Tuesday, January 15, 2013

New Reviews: New Super Mario Bros U shows its age but manages to be fun all the same

It seems that ever since 2D Mario was given its rebirth with New Super Mario Bros on the DS, people haven't been able to get enough of the ol' plumber. With the more linear approach of 2D gaming influencing even Mario's latest 3D outings, not to mention the immensely popular New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo is well aware that they've struck gold and have enjoyed milking it for all it's been worth.

With the recent New Super Mario Bros 2 on the 3DS, however, (a game coming out less than a year after *another* Mario platformer, Super Mario 3D Land) which was greeted with solid sales numbers but not a ton of enthusiasm, it began to look like the creative well for Mario adventures was running dry. New Super Mario Bros U, following the numbered installment by just 3 months, only seems partially aware of this. Even while still playing it frustratingly safe in a number of areas, however, Mario's first HD adventure manages to be his best since Galaxy 2, and by far the most fun in the "New Super Mario Bros" series to date.

The storyline here once again involves Peach being in a state of peril; though this time, in a bit of a "twist," she isn't kidnapped; rather, Bowser has surrounded her castle, imprisoning her inside while throwing Mario and Luigi across Mushroom Kingdom, forcing them to make their way back.
No, none of this pushes the Mario storytelling envelope in the slightest, but Bowser's humorously designed minions, who you come across in the form of boss battles throughout each world, make for fun villains and all fight differently from one another. The minimal story present here is cute in the usual "Mario" way, while the world you explore is colorful and at times quite vibrant.

The gameplay is the same as sidescrolling Mario has ever been, with you running from left to right, jumping on the heads of enemies, picking up powers and 1up mushrooms, and looking for optional star coins to collect. It's still no Rayman Origins, but the levels are designed well enough, and there are moments throughout, certainly more than there were in New Super Mario Bros 2 or Super Mario 3D Land, of truly ingenious platforming.

Oddly enough, where New Super Mario Bros U sees its biggest improvement over other Mario games as of late is in its worldmap, which actually harkens back to the Super NES days. No longer do you simply move across a straight line in between levels, but now the world actually feels far more alive, brimming as it is with multiple paths, a vast scope, roaming enemies, and a real sense of place. When you descend from the Frosted Glacier into the Soda Jungle it really feels like it, and the seamless world does loads to add to the feeling of adventure that I've always found to be so lacking in the 2D Mario series. That you can sometimes choose which level to tackle, and with some levels containing hidden passages, it's totally possible to end up at the Rock Candy Mines before the Soda Jungle instead of after it, and it's things like this that open the game up and make the experience far more rewarding.

Throughout each world you'll come across Toad Houses, which allow you the opportunity to win items or 1up Mushrooms (these disappear once completed but reappear if your lives run out and you use a Continue) in simple mini-games that are easy to grasp but can be tough to master; no matter how many times you've done them, there's no guarantee that you'll win anything when you venture back to try them again.

New Super Mario Bros U, especially in its 2nd half, can present a good challenge. Even ignoring the Star Coins entirely (which can unlock additional levels upon the game's completion) you'll face some tough areas, something very refreshing to see after the almost insultingly easy Super Mario 3D Land.
That said, the challenge almost seems to come more from the game's punishment system than it does from particularly skillful level design. The way this game works, as with past games in this series, is that you only have the opportunity to save your progress after defeating a boss. You can Quick Save if you need to shut the game off, though when you load the file back up your Quick Save will vanish. Getting a Game Over sets you back to your last save point, and levels completed beyond that will have to be beaten again. The levels, too, only have one checkpoint each, so even simply dying can set you back a good distance depending on the length (and difficulty) of the level.

The challenge, therefore, can actually be more about returning to the part where you died to try it again, something which increases the tension but can also be a source of frustration. I find myself preferring the method used in Rayman Origins, which does away with Game Overs entirely and is incredibly liberal with its checkpoints, while at the same time isn't afraid to hammer you over the head with skillfully designed, *difficult* platforming. I guess my complaint is that NSMB: U's platforming itself isn't, for the most part, incredibly tricky, with the difficulty mainly coming from the punishment for messing up, not the platforming itself. (Though this does change towards the end.)
Frustrations with the save point system aside, my biggest problems with the otherwise fun New Super Mario Bros U are more in what it doesn't do than what it does.

It doesn't have online play; 5 player co-op is nice but when my friends and I get together to play video games it's usually for faster-paced experiences like Smash Bros or Mario Kart. So with its inexplicable lack of an online mode, New Super Mario Bros U's multiplayer mode is entirely lost on me.

The game limits the Nintendo Network features to the Miiverse system, with the game essentially begging you to comment on levels that it sees you dying on frequently, comments which are then displayed to others who reach the same point and find themselves struggling as well. It's...an interesting idea in theory, though what it basically amounts to is seeing a bunch of demented-looking Mii faces with text bubbles popping up on your screen every time you die. This is something that can be turned off, though for what it's worth, the feature can at least be unintentionally hilarious; I routinely cracked up as I imagined the Miiverse moderators having to spend their days reading through these incredibly shallow comments, while at the same time wondering why the minds at Nintendo thought it would be a great idea to proudly showcase to you the quotes of people complaining about their game. Needless to say, online play would have been a far better use of their system's features, especially for a game that places so much emphasis on its multiplayer.

It doesn't innovate; even the biggest milestone for the NSMB series to date (the expanded worldmap) is just a feature brought back from before 2D Mario was so simplified for the masses. The platforming is Mario through and through, and with games like Kirby's Epic Yarn and Rayman Origins reminding us what awesome things can be done with 2D platforming, it's disappointing to see the game design play it so safe.

It doesn't change the music; the soundtrack here sounds like it was composed for a DS cartridge, a decision made even more baffling by the orchestrated soundtracks of the Mario Galaxy series. The tunes here aren't awful, but they feel so bouncy and interchangeable that many fail to stand out. This was most noticeable to me when I reached the Sky levels, whose deep backgrounds and epic scope were just begging for something so much more than "doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo, Bah Bah!"

It doesn't provide a fresh world; Mushroom Kingdom is now in HD, but surprisingly little has changed. The backgrounds look great and have a real sense of depth, but with very few exceptions do we get visuals that feel truly new. Trine 2 and the upcoming Rayman Legends simply demolish every single aspect of New Super Mario Bros U's visual presentation.

Verdict: New Super Mario Bros U is the same 2D Mario that you've come to expect, though with some fun twists. Solid level design, colorful HD visuals, a far more explorable world map, and a good bit of challenge help to ensure a fun Mario Bros game, one that definitely feels like what the New Super Mario Bros series should have been to start with. Where it disappoints is where it fails to innovate, and where it fails to advance what's very quickly becoming a stagnant series. Still, it's impossible to deny the fun I had while playing this, and while it doesn't do much of anything to take advantage of the system it's on (with the Game Pad features mainly restricted to offline multiplayer play) it's a good title to pick up with your new Wii U.

Presentation: A great world map that's a step up, minimal but effective (for what it is) storyline, no load times, and the usual Mario flavor.

Graphics: Colorful visuals and some great art direction limited by a native 720p resolution (why, when Rayman Legends runs in 1080p and looks loads better?) and a lack of inspiration. How about we leave Mushroom Kingdom entirely for the next 2D Mario game, Nintendo, and really go on an adventure?

Gameplay: This is a Mario game. One that has a healthy dose of challenge and fun and varied boss encounters. Not much that's new, but a lot that's fun.

Sound: Effects haven't changed. Music sounded dated in 2006.

Replay Value: Believe it or not, getting to the end took me around 16 hours, which is pretty great for a 2D title. Collecting star coins (3 per level) unlocks additional levels, plus there's the whole Challenge Mode to enjoy as well.

Overall: 7.5/10

(Note; my reviews go on a .5 scale.)

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