Bringing the familiar, side-scrolling gameplay back to the console scene after a nineteen-year sabbatical, New Super Mario Bros. Wii proved a tremendous hit upon its 2009 release. The new, four-player gameplay was especially well-received, finally allowing series creator Shigeru Miyamoto to implement an idea he had conceived as early as the 1980s. In response to this development, Nintendo was inspired to make sequels. The first of which was New Super Mario Bros. 2. Released in 2012 for the 3DS, it sold itself as a sequel to the original New Super Mario Bros. It was a commercial success, though detractors accused Nintendo of resting their laurels due to the sheer amount of recycled assets.
However, another sequel was being developed at the same time for the Wii’s successor: the Wii U. It didn’t exactly start out this way; the game had the tentative title New Super Mario Bros. Mii, which would allow players to use custom-made avatars in addition to the famous plumber. It was featured at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of 2011 in a series of technical demonstrations showcasing the Wii U’s capabilities. After its warm reception, Mr. Miyamoto announced that the game would be released as a launch title alongside the Wii U under the name New Super Mario Bros. U. And so, later in the same year as the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2, the Wii U was launched. New Super Mario Bros. U was well-received, with many critics believing it to a step in the right direction compared to its direct predecessor. As the fourth entry in the New Super Mario Bros. subseries, does New Super Mario Bros. U successfully recapture the essence of the franchise’s pioneering side-scrolling installments?
Analyzing the Experience
A day of peace is shattered the moment Bowser’s forces seize control of Peach’s Castle. Flung hundreds of miles away, Mario, Luigi, Blue Toad, and Yellow Toad begin a long march back to their friend’s castle to ensure the princess’s safety.
In broad strokes, New Super Mario Bros. U plays exactly like its three predecessors. It is a side-scrolling platforming game that models itself after the series’ pioneering installments on the NES. Once again, the game incorporates the moves Mario picked up from 3D installments such as wall jumping, triple jumping, and ground pounding. It is thusly a game that seeks to captures the essence of those classic installments while remembering the innovations Super Mario 64 brought to the table after it led the series, and by extension the entire medium, into the third dimension.
The power-up system should be familiar to anyone who has followed the series up until this point. Mario starts off in a small form, which is rectified by consuming a Super Mushroom. In this state, he can take a hit without losing a life, though he will be reverted to his normal form. Grabbing a Fire Flower will allow Mario to shoot fireballs. The form itself grants an extra hit point to Mario’s reserve. Like the previous two New Super Mario Bros. games before it, New Super Mario Bros. U features a mobility power-up. Making their first appearance are Super Acorns. Consuming one transforms Mario into Flying Squirrel Mario.
Off all the previous mobility forms, Flying Squirrel Mario primarily evokes memories of Rabbit Mario from Super Mario Land 2. In this form, he can use the membranes of his suit to glide in the air. This is accomplished by holding down the jump button while in midair. The new form also allows Mario to catch a thermal, thus performing an Air Jump. It is highly similar to Propeller Mario from New Super Mario Bros. Wii in how performing this maneuver causes Mario to descend quickly after using it. In fact, one could conclude it’s a carbon copy of Propeller Mario, but this form has one extra advantage that makes it even more useful. If Mario glides into a wall, he will grab onto it. This is especially useful in situations where you don’t want to jump off of a wall immediately due to an inconvenient enemy placement or other adverse circumstance. However, if you wait too long, he will begin sliding down, so once again, timing is everything.
There is even an upgraded form of this power-up that closely models itself after the P-Wings from Super Mario Bros. 3. Intuitively enough, they are called P-Acorns. In this enhanced form, Mario can Air Jump indefinitely, imitating the infinite flight power granted to his Racoon form by P-Wings. Because getting one as a random power-up would break the game’s challenge, you must go the extra mile to find one. As your journey progresses, a Toad may be robbed by an enigmatic thief named Nabbit. The thief then takes refuge in a random stage that has been cleared. By going to this stage, you can chase after Nabbit. If you catch him, the stage ends automatically, and the grateful Toad awards Mario with a P-Acorn. Because of this win condition, it is the ideal situation with which to use a Super Star you may have in reserve. It is easily worth trading in a situationally handy power-up for one that allows for perpetual flight.
In practice, New Super Mario Bros. U manages to be more of a sequel to New Super Mario Bros. Wii than New Super Mario Bros. 2. Nearly every single feature from that installment can be found in this one whether it’s the four-player gameplay to the reinstated ability to store items in an inventory screen. However, inventory management works slightly differently this time around. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii, you could hold ninety-nine of each item. New Super Mario Bros. U, on the other hand, features an inventory system modeled after the one from Super Mario Bros. 3. Each power-up you collect from the Toad Houses takes up one inventory slot, and you can only hold up to ten at a time. This may sound disappointing, but the game tends to be rather generous when it comes to handing out inventory items. There are several places on the world map from which you can grab an extra Power Acorn. These Power Acorns frequently respawn, so if you find yourself stuck on a level and are up for a little backtracking, you can easily get another one.
This slight change also solves a minor problem I had with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. While it was a step up from the original New Super Mario Bros. in terms of difficulty, the abundance of items made the various challenges easy to solve through brute force. Whereas Super Mario Bros. 3 made players think carefully before using each item, it simply wasn’t an issue in New Super Mario Bros. Wii in which you could potentially have hundreds of power-ups in reserve. By limiting your inventory to ten slots, you will need to be careful with your items if you are to succeed. Even P-Acorns, which are relatively easy to farm compared to P-Wings in Super Mario Bros. 3, are not common enough that you will ever consider them your default answer to the obstacles you face in this game.
I could imagine a player familiar with the New Super Mario Bros. subseries being slightly disappointed in how New Super Mario Bros. U offers more of the same. If one were to lodge criticisms against the game, this would be the perfect angle from which to lambast it. It’s just yet another game in which Mario and friends must save Peach from Bowser, defeating his seven Koopalings along the way. The plot does offer a vaguely interesting twist on the formula that, rather than leading an assault on Bowser’s Kingdom, Mario and friends must journey back to Peach’s Castle, which is under occupation by the Koopa King’s forces. While they are away, the castle is transformed into a hellish landscape, thus serving as the obligatory, Mordor-esque lava world. Even so, before the player even has a chance to insert the disc, they will know exactly what to expect from this game. It even goes as far as making Mario trek through eight worlds with the same exact themes featured in the previous three installments. Even with the curveball in how Peach’s Castle is made the final world, it is boringly predictable.
What also doesn’t really help this game’s case is, just like New Super Mario Bros. 2, it has a bad habit of recycling ideas from its predecessors. It is the most obvious in how, excluding the theme that plays over a standard grassy hill stage, a significant portion of this game’s tracks was transplanted from the previous three installments. This even extends to the designs of certain stages, which appear to copy entire gimmicks wholesale. By the end of your journey, you may encounter stages involving running from a plume of deadly smoke or riding a skeletal roller coaster, and navigating dark caverns.
In light of these facts, what do I make of this game? I feel it was the single strongest installment the New Super Mario Bros. series had to offer. “How can this game claim to have a leg up from its predecessors when it has all the makings of a lazy, token sequel?” you may wonder. While it is true that certain gimmicks from New Super Mario Bros. Wii do make a reappearance in New Super Mario Bros. U, they’re rarely implemented in the exact same context. One stage does involve Mario escaping a plume of deadly smoke, but he does so by riding a boat on top of lava that is has a limited carrying capacity rather than simply running from it. Another involves riding a skeletal roller coaster, but it is through a dark cave rather than across a pool of lava.
In fact, what I particularly admire about the level design is that it feels much more diversified. The designers of this game clearly took cues from Yoshi’s Island or Donkey Kong Country because each individual level now has a name. Although it seems like a minor, insignificant change, I believe that it subtly encouraged the team to begin giving each stage a distinct identity. Oftentimes, and just like in Donkey Kong Country, you will find obstacles or other items that don’t appear anywhere else in the game. If gimmicks are reused, you can safely bet the application is different enough so that it doesn’t feel as though you’re playing a more difficult version of the earlier stage.
I must also give credit to the team for how they designed the world. Much like in Super Mario World, New Super Mario Bros. U features a more cohesive map design. You can view the entire map from the onset, though the transformation of Peach’s Castle is left as a shocking reveal when you finally reach it. The world of New Super Mario Bros. U does differ from Dinosaur Land by being far more heterogenous but making the world one giant entity does have a similar effect of lending the adventure a far grander sense of scale. Plus, even if the biomes are radically different from each other, they are united under a food theme. The eight main worlds in this game are Acorn Plains, Layer Cake Desert, Sparkling Waters, Frosted Glacier, Soda Jungle, Rock-Candy Mines, Margarine Clouds, and Peach’s Castle. This touch allows the familiar environment to have a personality they didn’t previously possess.
As a possible tangential result of this, the experience lacks the hollow quality of its predecessors. If one played their cards right, they could trivialize the journey by using warp cannons to skip entire portions of the experience. Technically speaking, this is possible to pull off in New Super Mario Bros. U as well. As early as the second stage in the game, you can find a hidden exit capable of leading directly to the fifth world, Soda Jungle. What allows the shortcuts to work this time around is that the later ones skip less content. In fact, it is completely impossible to skip the seventh world, Margarine Clouds, by any means. It also helps that, rather than having Warp Cannons, you are usually required to pass an extra stage to access a shortcut. This incentivizes those who intend to play the entire game to keep their eyes open, for extra stages have their own set of Star Coins as well.
It is also worth mentioning that the level design is much better optimized for four-player gameplay. While New Super Mario Bros. Wii wasn’t a bad attempt at implementing this idea, it did come across a rough draft in hindsight. Depending on your teammates, their presence could be a burden or a boon to your own performance. New Super Mario Bros. U, on the other hand, has level design that offers different challenges for multiplayer sessions without compromising the difficulty of solo games. This is the most obvious when you’re riding a vehicle with a limited carrying capacity. Obviously, with four players, the vehicle stops when but a single enemy is onboard, but this also means there are more people who can stop them. Conversely, while solo players must deal with every enemy by themselves, they have a much larger margin of error when it comes to vanquishing them.
This game also sees fit to introduce another method by which players can cooperate. It is called Boost Mode. Utilizing the Wii U GamePad, one player can create platforms for the one controlling the character to jump upon. A team working perfectly in sync can trivialize the game’s challenge. Alternatively, if the player with the GamePad is feeling rather petty, they can create platforms to impede their friend’s progress. While it isn’t as handy as having another player character to help, I can see it working well to teach beginners how to play in a relatively unintuitive fashion.
While New Super Mario Bros. U does follow the lead of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, one aspect it doesn’t copy would be the boss fights. New Super Mario Bros. U also pits Mario and company against Bowser Jr. and the Koopalings, yet the exact manner in which you fight them is much different. By and large, the boss fights are much tougher, with Iggy and Roy being especially standout examples due to being very difficult to stun-lock. You’re even made to fight Bowser’s right-hand sorcerer, Kamek, who teleports so frequently that he can’t be stun-locked at all. While the same general idea of jumping on their heads thrice still applies, the vastly different tactics you must employ ensure that you can’t let your guard down in the face of these familiar enemies. In fact, one could feasibly make a case that New Super Mario Bros. U features the best boss fights of any side-scrolling Mario installment.
Admittedly, if there is one field I do feel New Super Mario Bros. U falls short, it would concern its final main world. While setting the final world in a besieged Peach’s Castle was an interesting idea, it simply doesn’t compare to World 8 of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Much like Dark Land before it, World 8 of New Super Mario Bros. Wii made you feel as though you were fighting the brunt of Bowser’s forces head-on. It slams you with the incredibly difficult World 8-1 and doesn’t relent, forcing Mario to march through Bowser Jr.’s airship before assaulting Bowser’s intimidatingly large castle.
Peach’s Castle, despite having all the superficial elements of the previous eighth worlds, doesn’t possess this sense of grandeur. Not only is the final airship stage moved to the end of the seventh world, Peach’s Castle itself only has six stages. This includes one optional stage that is unlocked by reaching a secret exit. These stages still manage to be some of the most difficult the game has to offer, but it doesn’t feel like the grueling gauntlet that was World 8 in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Considering how intricate the rest of the game was leading up to that point, this was a little disappointing.
Even so, this ultimately doesn’t detract from what is otherwise a quality experience. It especially helps that the final fight against Bowser manages to top those of its predecessors. While escaping a kaiju-sized Bowser in New Super Mario Bros. Wii was a memorable sequence, and I like that the sequence housed one of the Star Coins, New Super Mario Bros. U ups the ante by making you straight-up fight against his enlarged form with Bowser Jr. assisting him. Granted, Bowser Jr.’s help turns out to be hindrance when you hijack his Clown Car and dive it into his father, but, as per series tradition, Bowser must sabotage his own chances of victory by adhering to a pattern that leaves him vulnerable. Every single time. The game may have difficulties sticking the landing, but it does know how to end on a high note.
Drawing a Conclusion
When I reviewed New Super Mario Bros. Wii, I couldn’t help but liken it to a “Greatest Hits” album. That is to say, every single idea it implemented had provably worked in a previous installment. It therefore wasn’t exactly what I would call an artistic risk. The obvious exception to this was the new four-player gameplay, which, while interesting, wasn’t optimized as well as it could’ve been. New Super Mario Bros. U takes this concept a step further, coming across as the equivalent of a “Greatest Hits” album for the New Super Mario Bros. subseries itself.
On the face of things, that would appear to make the game even less appealing. After all, if New Super Mario Bros. Wii was quick to recycle ideas, then New Super Mario Bros. U taking that practice in a more insular direction would cause the series to stagnate even more. Even Activision, who notoriously milked the Call of Duty franchise for years by 2012, had the courtesy to limit their releases to an annual event; Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. U in the same year as New Super Mario Bros. 2. Running the numbers strongly suggest this to be the case with critics notably less sold on New Super Mario Bros. U than on New Super Mario Bros. Wii.
However, I have to say that, if a group of games are so similar to each other, logically, the best one features the highest number of good ideas shared between them. In this regard, the New Super Mario Bros. subseries is a bit strange in that, starting with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, all of the installments had one idea I really liked none of the other two implemented. I liked how New Super Mario Bros. Wii had an extremely challenging World 8, so it’s disappointing that its subsequent counterparts managed to be so lackluster by comparison. It was great of New Super Mario Bros. 2 to end its final bonus world with an extra boss fight, yet such a logical conclusion was absent from the other two games. Finally, New Super Mario Bros. U managed to imbue the design sensibilities the original New Super Mario Bros. abandoned by featuring a cohesive world map whose levels couldn’t be skipped as easily.
Had New Super Mario Bros. U done all of these things, it could’ve been a force capable of standing toe-to-toe with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. As it stands, it still falls short of that standard. However, I do have to say that, by virtue of hitting more right notes than its three predecessors and making the fewest mistakes, it provides the kind of essential gaming experience they could not. As such, it is also the only game in the subseries I felt managed to finally break the mold of the original Super Mario Bros. to which its three predecessors rigidly adhered.
Although I admit what I’ve written in this conclusion section doesn’t make the game sound too exciting, I do have to say that if you were not won over by the previous three New Super Mario Bros. installments, New Super Mario Bros. U is worth your time. In fact, it’s to the point where the previous three games come across as prototypes to this installment. Even ignoring its predecessors, it is fun to play in a group, and it provides more than enough gameplay to tide over those seeking out a solo experience as well. By 2012, it was exceptionally rare to see a developer tout their gameplay before anything else. Even if New Super Mario Bros. U lacks the sheer innovation of the series’ 3D installments, playing it reveals that, even three decades since the debut of Donkey Kong, Nintendo hadn’t lost their touch.
Final Score: 7/10