New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii)
In the nearly 25 years since the first Super Mario Bros., the series has remained the Platonic ideal of the single-player platforming game. Sure, you could always hand the controller off to a second player in-between levels or lives, and Super Mario Galaxy added the ability for a second player to use the Wii Remote pointer to assist as a helper, but the Mario games were always primarily a solitary experience. Even as the industry shifted more and more toward a multiplayer focus -- first with the popularity of one-on-one fighting games and more recently with the perfunctory cooperative and deathmatch modes that seem to be infecting and overtaking the cinematic single-player scenarios they're built around -- the Mario games were still tales of a man against his environment, of the struggle to get from point A to the princess at point B while avoiding the varied and imaginative pitfalls in between.
But even a series as old as Mario isn't immune to the winds of change, and so we get New Super Mario Bros. Wii -- a game that finally adds a man-vs.-man element to the man-vs.-environment simplicity, with support for "UP TO 4 PLAYERS!" as the box screams. The results are far from awful, but more than anything, New Super Mario Bros. Wii proves that when you mess with a Platonic ideal, the results may be less than ideal.
On paper, the ability to hop and bop around with up to three companions in the whimsical and carefree world of Mario sounds like a joy. In execution, though, players end up getting in each others' way at least as much as they are able to aid each other in making jumps and collecting items, activities that can quickly become a secondary focus when there's so much happening on-screen.
It's not uncommon for players to struggle for the safety of the same narrow platform, bouncing off each other to their deaths as they do. Or for one player to get too far ahead of the others, scrolling the screen forward and accidentally crushing the stragglers against a wall. Or, alternatively, for one player to wait patiently for others to catch up, as an errant fireball catches them from behind. Or for one player to throw a shell that ends up ricocheting into another player. Or for one player to accidentally collect an item that the other one desperately needs.
Yes, with some coordination and lots of communication, there can be moments where playing cooperatively can work out, such as when players bounce off each other to get a hard-to-reach item, or when everyone works together to collect all the red coins before they quickly disappear, or when one player handles enemies with an Ice Flower while another collects hard-to-reach coins with the Propeller Suit (both excellent additions to Mario's item repertoire, by the way). More often, though, the other players simply act as barriers that you'll find yourself working around rather than with. What's supposed to be an ally, in practice, more often becomes just another enemy to worry about, in a way.
All these negatives turn into positives, of course, when the game is played competitively. Nintendo wisely threw in two modes devoted to outscoring and out-coin-collecting your opponents as you aim to reach that level-ending flagpole first. Here, the ability to effectively block, stomp on, bounce off, pick up, and throw your fellow players becomes part of the every-man-for-himself strategy. Here the anarchy of four players cluttering the screen at once turns the game into a test of who can best manage that anarchy and keep track of a million different things happening on-screen. But without the ability to take this competition online, the success of these modes relies on the availability of nearby friends with roughly the same level of skill at platform games.
You can still play the game by yourself, and the experience will be immediately familiar if you've played previous two-dimensional Mario games. All the standard Mario-level archetypes are represented -- ice, water, pipes, desert, fire and even the haunted ghost houses make a triumphant return -- and each one shows a real care in design, with plenty of cleverly arranged platforms and cleverly hidden secrets to encourage multiple plays.
Even the sections that don't really innovate feel comfortable, like a favorite pair of fuzzy slippers. The old neural pathways kick into life as you quickly and automatically plot out the best way to get from the left side of the screen to the right. A bounce up off a turtle here, a wall jump there, run a few paces, over the fire bar, pound the box below you and run to grab the 1-up that pops out. When it's running smoothly, the flow of those old Mario moves, perfectly executed, is a thing of beauty.
The major innovation here is a focus on rotating platforms, which show up constantly and require constant movement to stay atop (yet another feat that's much simpler in single-player than multiplayer). There are levels shrouded in darkness that play with light in interesting ways, as well as many that use the Remote's tilting abilities to control parts of the environment. While there's nothing that will prove too challenging to gaming veterans, there are quite a few moments that require some quick reflexes.
The feeling of familiarity extends past the level design and into the many returning items, enemies and set pieces from past Mario games, to the extent that the few new elements -- including the incredibly cute Penguin Suit -- really stick out. But some of the returning elements feel ever so slightly off. The two-button controls are familiar, but a bit more slippery than you might remember, with Mario struggling to get up to full speed and sliding to long stops after a run. The spin jump returns from Super Mario World, but it's activated with a distracting Remote shake rather than a button press. Yoshi is back, complete with a limited version of his flutter jump from Yoshi's Island, but you can't take him with you in between levels for some reason. You can still pick up empty turtle shells, as first seen in Super Mario Bros. 3, but you can no longer cast them skyward to collect items in the air.
It feels like the designers assembled a grab bag of greatest-hits elements from previous Mario games without really studying how all these elements interact to create a greater whole. This is perhaps best exemplified by the game's use of the switch palace, which turns white block outlines into physical blocks, changing the feel of an entire level. In Super Mario World, there were four of these switch palaces, many of them well-hidden, all of them causing wide-ranging effects throughout dozens of levels. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii, there is one switch palace that you're required to activate and that only changes the layout of two nearby levels.
If you like riding Yoshi, I really hope you like the handful of levels in the game that let you use him...
Maybe I'm being too nitpicky about a game that is, in the end, still a well-designed and enjoyable single-player Mario adventure. Maybe I've been spoiled by the near-perfect design of the 2-D Mario games that have come before this one. The basic concept of running around and bouncing high off turtles and finding that secret area beneath the pipe and going for the very tip-top of that level-ending flagpole are still fun in isolation.
But it's not very new. I've been doing all those things for 25 years now. When I buy a game called New Super Mario Bros. Wii with support for "UP TO 4 PLAYERS!," I'm really counting on that "new" part to sell the game. Instead I got a multiplayer mode that's admittedly novel but also largely broken, and a single-player mode dominated by rehashed elements from old Mario games that, much like that switch palace, felt like they were included out of obligation and not used to their full potential.
The game still gets a "Buy It" recommendation for the things it does right -- but I can't help but be a little disappointed about the things it doesn't get quite right.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.