Since his inception, Mario has held an absurd amount of jobs; filling in part-time at just about any event that Nintendo has going down. If they need a referee, a demolition worker, or someone to teach basic typing, Mario is right there working his fingers to the bone. As he’s gotten older he’s been taking on fewer jobs, and lately he’s had his hands full with just one task: recycling. Levels, music, enemies, you name it, and he’ll recycle it. Need proof that he’s good at his job? Just run down to your local game store and pick up New Super Mario Bros U.
When I started the game I was upset for a bit. I thought that I’d accidentally bought an HD remake of New Super Mario Bros. I told myself that I should have done a bit more research into the game before I’d picked it up, since it had clearly just been given an HD upgrade and re-released for the Wii U. Just the same, I had this niggling doubt in the back of my head. I could have sworn that I read something about it being a whole new game, and that was why I’d wanted it to begin with. Just the same, hadn’t I seen this intro before? These level layouts? The enemy placements?
The only thing that tipped me off was that there were flying squirrels in the first level. Seriously, Nintendo must have understood what they’d done just a little bit when they decided to start the first level off with the newest enemies. That way no one would continue to feel like they’d just shelled out sixty dollars for a game that was already in their possession. The funniest part is that I just thought that I must have forgotten the flying squirrels. The game had just felt so similar to the last game that the small differences just felt like mistaken memories.
Eventually I could distinguish between the two games, but even now I can see the resemblance in many of the levels to places in the other games in this run. Between New Super Mario Bros for the DS, New Super Mario Bros Wii, New Super Mario Bros U, and New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS, I just can’t tell any of these games apart any more. Every one I’ve played has blended together into this incomprehensible mass, and I often have to look at old walkthroughs to figure out if a level or concept I wanted to talk about in this review was actually from this game. That’s completely pathetic, and a mark of shame for a company that was known for its innovation and creativity.
New Super Mario Bros U is an extremely hard game to review for that reason. I could tell you that it’s a good, solid entry in the franchise. I could talk to you about how it’s got tight controls, good music, and fun level design, but it’s all been cribbed from the previous games. They all look and play exactly the same; with none of them changing a beat. There are, at most, a handful of minor changes to separate this from past games, but nothing that really distinguishes it from the last couple of 2D Mario games that have come out in the past few years.
Yoshi has been shoehorned into the game to make it a little bit different, I guess. Not the regular Yoshi, but some baby ones that all have their own individual powers. I used one in the early levels that let me float upward a bit if I shook the controller, which was kind of handy since they left out the superior Propeller Hat upgrade from New Super Mario Bros Wii. In another level, I picked up a Yoshi that served as a light, something that had been done using a glowing block in past games. The difference was that this light would run off if you took a hit, and I suppose it did add a degree of challenge to the level. Still, the Yoshi didn’t do much more than apply a coat of paint and add a small gameplay gimmick to something I’d already seen in the games. None of them did, and while they did add something to the game, it’s still creatively bankrupt as an idea. Make some blocks and powers into Yoshis. That’ll make the game different!
How else did they try to ‘innovate’ for the game? Well, they added a new power up, the acorn. This will let you turn into a flying squirrel, allowing you to fly for short distances… Like the raccoon suit. Unlike the raccoon suit, this one has no tail to hit your enemies with, so once again it’s an inferior power compared to one in the previous games. Instead, they let you cling to walls with it, something that’s interesting but not especially useful. There are a few points where it’s used to gain access to secret areas, but beyond that I didn’t ever use it. It’s the same kind of useless wall clinging like in Ninja Gaiden for the NES, since you stick to the wall and can’t move. If I could climb the wall I hooked onto it would have helped out a lot and I might have liked the power, but instead it just let me pull off wall jumps at a slower pace than I ever needed to.
That wall cling drove me crazy in more places than it helped, too. If you touch up against a wall you’ll stick to it, but clinging to it threw me off if I was gaining momentum to do a set of moves. When you’re used to the regular wall jump, you expect to be able to lift off from where you are with the press of the button. Instead, you take a second to stick to the wall and typically lose the command you’re pressing while that takes effect. Given the speed at which you have to get up some of these walls, I was already starting to hit the command for the next wall by the time I was done sticking to the first. This typically resulted in me falling down whatever I was trying to climb, creating far more annoyances than the stupid power solved.
I could go without it, though, which was a nice change. If there is one thing they did change for the better in this game, it was Mario’s slipperiness. In the last group of Mario games I’ve had to be very careful about jumping and movement because Mario doesn’t stop very fast. He tends to slip around a bit before coming to a full stop; something that made the game’s harder platforming levels that much more annoying. In the new one, Mario comes to a stop pretty fast, so I felt like I had much more control over his movements in dangerous spots. I no longer needed to keep whatever suit had the glide ability just to be able to get through the levels safely, so I got to get rid of the Squirrel Suit that was causing me more trouble than good. I do like the extra control, but it still kind of hamstrung the only new power in the game.
Beyond those changes there really isn’t all that much to talk about in New Super Mario Bros U for anyone who’s played the past few games. The kingdoms are named after foods, but they have only changed in name. You’ve still got the same handful of kingdoms from Super Mario Bros 3, moving from grass to desert and onward. Video games tend to stick to these sort of themes for worlds and I understand that, but most of the time they haven’t even altered the order they come in. First is grass, then comes desert, forever and ever until the end of time. There are a few nice flourishes when you find a secret level that warps you to another world, but that’s the most effort I saw put into locations.
The level design is sharp, but again, these levels all feel like variants on things you’ve played before. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to see from fan mods for the game, and not a commercial release made by the company. Levels are built from reused parts from the previous games, but with none of the flair I saw when I played New Super Mario Bros Wii. There were some really neat trap setups in that game, but it just feels like the Wii U game borrows from them and shuffles the hazards around a bit.
You get the same thing with the enemies. This series has been around for a long time and built up quite a stock of enemies to pull from, but I’d still like to see more variety tossed in with enemies whose designs are old enough to go out drinking. Seriously, most of this cast is a little younger than I am, and I’ve been dealing with them since they were first created. There’s something to be said for adding familiarity into a Mario game, but we’ve had enough of that over the past few games. This series absolutely can’t ride on waves of nostalgia any more. What happened to the guys who had the courage to toss just about everything out the window after the success of Super Mario Bros 3 and create the bizarre cast of Super Mario World?
The music is the worst spot for recycling as they just used the same tracks from the other games. I don’t think I heard more than a handful of new songs in the game, as most of them were just ripped straight from the others without a hint of remixing or altering. Again, there are fans of this series doing their own versions of these songs that are far more interesting than anything Nintendo feels like doing with them. It’s fine if you want to sprinkle a few old tracks into the game to get that spark of familiarity from your players, but this is just about the entire soundtrack. Yes, it’s good stuff, but all of it just smacks of bland, lazy design.
New Super Mario Bros U is a pinnacle of recycled design; reusing things to a degree that would shock even the most hardened Call of Duty hater. I have never played a game that felt so slapped together and yet so strong at the same time. This is Mario, and it is good, but it is the kind of good that comes from releasing the same solid game with a few minor changes. This is not the work of the people who created Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario 64, is not the kind of stuff I expect from people who made Mario fresh but familiar with every single game.
This is the work of a company that just wants to squeeze out another Mario game every time they need money, and it should be embarrassing for them. New Super Mario Bros U shows the same amount of effort that went into the Mario Nude and No Moustache Mario hacks. It has earned some good scores because it is a solid game at its heart, but it is the same solid game you probably already played on the Wii or DS a few years ago.
Images courtesy of gamefaqs.com