New Super Mario Bros. U marks an important moment for Nintendo: it’s the first Super Mario game to debut with a home console since Nintendo 64 – and the first side-scrolling entry to do so since World on Super Nintendo. There’s a lot riding on the plumber’s shoulders: whether his debut Wii U adventure flies or falls could have a significant impact on the system’s latent potential in the years ahead.

From the outset, gamers seemed to agree that it needed to live up. As soon as the game’s more inter-connected World Map and updated artwork were revealed, Super Mario World comparisons started getting tossed around, and persisted all the way to launch. New Super Mario Bros. U definitely does for the “New” series what World did for the NES games, but does it earn the same reputation within the series at large?

The Best Mario Content in Years

A lot of people based their faith in New Super Mario Bros. U on its approach to its World Map: being more interconnected surely meant that Nintendo was thinking more about creating a persistent world and evolving what we understand about the Mario universe. To a large extent, that’s totally true. The world we see is easily the definitive version of the Mushroom Kingdom, and while we still explore the same old desert, frosty peaks, and cloud tops from previous games, there’s been some effort to add fresher flavor to each.

For one, there’s the focus on food themes. World 1 is based around the Super Acorn; World 2 turns the “desert” into a layer cake “dessert”; the ice world is a “frosted” glacier. Fans of Super Mario World will definitely be familiar with the concept of food and particularly sweets being important to the makeup of the Mushroom World – it is called the “mushroom” world, after all. Truly “new” worlds would be better, but it’s easily the most lovingly-crafted of all the “New” games in terms of its game world.

If there’s anything I can complain about in terms of content, it’s that the branching pathways just aren’t interesting enough. Don’t get me wrong: finding shortcuts that take you halfway across the map is still fun. The let-down is that in Mario World, these branches often led to mini-worlds unto themselves, complete with multiple courses and boss castles. In New Super Mario Bros. U, they more or less amount to a secret level that you’ll clear to cut a course around a large chunk of the World Map.

What’s more, for the most part the levels seem incredibly substantial. By that I mean that they’re pretty long, with well-placed obstacles and enemies, and chock-full of secrets and goodies to discover. Even Star Coins are often pretty tough to find – or reach. After going back and playing the Wii game again a couple weeks ago, I remember being surprised by how hard it was – harder than I remembered it being, anyway. New Super Mario Bros. U easily takes the cake in terms of difficulty. It’s not as tough as, say, the NES games – don’t expect to ever worry about getting a Game Over – but it soundly edges out the rest of the “New” games.

nsmbu-boom-boomOn top of that, the Challenge Mode and Boost Rush will keep even the more skilled players occupied for a good long while. Boost Rush isn’t quite as addictive as Coin Rush, but the fast-paced, constantly-moving gameplay still delivers a “rush” and is an interesting mode both to play through and to watch. Challenge Mode hits a nice blend of “gameplay tutorial” for those who want to learn advanced Mario techniques plus an actual challenge for more experienced players who go for the gold medals on each stage.

Mario Gameplay Refined

There’s not really much to say in terms of gameplay. If you liked New Super Mario Bros. Wii, it’s basically all here – the major power-ups, the little jump bursts when you spin in mid-air, the physics, Yoshi mechanics, and multiplayer shenanigans are untouched from the previous installment. And that’s a good thing.

Where New Super Mario Bros. U disappoints is in its lack of anything particularly novel. All its best efforts seem poured right into the Flying Squirrel suit, which while it’s fun and well-designed hardly carries the game. You’ll fight mostly the same enemies, with the new faces that haven’t shown up in the “New” games yet being almost exclusively overdue Mario World rips like the Sumo Bros. or Torpedo Ted.

This doesn’t make it a bad game, to be sure. Mario gameplay mechanics are some of the most solid in the industry, which is part of the reason why the series has lasted 27 years. New Super Mario Bros. U is a refinement of its predecessors, no question about it. There’s just a lack of “oomph” that keeps it from feeling particularly “new,” much less “revolutionary” like the NES and SNES entries.

Boost Mode offers a bit of variety, but mostly in the sense that there are a few more variables to consider while playing, such as the GamePad’s ability to place platforms or hurt enemies. It changes how you’ll approach the levels, and in Boost Rush it’s a great asset for racking up high scores, but it seems mostly like an “Assist Mode,” not an evolution for the series.

Visuals & Sound

HD Mario has been a long time coming. While New Super Mario Bros. U doesn’t quite match what a stunning HD successor to Super Mario Galaxy might be expected to deliver, it’s still a great step forward for the series. Would I like to see ground-breaking visuals in their next effort? Sure – but the simple and clean visual style serves function as well as form, and it manages to be quite nice to look at in the process.

The game looks great on the GamePad as well, though Mario appears to be quite fuzzy – oddly enough, just Mario, and not Luigi or the Toads – and the compression and decompression process loses a bit of fidelity in terms of image sharpness and colors in general. However, it hardly impacts the play experience, and a bit of quality loss is a small price to pay for the ability to take the game away from the TV, which has already proven just as fantastically practical as I always imagined it would be. So far I’ve been able to play from my bedroom or with my headphones on without too many problems with latency or wireless interference.

Where the game really could have used more work is in the soundtrack department. The game’s “new” theme songs are actually quite catchy and nice and get changed up in appropriate ways for the various world regions, but apart from that, most of the soundtrack is recycled in some fashion. In particular, I was very disappointed that Nintendo didn’t do much, if anything, with the end-of-world castle and boss battle themes. Those are climactic moments and deserve unique music that’s suited to the game rather than giving the same songs a third time around the block.

9Out of 10

The Bottom Line

New Super Mario Bros. U is easily the best of the "New" series, but doesn't quite match the magic of its 8-bit and 16-bit predecessors. Still, it comes so close I can practically taste it, and that definitely deserves high marks. Both the main story and the extra modes will challenge and frustrate even longtime fans, and those who have gotten tired of the bland aesthetics and pointless World Maps of the previous games will enjoy Nintendo's labor of love this time around. The game definitely ranks in the "must-have" department for Wii U, but maybe not so "must-have" that I can recommend that you go out and spend around $400 to play it. But if you're a diehard Mario fan who's been wanting more out of Nintendo, this is the best the series has delivered in a long, long time.

Categorized Under: