New Super Mario Bros. U Preview: The ‘Newest’ Mario Yet

New Super Mario Bros. hasn’t managed to build up much prestige in online gaming discussion spheres. I suppose it’s understandable – the game bears the appearance of a retread and by its producer’s own admission sticks closely to the conventions of the series in order to deliver an experience that lives up to expectations. I’ll agree with critics that New Super Mario Bros. doesn’t feel like a spiffy new Mario title, at least not in the way that the old games did, or that the 3D adventure games do.

The upcoming New Super Mario Bros. U, set to be a launch title for this fall’s Wii U, fortunately offers a breath of fresh air from the previous same-y conservatism of its predecessors. It’s hard to say at this point whether it’ll inevitably pull off the kind of updated experience that Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World offered, but it has a more ambitious world and more promising content than any of the side-scrolling Mario games we’ve seen in the last several years.

Gameplay Both Old and ‘New’

As is the case with basically every Super Mario Bros. game, the core gameplay remains largely the same. Run left and right with the D-pad, jump at the press of a button, and hold down another button to dash, which lets you move faster and jump farther. It all feels just like previous New Super Mario Bros. games, and that’s a good thing – there are a lot of reasons why Super Mario Bros. is one of the most popular franchises of all time, and the incredible control scheme is one of them.

New Super Mario Bros. U brings back the Ground Pound, executed by pressing Down on the D-pad while in mid-air. It can be used to break blocks from above, smash enemies, and just generally pound things. The Spin Jump, first introduced in Super Mario World, also makes a return. You can perform the move by shaking your controller, just like in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, or you can press one of the trigger buttons if you’re using the Wii U GamePad (or presumably the Pro Controller) and aren’t comfortable with motion-controls in your platformers – that’s right, no forced motion controls. Using a spin in mid-air will give your air time a brief boost, ensuring in a pinch that you’ll hit the top of that flagpole at the goal.

The old stackable power-up system remains in place as well. Grab a Super Mushroom to become Super Mario, allowing you to sustain one hit before kicking the bucket, and a Fire Flower to become Fire Mario, giving you the power to shoot fireballs.

New to the power-up roster is the tentatively-named Squirrel Acorn, which turns you into Flying Squirrel Mario. The Flying Squirrel form takes the best of all the previous “flight” power-ups, including the Raccoon Suit, Cape, and Propeller Suit. You can get a substantial boost in the height of your jump by spinning in midair, as well as glide down slowly to the ground by holding the jump button. The squirrel form also lets you cling to walls, which will prove useful in controlling your descent so you can trounce more enemies and grab more coins.

Colored Baby Yoshis also appear. Like in Super Mario World, you can grab these little guys and carry them around – only this time, they offer a host of special powers as long as you’re holding them. The Magenta Yoshi can inflate himself like a balloon, allowing you to float up to hard-to-reach platforms. The Yellow Yoshi provides a light in dark places – the more stuff he eats, the brighter he’ll shine. Blue Yoshi spits out bubbles that can trap enemies.

Four-player multiplayer returns from the Wii game, but the team’s added a new twist: Boost Mode. When playing together with others, one player can use the Wii U GamePad touch screen to assist his or her teammates by placing temporary platforms or slowing down enemies.

The premise remains the same: stay alive, grab all the coins you can (especially the rare Star Coins), and make it to the end of the level. Naturally, the new power-ups offer some new level design features, such as some vertically-oriented rooms that challenge you to effectively use your Flying Squirrel Suit, or enemies dotting some narrow platforms that it’s hard to get past without a Yoshi balloon.

The levels in the current demo were pretty standard fare, but they do a good job of teasing what the new gameplay elements offer. It may not be a terribly groundbreaking step for the franchise, but it’s still the most refined New Super Mario Bros. experience yet, and one that I’m greatly looking forward to enjoying when it launches this fall.

A ‘New’ Look at the Mushroom Kingdom

It’s hard to demonstrate just what I mean by “more ambitious world” without unlimited screenshots to back me up, but I’ll do my best.

The most obvious example can be seen in the screenshot at right. There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about most of the stuff in the foreground, but the team at Nintendo EAD have done a great job in creating what looks to be an expansive living world in the game’s backgrounds. Here we get a sweeping view of rolling hills, Squirrel Acorn trees (like the Super Leaf tree of Super Mario 3D Land, except everywhere), and some Super Mario World-style mountains.

As you make your way through the level, the background will shift. It’s not just a repeating image – it’s actually fully contextualized within the wider overworld. Towards the end you’ll see a castle in the distance. Some have speculated that this might actually be a new design for Peach’s Castle, but I disagree – it’s most likely one of the fortresses that’s been taken over by Bowser’s minions. The levels go beyond being isolated “stages” loosely connected by dots on a map; they’re part of a wider world.

And lest I forget to mention it: all these enhancements look awesome in HD. It’s proof that simplicity can still be beautiful, even with today’s graphics chips.

There are other examples of this kind of design. One that we spotted in the game’s announcement asset package was from a spooky level that’s probably found much later on in the game. The level sports a beautiful painting-like background that reminds me of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” – but what’s really interesting is that we can see Bowser’s giant mug on an evil-looking castle in the direction of the goal.

Some might raise the point that this isn’t exactly “new” for the series. Mario 3 had the tower to Sky World and the network of pipes that linked up the world map; Mario World had a large, mostly seamless overworld inside which all the sub-regions were contained. But this is the first time we’ve seen this kind of interconnectedness so explicitly reflected in the levels themselves.

What else will we see? A truly interconnected overworld like the one from Super Mario World? An island region where the mainland’s coastline is still visible in the background? Bowser’s airship floating overhead as we make our way to the fortress level at the end of the world? Secret passages to the Special World hidden at various places around the Mushroom Kingdom?

Within this more detailed world live a wider range of creatures. This time there’s more than just the Koopa clan and their allies – there’s actual wildlife that populates this world. Flying squirrels float around the grassy world, many of them carrying acorns back to their trees. In later worlds, Goombas are replaced by a new, more animal-like enemy. Will there be other beasts, both friends and foes, to discover in this world? We can only hope.

A ‘New’ Beginning

In the end, New Super Mario Bros. U manages to pull ahead of its predecessors as a Mario worthy of seeing Wii U through its early months. I’d be lying, however, if I said that I’d be totally satisfied if this is as far as New Super Mario Bros. can go on Wii U.

As a launch title, Mario U is terrific groundwork for a stellar set of Wii U Super Mario Bros. games that tap a whole lot more into what the system is capable of – with more impressive environments, brand-new worlds to explore and foes to face, and ridiculous, memorable level design on par with the best of Mario 3. As a New Super Mario Bros. game, it’s a new benchmark for the series – no future game will be able to get away with not bringing at least this much ‘new’ to the table.

New Super Mario Bros. U will be available at retail when Wii U launches on November 18.

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