When Nintendo launched their handheld, dual-screened DS console in 2004, it quickly became a hot commodity. To showcase the machine’s technical capabilities, one of the system’s launch titles was a remake of Super Mario 64. Its debut in 1996 permanently changed the landscape of the medium, being the first successful, fully three-dimensional platforming game. However, there was the unspoken caveat that experiences like Super Mario 64 could only ever be experienced from the comfort of one’s home. The idea of being able to bring a game that advanced on vacation was thought of as rather ludicrous in 1996, yet just eight years later, such a reality came to pass. In fact, this remake, Super Mario 64 DS, looked better in many ways than the original version. Coupled with minigames that took full advantage of the system’s signature touch screen, and the DS was able to sell by the millions.
However, by the mid-2000s, the Mario franchise had a strange relationship with Nintendo’s handheld consoles. While mainline games had sparse releases on Nintendo’s home console, only having one entry per generation starting with Super Mario World, Super Mario Land: 6 Golden Coins would be the final installment of the 1990s to feature the side-scrolling gameplay that made the series famous in the first place. While the Game Boy Advance seemed like a prime opportunity to allow the Mario series to revisit its roots, its representation was limited to remakes and spinoffs. The Super Mario Advance series in particular was solely composed of ports. Discounting a few new extra stages being offered within these ports, it seemed as though the Mario franchise had truly moved on from its pioneering installments.
This changed shortly after the launch of the DS when Nintendo announced a new project by the name of New Super Mario Bros. As its title and teaser screenshots suggested, this game was to recapture the spirit of the series’ side-scrolling installments – albeit with a three-dimensional twist, using character models from Super Mario 64 DS. The game eventually saw its initial debut overseas in North America in May of 2006 before being released ten days later domestically. It then launched in Australia and Europe the following June. Just like the title it was named after, New Super Mario Bros. quickly became one of the best-selling games of all time, moving over thirty-million copies worldwide. Critics and fans alike had nothing but praise for the game, citing it as one of the console’s highlights. Did New Super Mario Bros. successfully recapture the aspects that allowed its predecessors to remain all-time classics?
Analyzing the Experience
As an open acknowledgement of this series’ roots, New Super Mario Bros. features a basic plot. Mario and Princess Peach are out on a walk when lightning strikes her castle. As Mario investigates, Bowser’s mischievous son, Bowser Jr., sneaks up on Peach and kidnaps her. Realizing that he has been fooled, Mario rushes after Bowser Jr., determined to save her.
Like in many Mario installments, starting the game doesn’t immediately place the title character in the first stage immediately. The player is instead taken to a world map; from there, they must manually guide him to the first stage. The world maps in this game bare more of a resemblance to those from Super Mario Bros. 3 in how they’re segmented. In practice, they function much more similarly to those from Super Mario World in that they forgo most of board game elements present in Super Mario Bros. 3 in favor of a simplistic presentation. In other words, the world maps in New Super Mario Bros. act as an elaborate menu with which to select stages. The main advantage to this stylistic choice is the same as it usually has been – to quickly signpost to the player what kind of stage they’re about to enter. To wit, if the stage’s icon rests on a bridge spanning a lake, you can safely bet water will play a major role in its design.
Once you do select the stage, the game reveals itself to be the return to form promoters advertised. Despite featuring 3D models, Mario’s movement is limited to left and right. In the grand tradition of 1980s platformers, going right is invariably the best course of action. In fact, a cursory look at the DS’s bottom screen reveals a meter measuring Mario’s distance to the end of the stage. Said goal is fittingly marked with a flagpole and a small fortress – exactly like the original Super Mario Bros. Grab onto the very top of the pole, and Mario will gain an extra life.
The rest of the controls are exactly what one would expect from a side-scrolling Mario installment. Pressing in a downward direction on the control pad causes Mario to crouch. This also allows him to travel through the various pipes that litter the land, though some can be entered from the side or from below. In these last cases, all you need to do is jump into the pipe while holding up on the control pad. By pressing the “A” or “B” button, Mario performs a jump. In spite of his rather portly appearance, he can jump rather high, which is supplemented by tactful uses of the “X” or “Y” button. By holding either of these buttons down as Mario is walking, he will begin to run instead. Jumping is Mario’s primary means of defense. Certain enemies cannot be safely jumped upon, though which ones are obvious. It’s generally not wise to step on a creature with spikes protruding from its shell, after all. In these situations, you can usually resort to Mario’s other standby of kicking or throwing the shell of a Koopa Troopa into them. You can also potentially take advantage of an enemy positioned on a question mark block by striking the latter from below and flipping the former in the process.
New Super Mario Bros. has the honor of being the first original side-scrolling Mario installment Nintendo issued following the release of Super Mario 64. In the series’ inaugural 3D installment, the array of Mario’s abilities was greatly expanded. Most notably, Nintendo took what was originally a glitch in the original Super Mario Bros. and turned into a feature. Veteran players know it best as the wall jump. The game also took cues from Yoshi’s Island by giving Mario the Ground Pound ability. Both of these techniques have been imported into New Super Mario Bros. Pressing up against a wall causes Mario to slide down it. It is at this moment you can have Mario propel from the wall to gain height. Meanwhile, the Ground Pound is performed by pressing down on the control pad as Mario is airborne. In addition to being a useful method of disposing of certain enemies, this game applies it in a new fashion by allowing you to reveal the contents of the series’ iconic question mark blocks in such a fashion. If a power-up happens to be in a block, it will emerge from the bottom side rather than the top as is standard.
Scattered throughout a given stage are three Star Coins. They are somewhat similar to the Dragon Coins from Super Mario World, though they serve a more significant purpose than granting an extra life. Although you can reach the end of a world without collecting a single one, there are several alternate paths to be found. Some can be unlocked by finding a secret exit within a stage, but others require a toll of five Star Coins to access. Many of these paths lead to Toad Houses wherein Mario can gain a rare power-up or extra lives, but others allow him to enter different stages. Removing a sign allows players to save the game, which can normally only be done by completing a fortress or castle stage, so it’s worth keeping a few in stock at all times.
With the emphasis back on precision platforming, New Super Mario Bros. eschews the health meter featured in the 3D installments in favor of the series’ iconic power-up system. Partly due to a clash with Bowser Jr. that ended poorly, Mario starts the game reduced to half his normal size. He would do well to take caution in this state, for any enemy or hazard can defeat him outright. By finding a red, spotted mushroom, he regains his Super Mario form. Although it makes him a larger target for enemy’s attacks, he can survive one hit in this form, though he will be reverted to his default state once more. If you’re lucky, you will happen upon a Fire Flower. Touching it will allow Mario to shoot fireballs with a press of the run buttons. Certain enemies cannot be harmed by fireballs, but they remain a great method by which to pick them off from a distance.
It is through an analysis of this game’s power-up system that I run into its most persistent problem. In a manner similar to Super Mario World, collecting a second Fire Flower will place it in your inventory. However, unlike Super Mario World, the power-up does not automatically deploy should Mario revert to his normal form. There isn’t a button to deploy it either. Because the inventory window happens to be on the bottom screen, you must instead tap it with the DS’s stylus. Once you do, you must wait a few seconds for the power-up to drop from above Mario’s position. This is horribly cumbersome because the rest of the game is controlled with the buttons. It’s not as though the developers had a deficiency of buttons to work with either, as the DS features just as many as the Super Nintendo controller. It would have been much easier to deploy the power-up using the “SELECT” button. I can understand the reasoning behind this design decision because the touch screen was one of the console’s most touted features, but the proportion only works in games that employ it exclusively. As it stands, having to fumble around with the stylus in situations where you desperately need a power-up all but ensures you’re leaving Mario open to an enemy attack.
Super Mario Bros. 3 introduced the concept of an alternate power-up to complement the Fire Flower. While the Fire Flower would increase Mario’s offensive capabilities, this secondary power-up focused on improving his mobility in some way. To varying capacities, these power-ups would grant Mario the power of flight. In an ironic twist, they often caused players to shy away from the Fire Flower. While these power-ups lacked the fireballs’ range, they still granted a powerful new attack Mario couldn’t perform in his normal forms. This problem was especially evident in Super Mario World wherein the Cape Feather granted Mario techniques capable of harming fireproof enemies, making the Fire Flower even less desirable. It was hard to believe the power-up players would be thrilled to receive in Super Mario Bros. later became a letdown.
The reason this is all worth keeping in mind is because it feels as though the creators of New Super Mario Bros. tried to make the Fire Flower a worthwhile upgrade once more. If that is true, I would argue they succeeded a little too well. New Super Mario Bros. doesn’t feature a mobility upgrade, but rather two new mushrooms. The first of these power-ups is the Mega Mushroom. Distinguishable by its yellow color and red spots, consuming this gigantic mushroom will allow Mario to become a giant for a brief duration. During this time, he is impervious to damage and will tear through any weak obstacle in his way. The second power-up serves the opposite function. The aptly-named Mini Mushroom shrinks Mario to a size smaller than his normal form. He can still jump as high as he could in his normal form, and he is capable of running across bodies of water.
Both of these power-ups are disappointing for different reasons. The Mega Mushroom sounds like a great idea on paper, but the problem is that Mario can charge through anything destructible while using it – this includes pipes. You can only travel through a pipe if it is completely intact. This is highly detrimental if you’re on the lookout for Star Coins, as destroying a pipe leading to one means you will have to restart the stage. In worst case scenarios, the floors will be destructible as well, which is bad when you consider even an invincible Mario is easily felled by tumbling into a bottomless pit. Its only practical use is for boss fights. If you’re persistent enough to keep one in your inventory and consume it during a boss fight, you’ll learn that Mega Mario can dispatch them in one hit. Disappointingly, this doesn’t work against Bowser Jr.; he will simply bounce off of Mario until the power-up expires.
In terms of utility, the Mini Mushroom fares only slightly better than the Mega Mushroom. Throughout certain stages, you will find miniature pipes and small entryways that can only be accessed in Mario’s shrunken form – many of which happen to hide Star Coins. For the most part, this is fine because you will often find a Mini Mushroom in a nearby question mark block. However, if you don’t need it or aren’t interested in collecting all of the Star Coins, consuming a Mini Mushroom is worse than taking a hit from an enemy as Fire Mario.
As strange as it may sound, their most obnoxious utility ties into how New Super Mario Bros. handles its world progression. Like the original Super Mario Bros., there are eight worlds and more than a few warp zones to expedite Mario’s journey. However, even if you do not use a warp zone, you will normally only explore six of the eight worlds. Glancing at the touch screen while on the map reveals that there is a branching path after World 2, splitting off to World 3 and World 4. Regardless of which one you clear, you will end up on World 5 immediately afterwards. By default, Mario moves onto World 3, and if you believe that accessing World 4 involves finding a secret exit, your conclusion would be partially correct.
Upon defeating the boss awaiting Mario at the end of World 2’s castle, you be treated to a short cutscene wherein he confronts Bowser Jr. However, in this hallway, there is a small path that you would normally need a Mini Mushroom to enter. Because you cannot use the inventory window in the middle of a cutscene, you have no choice but to fight the boss as Mini Mario. Admittedly, this isn’t as difficult as it sounds because Mini Mario naturally has a smaller hitbox than his normal form. That being said, in this state, he needs to perform a Ground Pound to actually damage the boss. Where this proposition falls apart is that preserving Mario’s miniaturized state until you reach the boss is a hassle. Even if you think to place a Mini Mushroom in your inventory, it doesn’t change that if you lose a life in the process, you must collect another one before trying again. I would understand this requirement if the worlds unlocked were bonus stages, but they don’t come across that way. Instead, it feels as though the developers made players jump through hoops to unlock normal content.
There is one new power-up that is fun to use: the Blue Shell. Collecting this item will allow Mario to don a Koopa Troopa shell. This could be seen as a spiritual successor to the Hammer Suit from Super Mario Bros. 3 in how it offers Mario an extra degree of protection while ducking, though its offensive abilities are quite different. Rather than granting Mario the ability to throw hammers, he can instead slide along the ground like a kicked Koopa shell, destroying anything in his path. If you think this could inspire the design of many great stages, you would be entirely correct. The problem is that barely features in the game at all. In fact, none of the stages are designed around its use, making it feel like an idea the team came up with at the last minute.
More than anything, what I feel to be this game’s biggest weakness lies in its level design. The level design of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World built on what players learned in first act while occasionally throwing out one-off gimmicks. New Super Mario Bros. features stages that are only barely more advanced than what one would have found in the original game. It is impressive how the new presentation allows Mario to perform feats such as climbing trees, swinging on vines, and walking on tightropes, but this doesn’t make up for the fact that the stages don’t stand out. It’s as though the developers thought to improve the presentation of the side-scrolling Mario installments before considering how best to utilize it. I think the biggest piece of evidence to make my case can be observed in the very first fight against Bowser. After several games of fighting the Koopa King in various ways, pressing a button to make him tumble into a pool of lava is downright quaint – even if the new graphics make the sequence significantly more gruesome.
Drawing a Conclusion
I can envision somebody having just read my criticisms of New Super Mario Bros. concluding that I think it’s a bad game. I don’t believe that to be the case at all. I do, however, feel that New Super Mario Bros. relied a little too heavily on the goodwill it built up from past installments, and is thus decidedly bland. This is a shame because one of Nintendo’s key strengths is that they knew full well how to keep their long-running franchises relevant decades after their inception. Many other popular franchises had their time in the sun and fell off the radar screen in a fraction of the time. To have them rely so heavily on nostalgia rather than innovation was rather uncharacteristic.
To be fair, New Super Mario Bros. was a game that people were actively clamoring for. After the medium’s 3D revolution, the industry considered anything two-dimensional behind the times and the format was subsequently abandoned. This succeeded in alienating many enthusiasts who began gaming in the 1980s, for no major company was interested in making side-scrolling tiles. The few who tried were disappointed when their efforts invariably bombed – even being part of famous franchises seldom saved them from such a fate.
It was therefore nice to see another side-scrolling Mario installment in 2006. After many franchises tried and failed to break into the third dimension, this game told the entire industry that there still existed a market for side-scrollers. Although AAA efforts were still universally in 3D going forward, it at least allowed developers to realize that 2D is not an inherently inferior design choice. Nonetheless, there’s no getting around that New Super Mario Bros. hasn’t aged well, coming across more as a celebration of past victories than a solid effort in its own right. It’s perfectly playable and certainly has a lot to offer Mario fans, but newcomers are better off sampling the franchise’s pinnacles as opposed to an encore performance of a bygone era.
Final Score: 5/10