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

New Super Mario Bros. Wii takes its cue from the ultra-successful New Super Mario Bros., originally released on the Nintendo DS. The original offered what I would call a “retro throwback” experience – rekindling the flames of nostalgia by copying the original Super Mario Bros., while offering enough new levels, physics, and content to appease the more dedicated of us video gamers. The sequel, on the other hand, brings that same exact style to the Wii with four-player multiplayer thrown into the mix.

Frankly, the concept would seem like a soulless cash-in from any company but Nintendo; the company continually re-uses its prior ideas and adds new ones to a rather basic template. Why release a new 2D Mario nearly thirteen years after Super Mario 64? New Super Mario Bros. Wii needs to justify its existence in the already busy platforming space. That’s a tall task, and you would expect Nintendo to execute the idea with great innovation and aplomb. Here, they play it safe. Really, really safe.

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Never seen a desert level before.

A retro revival CAN work, but only if you actually play the original games to pinpoint why they work. Then, you need to improve on that formula via some imagination or creative reinterpretations of the original game. Nintendo, from what I can tell, did not, and produced this particular iteration in the Mario franchise as a result. Definitely ambitious, if in all the wrong ways, and interesting to play for the most part, it suffers from myriad small flaws that bog down the overall enjoyment of the experience. No matter how much polish you add or random design elements you implement, it doesn’t fix the flaws already present.

First of all, the core Mario experiences comes in the level design and the physics. There’s a need to foster skill in your run-and-jump skills while also introducing new challenges. Think of every Mario level as a glorified obstacle course with an incredibly nuanced jumping system (hold button longer, jump longer). Running changes the height and length of each jump, further adding options for those who can navigate the physics easily. All of this works exactly as you’d expect in this game, and the controls feel just as impeccable as any 2D Mario incarnation (if a bit slower for reasons that will become clear).

Unfortunately, the physics rely on the 2.5D visual style, producing that most undesirable of effects: the unclear hitbox. When am I hitting an enemy, and when am I not? When do I die when I hit lava, and when do I not? Honestly, there are far too many situation where, right next to an obstacle I would survive, and then other times die for no discernible reason. 2.5D games often suffer from the same problem, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii continues in that infamous tradition.

The controls, further, sometimes betray you (possibly due to being a wireless controller) with their inaccuracies. Who came up with the bright idea of making me shake the Wiimote for some functions? A button press will do, but we must fill our motion controller gimmick quota even in the context of a highly traditional game design, so here you go! In a clutch situation requiring spin jumps or shaking the Wiimote to fly, your brain may not recognize it fast enough. At least give me the option to shut it off if I want, rather than forcing me into it.

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Gimmick Stage #35.

This isn’t helped by the levels themselves, which contains so many gimmicks that it often loses sight of the platforming. Here’s a auto-scroll level, here’s giant Wigglers, here’s those black things that move around dotted lines from Super Mario World, here’s the fish that chases you, etc. For whatever reason, not a single level encourages a speedy exit in any way, shape, or form. Like waiting for a trap to spring, then retract? This game exists for you!

The constant waiting game (and/or slow walking when climbing on ledges – a new, and not well-used, idea) turns New Super Mario Bros. into a rather slow Mario game, all things considered. Often, the game plays less like Super Mario Bros. and more like Sonic the Hedgehog’s original sidescrolling adventures – they were never so much about speed as they were about not getting hit. For a Mario game, there’s many times where you need to stand still and wait, and that’s quite the momentum killer. I realize such things exist in previous games in the series, but some castle levels place far, far too many of them in a row, turning Mario into Simon Says with Jumping. Not exactly exciting stuff.

Let’s also question the additions to the controls, other than the motion waggling. What, exactly do wall jumps and butt stomps add to the formula? Not only do you absolutely never need to use wall jumps at all for almost any sequence in the game (seriously, I just finished it a day ago and I’m having trouble remembering one), but they often cause you problems if you happen to press forward and a button at the same time Mario/Luigi/Toad Color #1 or #2 touches the wall. Buttstomps, in the same vein, don’t do anything that a simple jump won’t do. The rare occasion make slow fall useful, of course, but the additional controls add unnecessary nuances without fulfilling their promise.

That isn’t to mention the various power-ups that add little or nothing to the core Mario side-scrolling formula. Sure, fire flowers remain a mainstay, but why the ice flower? Or the penguin suit? They freeze thing and you can throw/buttstomp them, sure, but they’re only useful for obtaining special coins (used for opening up the last world, but heck if I’m going through a collect-a-thon). The penguin suit can glide across water, but works identically to the ice flower otherwise. Tiny Mario, as well, exists for the same purpose of finding secrets – not actually adding to the main experience.

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Hate this stupid hat.

If I had to cite the worst offender regarding these power-ups, the Propeller Mushroom (which I affectionately called the Beanie Hat, from Calvin & Hobbes) takes the cake. Remember when people complained about flying in Super Mario Bros. 3 and World allowed you to skip stages? Welcome its overly powerful cousin! Shake the remote, and fly high even at the apex or the end of a jump! You can imagine how broken this becomes if you can maintain the slightest focus on not hitting things. It can also kill you, of course, as the slow fall that results afterward can cause bad decisions to arise, but I seriously doubt this should exist in the game at all. Once I got the hat, I had zero fun with a level and could skip the obstacles on display – not exactly good game design!

You can imagine the multiplayer “fixes” some of these issues, true in a sense but not exactly. Whether or not they designed the game with it in mind, it seems other players will kill you more often than the game – collision detection exists between players, so good luck to everyone jumping on one platform at once. Picking other players up, throwing them into pits, and otherwise being a bunch of trollish jerks produces lots of fun if you’re not serious with the product. As far as actually playing the game, the multiplayer makes certain levels completely impossible and only passable at best – and not even to actually play the game, but to have fun with friends and family. But I can do that with ANY game, and certainly better ones that work cooperatively and competitively without the constant failure and trolling.

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Did I mention the trolling? Especially in vertical castle levels, which are the worst?

But, I guess Nintendo’s into that sort of thing now. Super Guide Mode wouldn’t exist in the 1980s, but here we are, contemplating whether someone should experience trial and error to figure out their path through the level! Oh no, what if they don’t complete the game they purchased!? Quick, let the game show them how to beat the level! Talk about removing the challenge and/or fun!

And lastly, I need to mention the constant, almost annoying appeals to nostalgia. Guys, I get it, you made lots of Mario games and Koopa Kids, but that alone isn’t going to sell me on the game. The appearance of Yoshi, again another useless thing that just exist to tap your nostalgia lobes, still doesn’t add anything to the whole game. He appears for two or three levels, and mysteriously disappears, his job served by reminding you that YOSHI WAS COOL WHEN YOU PLAYED THIS AS A KID. Seriously, Nintendo, do something cool with it rather than throwing me references for no good reason.

So did I like it? Yes, I did. It plays just like a perfectly competent Mario game, exactly as it should play. Yet, when compared to its myriad inspirations and predecessors, the game falls flat by comparison. The list of tiny quibbles mentioned above may not even concern you if you never played any other similar games, but a lack of historical knowledge does not excuse New Super Mario Bros. Wii.

I think we can use Romans 1 in a critical context as well:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.

If God makes Himself self-evident to our senses, then why not our ability to critique media and products in the same light? I can’t imagine we were born without the ability to know right and wrong, and to discern well (at least as a Christian) the goodness or badness of any specific thing.  In that sense, we must know as much as possible to compare and contrast. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, unfortunately, does not compare or contrast well. It’s unfortunate, but I can’t recommend this unless you must play a newer Mario game in the same style. I’d just replay the old ones, but maybe I’m an old codger reliving Nintendo’s glory days.

Intended Audience: Well, how do you feel about a plumber who traverses a kingdom of mushrooms and jumps on things to attack them? I would call this all-ages stuff, but hey, you may think this violent, so that’s about all.

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.