We may well have reached the saturation point on the whole "New" prefix on Super Mario Bros., but that doesn't mean that its inaugural entry onto the Wii U isn't a great time. Mario's precise movements are as gratifying to master as they've ever been, and for the first time since the original NSMB, you'll be met with some taxing challenges that leverage each degree of control you've got. It's a bit disappointing that Nintendo didn't get a little more adventurous on their new hardware, but New Super Mario Bros U is one of Mario's finest 2D outings in some time.
There are eight main worlds to traipse through that cover the usual breadth of geography - there's a lush, grassy area, a desert, and a jungle fraught with poisonous water, among others. The game starts out pretty breezy but quickly puts on the pressure with homing enemies, frightfully narrow platforms, tall waves of lava, and more than one tricky clockwork of moving ledges and hazards that demand expert timing. The feel of the controls is as perfect as ever, and with a good helping of difficult and creative level design to match, it feels better to triple jump onto a flagpole or thread wall jumps through spikes than it has in recent memory. It's been a while since I've felt this challenged by a Mario game, and the stiff challenge feels extra gratifying after the disappointingly easy 3DS title released scant months ago.
As per usual, multiple players can join in to tackle levels at the same time, and as per usual, I find the addition to be far more frustrating than fun or helpful. It can be fun as a limited distraction, but having others join the game is a total roadblock to advancing through the game. This is largely due to the fact that characters still collide with each other in mid-air. I found that two player was fairly doable, but unless you want to aspire to the unholy amount of precision needed to make it through a level with a bunch of other people taking up space, there's just no feasible way to make steady progress.
I found myself more interested in the asynchronous co-op, which has a player tapping the Gamepad's touch screen to create temporary platforms to save others from certain death or make staircases toward otherwise tricky-to-access areas and collectables. The Gamepad player can also stun or destroy enemies and some obstacles by tapping on them. It's a great alternative to using the Super Guide, which will offer to beat a level for you after many failed attempts, and coordinating between the player and Gamepad helper is a bunch of fun. Weirdly, the Gamepad cannot be used to control a character in multiplayer, even if you don't want the support mode active. It's Wii Remote or nothing, and that's dumb.
I've been wondering what Nintendo's talented artists could accomplish on an HD console, and New Super Mario Bros. U is a sublime proof of concept for how great games can look on the Wii U. Although the area types are largely the same as what you've seen on the DS, Wii, and 3DS, all of it is realized at a level of detail never seen in Mario before. Though it's easy to pine for some fresh Mario settings and baddies in HD, the familiar worlds of the game rarely fail to impress with their clarity, vivacity and terrific lighting effects. A moody, painterly homage to Starry Night in the game's second half stands out in particular as a commanding use of high definition clarity and saturation. I would love to see more original, one-off concepts and visuals in this series going forward, and this game is an excellent visual starting point all around.
It's hard not to pine just a little bit for some fresh ideas, but the improved design and greater respect for the player goes a long way to making this game feel superior and fresh over its predecessors. There's also a new squirrel suit power-up that looks cool and lets you glide around in a smooth, satisfying way that sets you up for some really graceful runs through levels. Its ability to stick to walls for a moment is mostly moot, but its a fun and interesting new addition to the game, and there's plenty of opportunities to use it. There are inevitable points of frustration that occasionally bog down the flow of the game, but ultimately these situations breed the sweetest triumphs of all.
A few online hooks allow you to cherish these victories by posting text messages or drawings when you clear a tough level or restart a checkpoint many times. Your messages get sent out to other player's games, and random player messages will occasionally appear on your world map. Nothing crucial, but certainly a neat idea that shows Nintendo's increasing commitment to online connectivity and, at one point, helped me find an especially tricky collectable.
Following the tradition established by the very first New Super Mario game, the audio sticks to the scat-heavy arrangements of classic themes. Technically they sound just fine and keep the action moving well enough, though keeping the music and audio identical after four entries in the series definitely feels overly familiar, and perhaps a bit lazy. Mario has a legacy for unique, uplifting scores; I'd love to hear some new tunes that leverage the action and happy atmosphere in new ways.
That's a good thing, too, because there's plenty of reason to stick around and keep playing after the main set of levels are through. Each level has three star coins, and collecting these unlocks some awesome, difficult extra levels beyond Bowser's castle. There's also a lengthy suite of challenges outside of the Story mode that range from the simple (trying to run a level under a par time) to the decidedly not so simple (getting through a whole level in the squirrel suit without touching ground). These are a great addition that will eventually tax your abilities far beyond anything seen in the main game.
New Super Mario Bros. U definitely plays things safe and mostly sticks to the framework established by the "New" offshoot series established back on the DS, but the tougher design and beautiful look make it a great Mario game no matter how you look at it. It may not change your mind if you're already sick to death of these spin-offs, but everyone else should get a lot of quality mileage out of this one.