New Super Mario Bros. promised to return Mario and friends to their 2D roots. While the series has produced three solid platformers thus far, it's never really recaptured the old spark. The unbridled chaos of cooperative play in New Super Mario Bros. Wii is certainly fun, and romping around as a giant is novel, but nothing has compared with donning the cape for the first time, or being swallowed up by a hidden keyhole. With a few exceptions, the series has been, in a word, rote.
In this latest entry, however, that's all changed. In New Super Mario Bros. U, Mario comes closer to his glory days than he has in years.
To be clear, this is still definitely a New Super Mario Bros. game. You'll still hear a great deal of recycled music – enemies still dancing at the appropriate moments – and you'll visit some familiar locales and hunt for Star Coins, but Nintendo has heaped a surprising amount of new content onto New Super Mario Bros. U.
First and foremost, the boring, linear map of previous games is gone, replaced with a beautiful, contiguous map that connects each world in multiple ways. Mario still works his way through each world, stopping halfway through for a tower and eventually reaching a castle, where one of Bowser's many children wait. Each environment offers numerous pathways to reach the goal, making many levels optional, though seasoned players will obviously want to grind through all of them for precious Star Coins and secrets.
Speaking of which, secrets have come back in a big way, with New Super Mario Bros. U offering copious hidden treasures large and small. These range from simple hidden coins to secret exits, secret levels and even shortcuts that bypass entire worlds. Granted, previous games in the series had their share of secrets, but the improved presentation in New Super Mario Bros. U makes finding them genuinely exciting. Discovering a skeletal roller coaster that rockets Mario across the map, or watching a giant beanstalk climb its way up to a rainbow bridge is much more interesting than the bland maps of previous games in the series, which kept their secrets in plain sight.
Of course, it's the platforming that's really important, and New Super Mario Bros. U sticks faithfully to the mechanics and airtight controls laid down by the series, layering in just enough new variety to keep things fresh. The Flying Squirrel Suit is essentially a combination of the Raccoon Suit and Propeller Mushroom, allowing Mario to double jump and glide for long distances. The squirrel suit also allows him to briefly cling to walls, making difficult wall jumps much easier.
The other new gameplay wrinkle comes in the form of baby Yoshis, which Mario can find on the world map and subsequently carry through levels. In addition to eating anything that comes close, making them a de facto shield against most enemies, each baby Yoshi has a special ability. Blue ones can blow bubbles that trap enemies or serve as stepping stones, while Yellow ones glow to illuminate dark areas (ghost houses, etc). The pink ones, however, are my favorite. These baby Yoshis inflate like balloons, gracefully carrying Mario aloft and allowing him to reach new areas. One last note on baby Yoshis: I will never, ever get tired of their adorable, self-satisfied grins or the way they sing along to the background music.
Some levels are particularly brilliant, most notably a level spent entirely on the backs of winged beetles, and another that borrows its visual style directly from Vincent Van Gogh's The Starry Night. There are definitely some challenges to be found, especially in the secret levels, one of which may be the most difficult I've ever encountered in any Mario game, bar none.
Tempering potential difficulty is the new Boost Mode, which allows one player to place platforms for other players using the Wii U GamePad's touch screen. If you're quick enough, you can even do this by yourself, though it's pretty difficult to smoothly coordinate between the GamePad and Wii Remote. Even coordinating with two people can be a challenge, as it requires both skill and trust, the latter of which can be hard to come by in New Super Mario Bros. multiplayer.
Outside of the story mode, New Super Mario Bros. U also has a handful of single-player and multiplayer challenges. Many of these basically codify the sorts of challenges that Mario players have been inventing for themselves for decades – complete this level without touching the ground, try to get as many 1-UPs as you can, see how fast you can complete world 1-1. Some challenges require Boost Mode as well. Finally, there's Coin Battle, a game where players compete to collect the most coins. Coin Battle can be played on story mode levels or on specially designed courses. In a unique twist, players can even create their own coin layouts for courses using the GamePad, which allows you to "draw" a path of coins on the touch screen.
The New Super Mario Bros. series may have taken the beloved Nintendo franchise back to its 2D roots, but New Super Mario Bros. U reintroduces what made the original games so good in the first place. It proves that there's more to the formula than just impeccable platforming. There's a sense of wonder again, of exploration and discovery. I'm not quite prepared to say New Super Mario Bros. U fully recaptures the spark of Mario's 2D heyday, but it's an impressive step in the right direction.
Now, Nintendo, about that cape ...
This review is based on a retail copy of New Super Mario Bros U, provided by Nintendo.
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