New Super Mario Bros. U marks the first time that a brand new Mario game has accompanied a Nintendo hardware launch since the days of the N64, and consequently places an inordinate amount of pressure and expectation on its high-definition shoulders. It’s perhaps not what hardcore fans wanted; following so closely on the heels of New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS, there’s an understandable reluctance from some sectors of Nintendo fandom to enter a 2D world again - especially when the Wii U provides the perfect platform for something that can be as technically stunning as Super Mario Galaxy was on the Wii.
For now though, New Super Mario Bros. U is what we’ve been given, and only the most cold-hearted player could feel short-changed by what is on offer here. Yes, it’s a continuation of the New Super Mario Bros. series and as such gives very little room for grand experimentation or truly innovative ideas, but that’s not really the point; Nintendo has taken the genre which it arguably popularised - the 2D platformer - and refined it almost to breaking point. What we’re left with is arguably the cream of the Wii U launch crop.
Moving past such supplementary concerns such as storyline and characterisation - surely you know the drill by now, Mario fans - the first thing which hits you in New Super Mario Bros. U is the long-overdue resurrection of the famous world map system, made famous by the seminal Super Mario World. Featuring branching levels, multiple exits and optional secret zones, this arrangement adds immeasurably to the overall experience, making you wonder why it has taken Nintendo so long to reinstate it.
The world map itself is impressively proportioned, offering several distinct zones which permit Nintendo’s talented artists and designers to truly run riot. You’ll dash across gorgeous plains, swim into underwater caverns, venture through poison-filled jungles and negotiate dessert-filled deserts (yes, you read that right). By mixing together such an extravagant number of thematic concepts the developers could have quite easily unbalanced the game and made it appear disjointed, jarring even - but this is, after all, Nintendo. While the levels all boast a unique atmosphere, they nevertheless form together in a cohesive whole, complementing rather than clashing with one another.
While the level designs may appear fresh and engaging, there’s less progress being made elsewhere. The only new power-up is the Super Acorn, which grants the Flying Squirrel costume - handy for arresting your fall and performing last-minute leaps onto high platforms. A powered-up variant is also on offer which bestows the power of unlimited flight for a single stage; this is obtained by chasing down a dumpy little thief called Nabbit, who occasionally pops up to raid the nearest Toad house before dashing to a previously completed level. Entering that level and capturing Nabbit will not only restore Toad's treasures, but also earn you that desirable P-Acorn to use whenever you see fit. Other power-ups make a return from previous New Super Mario Bros. games, including the Ice Flower, Mini-Mushroom and Penguin Suit - and the fact that you never really crave any further additions to the repertoire indicates that Mario’s arsenal is as developed and robust as it needs to be - at least in the 2D realm.
Where New Super Mario Bros. U really experiments is in its use of the Wii U’s unique capabilities. When you’re playing solo, the potential may pass you by; all that the GamePad does in single-player is act as a mirrored screen, meaning you can play the game even when someone else is using the television. The sheer convenience of this can’t and shouldn't be understated - several times during our review we marvelled at the fact that we could move into the adjacent room and continue the game - but it’s not the controller’s greatest trick by any means. That is reserved for multiplayer.
When playing with more than one person, control is restricted to the Wii Remotes, held horizontally in true New Super Mario Bros. Wii fashion. As such, the four-player antics are just as chaotic and blissfully entertaining as they were on Wii; while additional players can make it easier to get past certain tricky levels (when someone dies, they revive as long as people are still playing, which avoids having to restart the stage), they can also prove to be a hindrance - especially when you’ve got four characters on-screen, bumping into one another and generally scrabbling for power-ups and coinage. Veterans of the Wii version will be familiar with this delicious sense of anarchy, but the Wii U edition adds another layer in the form of Boost Mode.
Boost Mode is how the GamePad manifests itself in the New Super Mario Bros. U multiplayer experience. The four Wii Remote-based players (assuming the roles of Mario, Luigi or two Toads) continue to fight their merry way through each stage, but the player with the GamePad has no on-screen avatar to speak of; instead, they play some kind of platform gaming deity, capable of hurling out blocks and interfering with enemies. The potential of this component should be immediately obvious to seasoned players; you can literally make or break the game, helping out your friends with well-placed blocks and walling up incoming threats.
However, while there’s a benevolent side to your personality, the twisted, spiteful side is given ample opportunity to spring forth. Just as light-hearted co-op games between the four main players can quickly degenerate into competitive slug-fests when special items or extra lives are up for grabs, it’s striking how swiftly your attitude can turn when the power of the GamePad goes to your head. You can perform some genuinely nasty tricks on the other players using the touch screen, all of which makes social play with New Super Mario Bros. U even more appealing. Retro fans will no doubt recall the landmark moment in Sega’s Golden Axe when they became aware that they could harm their fellow player - that spark of realisation is even more dramatic here.
Given New Super Mario Bros. U’s saccharine appearance - which is accentuated by the gorgeous HD visuals - it’s perhaps unsurprising that many new Wii U owners will take one look at the cute cover art and opt for something a little more mature, like Call of Duty: Black Ops II or ZombiU. However, under the cuddly exterior lies one of the most challenging games we’ve witnessed all year; in this particular adventure, Mario’s gloves are well and truly off.
We consider ourselves to be fairly seasoned Mario veterans here at Nintendo Life; we cut our teeth on the NES instalments, found all the exits in Super Mario World and played Super Mario 64 to death. However, New Super Mario Bros. U takes the challenge to an entirely new level, ramping up the difficulty early on and maintaining intense pressure on the player. Many levels require absolute accuracy and total concentration, forcing you to time each jump to perfection, memorise patterns and display lightning-fast reflexes. Newcomers will find it hard going, but thankfully the Super Guide system makes a welcome return, offering the chance to watch a computer-controlled Luigi complete the level on your behalf. You can interrupt and assume control at any time, however.
Once you do manage to complete the story campaign then the fun isn't entirely over - additional modes have been included to keep you coming back for repeat visits. The Challenge mode - which allows you to play as your Mii - contains a selection of goal-based tasks such as participating in time attack level runs, collecting a number of coins, stomping on the heads of several enemies without landing on the floor and dodging incoming fireballs for a certain amount of time. There’s also Coin Battle to consider, which is a competitive spin on New Super Mario Bros. 2’s Coin Rush.
Before we finish up here, we really should mention those lush visuals. Seeing Mario in HD for the first time is a rather humbling experience, and one which fans have perhaps been made to wait too long for. A universe which was already beautiful in standard definition is now given fresh scope and complexity; it’s possible to ascertain subtle details such as textures on parts of the landscape, and the majestic vistas which accompany some of the stages are so impressive that you almost wish you were playing with a 3DS-style autostereoscopic display, to lend them even more depth.
Other incidental effects - such as the glow of lava and the subtle shimmer of the underwater stages - round off what is a particularly assured debut for Mario on the Wii U. Predictably, the game is slightly less impressive when viewed on the GamePad’s screen; the lower resolution robs the graphics of some of their detail, and you have to contend with jaggy edges whenever the colour red is used - an unfortunate side-effect of the compression used when wirelessly streaming the image from console to controller.
If you load up New Super Mario Bros. U with the expectation of playing another genre-defying escapade like Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Galaxy, then you’re likely to be disappointed. Mario’s first game for the Wii U plays it safe when it comes to theme and concept; like previous titles in the ‘New’ series, this is essentially a rehash of the blueprint laid down by the very first Super Mario Bros. back in 1985. The mechanics remain the same, but they have been gilded by decades of subtle refinements and enhancements, leading us to what has to be one of the most accomplished 2D platformers ever created. New Super Mario Bros. U may not offer the cataclysmic genre shift that many badly crave, but it’s the gem of the Wii U launch lineup and a must-have purchase.