After a disappointing entry on the 3DS, I was hesitant to jump on New Super Mario Bros. U before realizing that disappointing or not, it’s nigh impossible to make a bad Super Mario game. It’s also impossible to resist a brand-new Mario game launching with the system, one that unlike NSMB 2, doesn’t just feel like a retread of the past. Sure, you’re still going to be jumping on a lot of Goomba heads, but there’s far more variety at play here.
Beyond branching paths, their designs are far less rigid and more fun. You’ve still got some staples like the ice world, desert, and best of all for those who love a good mental challenge, ghost houses. Yoshi and Baby Yoshi return, allowing fruit and enemies be sucked to speed through some levels, while a new cape-esque squirrel suit lets you fly and glide to bonk enemies and find more secret areas. Then there are fairly new things, like the Mario vs. GIANT ENEMY EVERYTHING stage in the Soda Jungle section. It’s reminiscent of a similar stage in Super Mario 3D Land, but does the same idea differently enough to feel completely new. There’s also more of sense of discovery here than in past games thanks to branching paths, and while the use of false walls throughout the worlds is a bit too common, it will have you checking every possible area for not only the star coins in each stage, but hidden alternate paths through them.
The super-tight controls (comfortable on the GamePad) combined with the excellent level design make this the most fun 2D Mario game in a long time. The most surprising aspect to me was that I actually found myself enjoying a 2D platformer with an analog stick. Normally, I prefer a d-pad for them at all times, but it felt natural to play this with a stick. Using the Wii remote sideways (with a BOSS shell anyway) feels really comfy too. If you’d like you can have two player co-op, or have a one-player game and let someone else activate Boost Mode on the Gamepad, which lets the second person draw platforms on the screen and help out the main player.
Multiplayer isn’t just limited to that, though. Like NSMBWii, there’s drop-in multiplayer and newfound Mii functionality that is simultaneously fun and a bit weird. It looks strange to play as an overall-wearing Mii, but feels second-nature after a few runs. The Miis come into play during the extra non-story modes in the form of Coin Battle, Challenge, and Boost Rush that blend single-player with multiplayer (except for Coin Battle, which requires multiple people). Just like in NSMB 2, these add quite a bit of value to the overall package. The challenge mode has goals like getting X amount of coins in a certain time, speed-running a stage, or trying to get through an area with as few coins as possible. They’re all fun to do and like PGR before it (or the Olympics before that), the bronze/silver/gold structure means you’ll be replaying more than a few of them to get the gold. Boost Rush pits you against a variety of regular levels that now auto-scroll and that scroll moves along faster as you collect coins. It’s pretty hectic at times and can lead to having to change things up, because a shortcut route that make work well in regular play may wind up getting you crushed here.
Since this is Mario’s debut on an HD system, one would logically expect it to look better than any of the other modern-day ones and it certainly does. While it isn’t a huge upgrade from the Wii installment, there are some impressive flourishes like the light of the fireballs off of the ground and reflections in water stages that add a lot to the presentation. Otherwise, it looks about the same as before, which isn’t an altogether bad thing — the New SMBs all look solid, if not jaw-dropping. They don’t push the envelope visually, but everything looks good and nothing looks so good that it’s distracting. Similarly, the audio plays it safe with music that is either remixed classic tunes or sounds like it would fit in with them. The usual cheery Mario fare is here and it’s all enjoyable to listen to and sounds great out of the GamePad. The sound effects coming from the Wii Remote, not so much, but nothing ever sounded as good as it should there anyway, so that’s to be expected.
New Super Mario Bros. U plays it safe in the right areas while providing enough new things and challenge to make it worth not only playing, but coming back to for series veterans. Featuring tons of platforming fun, it plays wonderfully on both the GamePad and Wii Remote and has the best level design of any New SMB-series game to date. A notable improvement from NSMB 2, it does just the right amount of new things to seem different from past games, while still giving fans what they expect in a Super Mario Bros. title.
Platform: Wii U