your attempts to help someone go disastrously wrong and end up hindering them instead. The second issue is that the game forces the Boost Mode onto the GamePad with no input from the player. Once multiplayer mode is active, the only way to join in is to grab a Wii Remote. In other words, you cannot have Mario controlled with the GamePad and Luigi with a Wii Remote, the game forces you to use two remotes instead. Why? Why does Boost Mode have to be forced on the player who wants to jump around instead? Why aren't we given a choice as to what we want to do with out controllers? While the asymmetric gameplay is perfectly fine in games such as Nintendo Land, some games, like this one, are better off without forcing it on us.
The Bottom Line
If I had to say one thing about NSMBU it is this: despite all of the crazy new additions, at the end of the day, Mario is still Mario. This is gaming comfort food. You know what to expect, Nintendo knows exactly what you want, and they give it to you, plus a few unexpected but welcome extras. Though perhaps not quite as fun as the early Mario titles, NSMBU offers a lengthy, polished, and challenging experience that will keep even the most diehard players hooked for days on end. Who can argue with getting such a game as that with their new console?