Every new Mario game – and indeed every new side-scrolling platformer – needs an edge. The kind of jaw-dropping innovation one might remember experiencing with Mario 64 is not easy to replicate or design, so often we are left with a serial rehash with one or two key differences to drag a title out of the muck and onto our shelves. Luckily for this incarnation of the world’s most famous Italian plumber, there’s a whole new whiz-bang console attached.
The Wii U is still so fresh in its infancy that reasonably serious performance tuning issues are still crying out to be resolved. Patches are expected to fix up some day-one glitches, the new online ecosystem is fledgling, and the mass-market is still yet to come to terms with Nintendo’s next-gen device with the ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ controller. The oddness one must overcome to get a Wii U home needs to be shaved down with something familiar, and here, we have a straightforward platformer that’s easy on the eye.
Indeed, this game feels so familiar it’s hard to shake: it shares a lot in common with other New Super Mario Bros titles, including the hectic multiplayer with four Wiimotes at once. The action is frantic and fun, especially with the excellent visual clarity the Wii U brings to the table. Another spot where Mario U veers off into the current gen is the GamePad’s ability to bring an additional "builder" player into the mix who controls up to four floating boxes that can be used to aid or assault the Wiimote-based players. As well as adding extra platforms, Boost Mode lets the GamePad player mess with foes and even earn a powerup that allows enemies to be vanquished with a flick of the stylus. This aspect of Mario U has a transformative effect on the core gameplay, turning the humble platformer into a Mario Party-style crowd-pleaser.
The game follows a fairly traditional path through green fields, boss castles/dungeons, haunted houses, and desert zones with all the associated bad guys. Fire and ice flowers, mushrooms, and coins are all present and correct. There’s a flying-squirrel-suit powerup available which has echoes of the Tanuki Tail from previous games, but with a little extra gliding and wall-hopping thrown in. In addition, the ability to stockpile items from Toad’s houses around the map (accessed by winning a simple guessing game) allows for some strategy – a necessity at times. The other new item to the game isn’t really an item, but a Baby Yoshi. Pink and chubby, the wee dinosaur will chomp any incoming projectile or enemy, doubling as a flotation device in a pinch.
The visuals in Mario U are splendid. A first foray for Nintendo into the world of proper hi-def, the action is slick and bright, with visual flourishes to treat the player thrown in with glee. While the graphics on display here aren’t what next-gen consoles will be measured against, this is surely the cleanest and smoothest Mario platformer to date. That’s fine up on the big screen, but down on the GamePad things aren’t quite so rosy. The resolution of the GamePad’s 6.2 inch screen only allows for a cut down version of the glory going on 40 inches wide a few meters from your couch. It’s a shame that when playing with the GamePad, one player tends to miss out on things looking quite so crystal. That said, building is often the most fun.
As a launch title, New Super Mario U doesn’t have to try too hard to get people through the gate. What could have come as a repackaged port is instead a challenging, mildly innovative game with an interesting twist on conventional co-op multiplayer. Wii U-specific niceties like the ability to draw a pictogram of your experience on completion of each stage help lift the game into 2013, and a support/walkthough mode with a smug Luigi help to ease over some of the more frustrating stages for the impatient, the inept, and the time-constrained. So while it’s still the same Bowser-beating battle, it’s a competent and enjoyable one.