Platform: Wii U
Release Date: November 18, 2012
ESRB: E for Everyone
Reflecting back on it, New Super Mario Bros. U came into being in a strange way. It launched at the height of a release period where three big Mario games all came out within four months of each other. Despite the plumber's pedigree and status as Nintendo's icon, many would say that that was almost way too much Mario at once. What's more, NSMBU was the second 2D side-scrolling Mario game last year after New Super Mario Bros. 2 came out in August for the 3DS, so the question here is an obvious one: Is this simply more of the same?
If you read my review for New Super Mario Bros. 2, you would know that it was a solid game. I gave it a positive review, but much of it felt like it lacked any personality; really, any innovative level design, that is (and it's especially noticeable to those who have played most of Mario's past 2D platformers). So as a result, even though I liked it, at the same time it was one of the most disappointing Mario games in recent history since it just didn't reach those high standards that many of the other games had met. Going into NSMBU, I was afraid that Nintendo might have phoned this one in too (in a sense), considering that it was coming out just in time for the launch of the Wii U and only months after NSMB2 on 3DS.
Good news: I was dead wrong.
New Super Mario Bros. U starts out much the same like any other 2D side-scrolling Mario game from the past, with the end goal of rescuing Princess Peach still being your primary objective. And yet, Nintendo managed to change things up just a tiny bit this time around. The story starts out with Mario, Toad, and Luigi having tea with Peach at her castle when Bowser's airship arrives. Instead of kidnapping and whisking her away to a distant volcano-ish location where his castle is, Bowser decides to settle for kidnapping Peach... and taking her castle for his own. Thus a large mechanical koopa hand extends out from the airship and grabs Mario, Luigi, and both Toads, and with a mighty swing, throws them all the way over to the opposite end of the world map, leaving Bowser to take over Peach's castle in their absence. Riveting stuff.
Meanwhile, Mario and company need to progress through 6 different worlds before he can make his way back to Peach's castle. While the main story still isn't much more than one dimensional and a simple set-up for the game, I did have to appreciate that they took the time to set up why Mario starts out where he is, for once (NSMB2's setup, on the other hand, is pretty ridiculous in comparison). Another interesting thing you'll notice when Mario's adventure begins is that the world map is all interconnected through one big world for the first time in a 2D Mario game since Super Mario World. Previous New Super Mario Bros. games had segregated the worlds into a generic menu-based map selection, so this was a welcome sight for sore eyes, especially for fans of the older games in the series. The worlds even have their own names, as do the levels (again, just like in Super Mario World), and there are even enemies roaming about each area which trigger a mini-boss event where you'll need to beat a few of said enemy (whether they be Goombas, Hammer Bros. etc.).
There is only one new suit this time around, and that's the Flying Squirrel Suit. It does exactly what its namesake implies (that of allowing you to glide in the air over distances), but it also gives Mario the added ability of latching onto a wall and staying put (without sliding down as in a normal instance), which comes in handy many times. The lack of Penguin and Helicopter Suits from New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a bit disappointing (though the former does make an appearance in the Challenge Mode), as is the absence of the Raccoon Suit, which made its grand return in NSMB2, but at the same time, Nintendo likely wanted those to remain unique to each of those games, which I can understand. As for the Flying Squirrel Suit, I was skeptical that it wouldn't add that much to the game, but some of the levels use it extremely well, and many of the Star Coins require strategic use of it, making it one of the more interesting new Suits in recent Mario entries.
The actual level design is quite interesting; Nintendo's theme for Mario recently has been to start players off small and easy, then up the difficulty along the way. NSMBU certainly follows that idea as the first few worlds are relatively tame difficulty-wise, but even then it's abundantly clear that Nintendo's A-team was on this game as the level design is a much more inspired and interesting this time around compared to NSMB2. Many of the Star Coins are actually pretty tough to get (some are even hidden and require exploring to find them) and are there to add that extra challenge to the game for players who want it. There are also a lot of throwbacks to many older levels from Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, as well as returning enemies that haven't been seen in years. Many levels are also a lot more expansive and wide open, and there are also quite a few that are genuinely challenging to play through; not something I'm used to saying when talking about the New Super Mario Bros. series in general. Plenty of secrets abound in different levels as well, whether it be hidden coins, carefully obscured Star Coins, or even secret exits which lead to secret levels on the overworld map.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention that Yoshi returns in this game, though he doesn't appear frequently, which makes his appearance all the more appreciated whenever he shows up. And of course, baby Yoshis make their grand return as well, offering a few new abilities for Mario to take advantage of. Another new thing that was added this time around is the Nabbit; a creature who will pop up on the world map every now and then only to steal a toad's possession and disappear into a certain level. Upon starting that level, the Nabbit will take off ahead of you, and it's your goal to catch him before the end of the level; if you do, the toad will reward you with an item at the end of the level. It can be an interesting little diversion for a little while, but depending on the complexity of the layout of the level the Nabbit is in, it can get old quick too.
Outside of the main game there is an all-new Challenge mode comprised of four or five different modes within which offer challenges ranging from speed runs (beat the timer), collecting all of the coins under a certain time limit, earning as many 1-UPs as possible without hitting the ground, and more. Really, the content in this mode is astounding, as you could easily spend almost as much time trying to get a gold medal in each of the challenges as you spend playing through the main game. There's also a mode called Boost Rush, in which you'll play through a scrolling level that gradually gains in speed as you attempt to collect coins and finish the level as fast as possible. Multiplayer returns as well, giving you the option of playing with up to 4 friends (using Wii remotes), as well as adding a 5th person (should you want the option of it) in which the player with the Gamepad is capable of placing blocks around the screen to help the others over pits and the like.
The only areas in which NSMBU disappoint slightly are the visuals and music. Don't get me wrong; it actually does look quite nice in HD, especially considering that this is the first game in the series to get that treatment, and there are a few levels that really make the colors pop (like in World 3) and even one that is stylistically beautiful as it mimics Van Gogh's Starry Night painting. However, it doesn't feel like they utilized the power of the Wii U as much as they could; at best, it looks like New Super Mario Bros. Wii brought into HD with slight enhancements (such as the multi-layered, detailed backgrounds). The music, however, is disappointing because only about 40% of it is new, while the remaining songs have been re-used from previous entries in the series. This wouldn't be a problem if those same songs were somehow remixed or given new arrangements, but they're literally the same songs; no changes whatsoever to them. The first four Super Mario games never got away with this, so why is it suddenly okay to keep putting the same songs in the New Super Mario Bros. games? But I digress.
Minor disappointments aside, New Super Mario Bros. U is not only the best game in the NSMB series so far, but it also manages to bring back some of those nostalgia feelings from the older games while still keeping things fresh with new level designs. You'll really start to experience the amount of content the game has especially when you start to replay different levels and open up secrets on the map, not to mention playing the different challenges available outside of the main game itself. If you found yourself disappointed with New Super Mario Bros. 2 or you haven't played a Mario game in years or perhaps you just want a good game for the Wii U, I can gladly say that New Super Mario Bros. U doesn't disappoint. It's easily one of the best launch Wii U games, and it's hands-down the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island. So dive right in and enjoy; just don't forget to take your Flying Squirrel Suit with you.
+ Level design is great, fun; hearkens back to Mario of yore
+ Lots of levels and secrets in the main game
+ Tons of content available in the Challenges mode
- Music is still largely being re-used from older NSMB games
- Though still nice, the visuals aren't pushed quite to what they could be
Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)
New Super Mario Bros. U is the best 2D Mario platformer in quite some time. If you have a Wii U and love platformers, you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.