New Super Mario Bros. U Didn’t Unseat Super Mario World

New Super Mario Bros. U was a pretty great game. In my review, I called it the best of the “New” sub-series, citing its refined level design, HD visuals, and overall refreshed presentation. All of those combined to make it a game that I would recommend as a good Wii U game without looking back.

Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a problem with New Super Mario Bros. U as well – it fails to actually advance the series forward in a way that even remotely resembles previous generational leaps for the franchise. If you look at the ways in which I said New Super Mario Bros. U establishes itself as the definitive version of the “New” franchise, they’re all about incremental improvements – “refined” level design, “HD” visuals, and “refreshed” presentation.

In other words, they’re about perfecting what’s already been done, not about pushing boundaries and taking the franchise into new ground. New Super Mario Bros. U may be a great game, but it’s no gold standard for the future.

No Truly “New” Content

New Super Mario Bros. U may have new backgrounds, but they’re just window dressing slapped on to the world themes the franchise has been driving for the last three games: the same grassland, desert, ocean, snow, jungle, mountain, sky, and volcanic worlds we’ve already explored over and over and over again throughout Mario‘s extensive history. In this way, New Super Mario Bros. U is more an extension of previous games than an actual “new installment.”

The story begins in the exact same way as the Wii game, with the exact same cast of enemies and Koopa Kid bosses – the only “new” bosses are actually rehashed versions of Boom Boom (Super Mario Bros. 3) and the Sumo Bros. (Super Mario World). The soundtrack is largely the same one we’ve heard for the last several games, with one “new” track – the game’s theme song – which has been extended to encompass multiple level themes. The playable characters are still the same Mario Bros. and Yellow and Blue Toads, and they still have no unique abilities.

smb2-contentNintendo seems to have forgotten what it was that kept the Super Mario Bros. series going strong during its heyday in the 80s and 90s: the constant introduction of new content.

Super Mario Bros. 2 took players into an entirely new universe – Subcon – with its own enemies in the form of Shy Guys, Snifits, Birdo, and Wart, and new playable characters in the form of Toad and the Princess, with their own unique attributes. Instead of focusing on jumping on enemies to defeat them, players had to pick up objects and toss them, which added an interesting twist while keeping much of the core platforming intact.

Super Mario Bros. 3 went back to Mushroom World, sure, but it didn’t just rehash the world of the original Super Mario Bros.. The game took players to new lands, including the exotic Giant Land, a water world, a pipe-themed world, and Bowser’s airships and Dark World lair. It also introduced a whole slew of enemies and items, including the Boomerang Bros., Chain Chomp, and classic Koopa Kids, as well as the Tanooki Suit, Frog Suit, and Hammer Suit.

smw-contentAnd I’m sure everyone knows about the things that Super Mario World brought to the table: a brand-new setting in the form of Dinosaur Land, the iconic Cape Feather, new level types like Ghost Houses and Switch Palaces, and of course Yoshi in all his various colors. Super Mario World was also the first game to give its worlds more than just generic level descriptors: we journeyed from Yoshi’s Island across the Donut Plains, through the Vanilla Dome, across Butter Bridge, over Cookie Mountain, through the Forest of Illusion, and across the Choco Mountains.

With New Super Mario Bros., however, the games went back to the old Mushroom Kingdom themes… and since then, they’ve more or less stayed there. The main differences are in the power-ups – with one or two new ones per game – and in the course design. Since then, we’ve seen that people have grown tired of the same old themes, the same old enemies – the same old content. The series has gained a reputation for more or less revolving around recycled content with new level designs… and rightly so. There hasn’t been “new content” within the 2D series that even approaches the kind of advancements the series was known for since the “New” games began.

Where are the new worlds and new villains? Where are the new characters and new core gameplay ideas? Why is it that an idea that was actually first introduced back in 1991 – an interconnected world map – is the main “innovation” people were drawn to in the latest New Super Mario Bros.? The series has run into a content problem.

nsmb-boxBack in 2006, when DS Lite systems started flying off the shelves, New Super Mario Bros. was released, which despite increased supply after the remodels initial sellouts led to demand that vastly outpaced supply for much of both 2006 and 2007 – particularly in Japan. The phenomenon repeated itself in 2009, when New Super Mario Bros. Wii led the way to record-breaking console sales, with nearly every single one of the millions of Wiis sold in the weeks following the game’s launch corresponding to a purchase of the new Mario game. It’s clear that New Super Mario Bros. has incredible selling power.

But with the latest round of New Super Mario Bros. games, we haven’t seen the same energy. It’s true that they aren’t the first new entries in a franchise that had been dormant for a decade-and-a-half as their predecessors were, and that they’re selling in a particularly troubled economy with a higher cost of entry due to their presence on more expensive platforms… but it’s also true that they haven’t represented a significant push beyond what their predecessors achieved, either.

Aside from the HD resolution and new backgrounds, if you compared New Super Mario Bros. Wii side-by-side with New Super Mario Bros. U, it’d be difficult to tell the difference. The games use the same engine, most of the same assets, and so on – they don’t have the appearance of a significant leap as the older games did, even though the technology gap is probably just as wide.

nsmb-spot-the-difference-1 nsmb-spot-the-difference-2

For New Super Mario Bros. to produce a title that truly claims the title of “worthy successor to Super Mario World,” Nintendo is going to need to get over this content problem. They’re going to need to stop making new games basically remixed level packs and start producing actual expansions to Mario’s world like they did back in the 80s and 90s. The saddest part is that they haven’t been shy about doing this in the 3D games – we explored Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64, Delfino Island in Sunshine, and the vast galaxies beyond Mushroom World in Galaxy – but in New Super Mario Bros., it’s been the same old worlds over and over and over again.

Again, the game quality hasn’t really slipped. Maybe the games are easier, but the actual game design is still excellent. It’s all in the conservative approach to content.

Unfortunately, Nintendo seems content to just keep on rehashing. Mr. Iwata says that there’ll only be one Super Mario Bros. game per system, which means that Wii U owners are unlikely to see their dream Mario World successor take shape within the current generation. Even the possibility of DLC won’t do anything to fix the content problem: the New Super Luigi U DLC is a bold-faced fully-blatantly-declared remixed level pack instead of a batch of new content.

Back in the NES era, there were three – four if you count the game now known as The Lost Levels – and each of them brought totally unique content to the table and kept the Mario craze going strong well into the 90s. Why can’t Nintendo realize that it was this heavy focus on developing new content that gave them such a terrific reputation? Why have they turned to selling their most famous brand on pure nostalgia instead of the awe-inspiring advancements that everyone knows it’s capable of?