Review: New Super Mario Bros. Wii U (**** stars) (Part 1)

Personally, I’ve never been the biggest fan of the New Super Mario Bros. series. Since my initial encounter on the Nintendo DS, most of them felt like gimmicky nostalgia-bait. They traded innovation for ideas which Nintendo already used and harped upon again and again, tickling your inner child while also providing a relatively empty, rote experience akin to going through the motions. That’s not to say I don’t WANT to like Mario’s two dimensional exploits finally revived, but their design decisions and strange missteps cause me more concern than joy. At times, my cynicism towards Nintendo’s “casual friendly” approach makes appreciating their games difficult. But they’ve also brought so much joy to my life, and I often forget that like the Israelites forget about what God has done for them:

There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why then have you brought the Lord’s assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die [a]here? Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of[b]grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.”

Numbers 20

Generations pass, and people forget the good things that the Lord has done. But really, that’s true of just about anything; time heals all things, but forgetting good things can also lead to further bad action. In this current world situation, what satisfies only does so temporarily, and what satisfies eternally comes at a comparative cost/benefit analysis that restricts our own ability to see things new every day. That is the plight of the fallen nature, but epiphanies can lead us out of cynicism into the clear light of day.

To be completely honest, though, I often buy games from the companies that represent my childhood, and Nintendo remains no exception to that rule. Sure, their focus on whatever market demographic changes in the shifting sands of video games, but there’s often a game or two with delicious mechanical interplay. Donkey Kong Country Returns, for example, seemed like a soulless cash-in on Rare’s pre-rendered pseudo-classic, but ended up besting its predecessors by a wide margin (not that they needed to do much to beat Donkey Kong 64). I like old properties and brands, but I also like novelty, so if they can provide me with a comfort food games and ones that really nail the spirit of their respective franchises, I’m sold. That’s why I bought a Wii U, after all. Nintendo makes quirky, weird games in their down moments, and that’s why a Wii U seems perfect for me. The hope continues!

newmariowiiu

Even so, I gotta say I wasn’t looking forward to the newest game in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise so soon after playing the Wii version. I will admit that I expected this installment of Nintendo’s long-running franchise to disappoint, just as New Super Mario Bros. Wii had., repeating the same mistakes. That lack of objectivity reveals that I am not a very good judge of character! New Super Mario Bros. Wii U, whose convoluted name makes the grammar nazi in my head hurt whenever I say it, improves greatly on the formula of previous games just through good old fashioned design. It’s hard to describe what’s different about NSMBWU at first glance or even conveying it through text (man does that acronym make my brain hurt), but much of it comes down to “gamefeel”, that ever ambiguous term. And by “gamefeel”, I really mean speed.

New Super Mario Bros. Wii missed one essential component of the Mario experience: speed. For whatever reason, many of its levels felt like glorified obstacle courses that lacked a clear “expert line”, as I like to call it, through the level. Many situations forced you to sit and wait without any real way to progress, completely killing momentum. Most fortress stages suffered from this plague, but more than a few gimmick levels did too. specifically the one with the long-legged bugs. In the newest iteration, on the other hand, there’s a real sense of unfettered momentum through a combination of precise jumps, slides and deft maneuvering. I could complete most levels in under one hundred seconds if pressed, and the ability to improve through trial, error, and memorization lent with it a sense of accomplishment. Even the returning stalemate obstacles fail to make a dent in that forward motion, as it seems the designers realized the problems of the first game and let the player move fast. It’s been a while since Mario didn’t feel sluggish, and I imagine Nintendo went to great pains to fix their own work this time around.

That brisk pacing extend into just about every aspect of the design, from the breezy length of most stages to the difficulty. I would call it “relatively easy”, but two decades of platforming experience tell me this won’t be the case for most folks. I moved through most of the game at a surprisingly fast clip, and yet every moment I entered a state of total engagement with what’s happening. Stage gimmicks now work in a Mega Man “show you first” manner, and while NSMBWU steals from its younger brother, it uses them in ways that either force fast movement or don’t restrict skillful play from dominating. It’s like a great combination of Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. – while not perfect, it certainly nails that Mario nuance quite definitively.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.