If you’d have asked me which of the two New Super Mario games I was looking forward to more prior to last week’s E3, I’d have said New Super Mario Bros. 2. While both games seemed to cling a bit too firmly to the series’ conventions for my liking, the Wii U version (which was then known as New Super Mario Bros. Mii) looked almost identical to the Wii one, setting my expectations decidedly low for that title. Now that I’ve gotten my hands on both games, however, I can safely say that the newly-rechristened New Super Mario Bros. U is far and away the more compelling of the two, adding enough new wrinkles to its gameplay to make it another worthwhile (if safe) addition to the franchise.
The first thing you’ll notice about New Super Mario Bros. U (beyond its initial similarity to previous installments) is its improved visuals, which have been touched up considerably since last year’s E3. Backgrounds now sport a greater level of detail than they did in the Wii version, and some stages, like the ghost level seen briefly in the game’s trailer, even incorporate unique art styles into their design. The game may still be rooted in the New Super Mario Bros. aesthetic (which, admittedly, looks a little anemic compared to the likes of Donkey Kong Country Returns), but these new graphical flourishes do a lot to distinguish it from other entries in the series, and they help spice up what is otherwise a fairly bland visual presentation.
The other thing you’ll notice about New Super Mario Bros. U (which is sorely missing from the 3DS installment) is the introduction of new power-ups. Not only can Mario don a brand-new flying-squirrel suit, allowing him to glide through the air over long distances, but the game even brings baby Yoshis back into the mix. Like in Super Mario World, these critters can be picked up and carried across a level, swallowing up whatever happens to be in their way. Where they differ from their 16-bit counterparts, however, is in their new abilities, which make them behave more like power-ups than traditional Yoshis; the pink baby Yoshi, for instance, can inflate like a balloon with a shake of the Wii Remote, allowing you to float in the air temporarily, while the blue baby Yoshi can spit out a stream of bubbles and stop enemies in their tracks. There’s no telling whether or not these dino tykes can eventually grow up into full-fledged Yoshis (my time with the demo was too brief to test that out), but their new abilities add a nice layer of depth to the gameplay.
The rest of the game is what you’ve come to expect from the New Super Mario series, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Up to four players can team up to tackle the game’s challenges, using the Wii Remote (held horizontally like an NES controller) to guide their character through its levels. Each action is performed just as you remember it from New Super Mario Bros. Wii: the 2 button is used to jump, while the 1 button fires your current power-up (and allows you to run when held down). Shaking the Wii Remote also serves its familiar range of functions, from picking up other characters and objects to performing a Spin Jump.
A fifth player can even join in the fun using the Wii U GamePad, becoming a sort of “puppet master” who can help or hinder the team as they see fit. Using the touch screen, this player can conjure up blocks for the others to step on, helping them scale platforms that may otherwise be out of reach. In a sense, this implementation of the GamePad is almost an extension of the mutliplayer mode found in Super Mario Galaxy, which allowed a second player to pick up a spare Wii Remote and interact with the game world (be it by holding an enemy in place, or by collecting extra Star Bits). New Super Mario Bros. U takes this concept a step further by giving the player an even greater degree of control over the team’s success, which ties very nicely into the competition/cooperation dynamic that fuels the series.
It’s true that New Super Mario Bros. U may not stray all that far from previous New Super Mario games, but the new twists that it does add to the formula really help distinguish it from its predecessors. The visuals have been improved significantly since Mario’s last (2D) outing, and the addition of the Wii U GamePad allows another player to join the fray. More importantly, the plumber will be appearing alongside the console this holiday season, making this his first (original) launch title since 1996. If you’ve enjoyed the chaotic four-player action of New Super Mario Bros. Wii (or if you’re a longtime fan of Mario’s 2D adventures), you’ll definitely want to keep an eye on this next-generation followup.