New Super Mario Bros. U Hasn’t Proven It’s a Worthy Successor to Mario World

I have high praises for New Super Mario Bros. U – I even called it the “newest” of the New Super Mario Bros. series in my hands-on preview. It’s all thanks to a lot of the little touches they’ve added to give it unique charm. Those additions improve things like brand-new environmental artwork, the inclusion of more life in some of the worlds, and an injection of fresh takes on old concepts.

With the recent news that the game will feature a fully-interconnected overworld, much like that of Super Mario World, a number of people have taken to calling the game “New Super Mario World.” But isn’t this a bit premature? Read on to see why I think New Super Mario Bros. U still needs to prove itself as a true successor to the SNES franchise favorite.

Original Gameplay Ideas

The big thing Mario U needs is a new gameplay hook. Mario 3 offered a host of completely new power-ups including the fan-favorite Tanooki Suit and Frog Suit; Mario World offered branching exits and Yoshis in many colors; Super Mario 64 came up with the various caps that gave Mario interesting and unprecedented powers; Super Mario Galaxy used a unique spherical world concept to bring everyone’s favorite plumber into space. So far, New Super Mario Bros. U‘s only real hook is the Wii U GamePad.

“Fresh takes on old concepts” is a start, and is essential if Nintendo wants to ensure that the series staples we’ve come to know and love can still be relevant today rather than old and tired rehashes. But they can’t end there. They need a host of truly new ideas to create a new Mario game that is not simply polished but influential.

What have we seen so far? The game engine is at its core an updated version of the one we saw in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The Squirrel Suit is basically a modified version of the Raccoon Suit. The pink Yoshi’s balloon power is basically the same as the Propeller Suit. Yellow Yoshi’s glowing and shockwave powers are ripped right from Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Super Mario World. The freshest new mechanic so far, at least as far as the core single-player game is concerned…is the ability to spit bubbles.

This is simply unacceptable.

How about a completely new graphics engine that can produce high-quality sprites? Or heck, whole new 3D models with higher levels of detail, as opposed to the upscaled recycling that’s so apparent in the Wii U version?

Why not truly new power-ups that give Mario unprecedented powers? A Magikoopa’s wand, perhaps? A suit that lets you throw bombs that explode on contact? New powers based on old enemies have been a hit in the past, like the Hammer Suit and Boomerang Suit, so I could see the approach working again as long as they draw on the correct content and ideas for their basis.

Level Design

New Super Mario Bros. games have often had interesting ideas in terms of hidden secrets, but seldom have they offered truly challenging levels in terms of standalone difficulty. The older Mario games offered these kinds of things in spades, however: difficult platforming riddled with Piranha Plants and Bullet Bills; fast-moving Hammer Bros. that threw their wares relentlessly at passing heroes; maze-like levels that required you to pay close attention to atmospheric clues to proceed. I won’t say that the “New” games have totally lacked these difficult moments, but they’ve been fewer and further between with each entry.

The original Super Mario Bros. was punishingly difficult, but it compensated for this by offering players the Warp Zones, which let them skip past the bulk of the game’s levels right to the end. As a result, it wasn’t all that difficult to “finish” the game – but those who managed to go through each level one-by-one earned a badge of honor in their day.

Add in this level of punishing difficulty, and I think you’ll get a game that’s just as legendary. The best part? You can still offer shortcuts in spades thanks to the game’s…

World Design

The more interconnected overworld is nice, but the extent of its success is going to depend on how deeply-integrated the overworld is with progress through the game. In previous “New” games, most secret levels were just alternate routes to the same boss castles. Occasionally you’d find a warp cannon that would blast you to the next world…but that was it.

Now the Mario team has the opportunity to create a truly open-ended game, where players can weave in and out of the various worlds through a myriad of potential paths. The default path might lead along a fairly obvious route, but imagine if you had the freedom to cut to the east from Acorn Plains only to find a detour that takes you straight across the sea, skirting the Sparkling Waters to the Layer Cake Desert, skipping an entire world (and the better part of a second one) in the process. Or, hey, what if you find a complicated series of twists and turns that lead you to a shortcut to Milky Way Road that can take you all the way to Bowser’s Castle?

You can beat Super Mario World while only using 12 of the 96 level exits in the game if you know what you’re doing. I’d like to feel like the overworld in New Super Mario Bros. U had just as much thought put into it.