When I was growing up, if you could afford a videogame console, you were either a Nintendo person or a Sega person. Mine was a Nintendo household, and one after another we got every major system they put out (we won’t speak of the VirtualBoy). And with every one, there would be the requisite Mario game. My little brother and I, oddly unquestioning of the irrationality of the premise, would fling overweight italian plumbers through pipe after pipe and into mortal combat with an array of mushrooms, turtles, and egg-spewing transsexual dinosaurs. As a consequence, amongst the comfortable kindergarten truths of my childhood are the fact that a leaf will turn you into a raccoon, raccoons can fly, and if you can find the right kind of flower you’ll never again need a cigarette lighter.
Somewhere after thoroughly beating Mario 64 I lost interest in Mario games, and although there have been a number of critically acclaimed games released since — Sunshine and Galaxy come to mind — I felt that the core franchise had nothing more to offer me and I limited my forays to spin-offs like Mario Kart and Smash Bros.
However, when my wife and I received a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Wii as a belated wedding gift from two of our closest friends, we were excited to try out what we had heard was the finest Mario experience in years. It does not disappoint.
Adopting a different tactic from other recent Mario games that try to introduce new game mechanics, the latest game goes back to those games which are often labeled as the best in the series — Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World — and polishes that classic play. All of the classic moves from those past 2D platformers are back with the addition of new items like the Ice Flower and the particularly amusing Propeller Hat. I was immediately impressed by the care taken with the nostalgic playstyle and graphics. Characters and backgrounds are rendered in a combination of 2D and 3D, creating an art style with an illusion of depth while still remaining essentially flat. The controls are snappy and precise, and feel immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever played a Mario game before. The levels are long, incorporating checkpoints in case of sudden death, which helped me to avoid frustration. There are huge amounts of hidden areas, and I would often see an exit pipe or seemingly impossible to reach prize hanging just out of reach as I came to the end of a level. The overworld from SMB3 and Super Mario World makes a reappearance here between levels, and is beautifully rendered with animated obstacles and enemies, as well as minigames and branching paths to take across the map.
But the most talked about feature of the game is the multiplayer. Any level of the single-player campaign can be played with up to four players simultaneously. The first player plays as Mario, the other three play as Luigi and two anonymous Toads. Though this might technically be considered “co-operative” multiplayer, it tends to be more like barely controlled chaos. This isn’t a bad thing, though. The ability of the four characters to interact on a single level allows four friends to perform complicated cooperative strategies, or foster tough competition, or anything in between. I know when I played with my brother over Thanksgiving, I “accidentally” picked him up and threw him into a bottomless pit more than once. If one wants to ensure a competitive element, the game also offers a “Free-for-all” mode, where players are ranked at the end according to score, and a “Coin Battle” mode where they compete to collect the most coins on a level.
Some people might find a Mario game that doesn’t attempt to introduce radical new game mechanics to be disappointing. But I think that the sheer professionalism and attention to detail with which Nintendo has revitalized the classic formula makes this game stand out amongst other current Wii titles. If you love old SNES Mario games and particularly if you have friends who love them too, I can’t recommend this game enough. Now excuse me, I need to go find some mushrooms.