New Super Mario Bros. Wii
Anarchy. That’s all the Mushroom Kingdom has ever known…and it’s Princess Peach’s fault. It’s been decades since she’s taken the throne, and she’s got nothing to show for it. Her fungi-ridden subjects are forced to live in the squalor of tiny, mushroom-shaped shacks. The economy is in shambles; all the money is trapped inside blocks or floating beyond anyone’s reach. But the worst part? Her utter lack of concern. Peach’s failings would be understandable if she were evil and selfish. But she just doesn’t care. She knows that Bowser will return and kidnap her someday. She’s too inept to do anything about it. All she does is bake cakes, cheerfully humming away the days until she gets snatched for the umpteenth time. Can you imagine how aggravatingly annoying that must be for her most loyal followers? Now that she’s been taken again, one has to wonder if it’s even worth saving her.
Mario thinks it is, of course. He’s done the save-the-princess routine so much that it’s become second nature. Within an instant of Peach’s latest abduction, he’s already in pursuit. The chase lasts over eight different lands, each with their own themes and levels. You complete a stage on the map, move on to the next, conquer a fortress, and eventually beat the castle at the end of the area. The structure is heavily influenced by Super Mario Bros. 3; there are branching pathways, which means you don’t have to finish some of the stages in a particular order. If you’re feeling especially cheap, you can unlock warp cannons to send you flying even further into the game. You’ll also gain access to Mushroom Houses along the way, which give you extra powerups. You can also clash with Bowser’s forces (including the triumphant return of the Hammer Bros. and a remixed theme song) via mini-game challenges on the map. Regardless of how you approach the game, there’s enough variety to keep things satisfying and entertaining.
The stages feature the standard side-scrolling platform gameplay you’d expect from the Mario series; leaping over bottomless pits, ducking into pipes to find secret areas, and crushing Bowser’s minions underfoot. What makes it interesting is the blend of different styles. It’s got the basic jumping from the NES titles, Yoshi, spinning, and the item carrying from Super Mario World, and the Triple Jump and wall-kicking tricks from the 3D games. They work extremely well together; Mario has never been as agile or fluid. The stages are crafted with this in mind. Simply running through a level is no longer an option; you’ll need all of Mario’s moves to beat the game. Many of the secret exits and hidden areas (there are tons of false walls and alternate routes, which means you’ll be in for plenty of exploring) require some serious platforming skills. It’s worth it, too. Each level has a set of strategically-placed coins that, if collected, will unlock bonus stages. Even if you rush through the adventure, you’re going to spend even more time trying to uncover everything.
The jumping mechanics are balanced out with surprisingly challenging levels. If you’ve been spoiled by the last few games in the series, you’re going to be in for a nasty surprise. The first couple of areas are pathetically easy, but the latter half of the game might eat you alive. You know those Goombas and Koopas you normally take for granted? Try fighting off a whole horde of them as they rain down, smothering you with sheer numbers. Or defending an elevator from a seemingly endless onslaught of Dry Bones. Or swimming through a canal, chased by a mob of piranha and narrowly dodging a barrage of Blooper squids. The castles are especially sadistic; you’ll have to leap through countless spiky deathtraps, having just a few pixels between you and a gory demise. It’s all doable, but it’s going to cost you more than a few lives. Like with any good Mario game, it’s just a matter of learning from your mistakes and retrying until you attain perfection.
Or you could just fall back on your power-ups. There is nothing quite as satisfying as using a Fire Flower to fry every baddie in sight. Not to mention grabbing an Invincibility Star (old school fans will gleefully notice the return of the somersault animation and the special theme) and crashing through everything. While those items come standard with all of Mario’s adventures, there are several new or returning weapons. Remember the POW Block? Its tremors don’t just kill everything on the screen, but sends any floating coins falling as well. The Tiny Mushroom from New Super Mario Bros. is also back, letting you squeeze through smaller passageways and walk on water. The Penguin Suit is far more entertaining; not only do you get to slide around the levels and ram anything that gets in your way, but it lets you skim watery surfaces in style. The Ice Flower is even better. It freezes your victims into makeshift platforms and throwing weapons, which makes it one of the most useful and versatile power-ups in the history of the series. The Propeller Mushroom steals the show, though; donning the odd-looking cap lets you leap and float for absurd distances, which might save you from an otherwise grisly death.
It comes with a problem, though: motion controls. You have to waggle the WiiMote to get the propeller working. It’s a lot less tedious than the flight mechanics in the old Mario games, but it still feels off. A lot of the motion-based stuff feels unnecessary and tacked on. For example, you’re able to carry some items by simply getting close and pressing a button. For larger things, you have to shake the controller. It’s not hard to do, but it seems kind of pointless. Several stages require you to tilt the WiiMote back and forth to maneuver platforms. Some of these are done remarkably well; one area has you adjusting a spotlight in a pitch-black cave, while another forces you to carefully guide an elevator through a flurry of Banzai Bills and Bob-ombs. Others just seem to be in it just for the sake of doing something with the controller. Manually rotating walls and fences are fine, but it’s a shame that they weren’t put to better use. It’s worth noting that the game only supports either the WiiMote by itself or with the Nunchuck attachment. The Classic Controller is perfect for 2D Mario gaming; the extra buttons could have been mapped to the different moves (the Spin Jump especially), which would have made things so much easier. The simple controller setup works fine as an homage to the NES games, but it’s a shame that there weren’t more options.
Instead, all of the effort went into the multiplayer. It’s amazing. Up to four people can play through the game at once, working in tandem to complete a level. Or against each other, for that matter. There’s a Coin Battle feature that lets you take on the same stage, but tallies the amount of coins you earn and ranks the highest scores. But even if you’re not competing directly, you’ll still have tons of fun antagonizing your friends in co-op. It’s reminiscent of the old multiplayer battles from Mario 3, but expanded. While taking on Bowser’s army is great, messing with each other offers far more potential hilarity. You can bounce off your allies’ heads, adding a bit more height to your jumps. Killing a friend with a Koopa Shell is a guilty pleasure. You can even pick someone up and toss them into the spikes and lava pits, maniacally laughing the entire time. Even working together is a challenge in itself; keeping four people on a rotating platform is pure chaos. What makes it great is that it allows people of different skill levels to play together. You can add or drop players before a level, which is a clever and much-needed feature. It keeps the gameplay at a good pace and more versatile; if your friend can’t get through a level, you won’t be held back by his or her lacking skills. It’s an incredibly well-designed multiplayer, and easily one of the best things Nintendo has designed in years.
It’s a shame that there are no online features. It’s understandable; the multiplayer would have been unfeasible with the lag and limited communication methods. But what about customizable stage options? If there’s anything that 2D Mario titles have demonstrated, it’s that gamers with a level design program can come up with some truly creative ideas. It’s definitely possible; look what it did for Brawl. Or Blast Works, for that matter. More importantly, there should have been a video playback feature. Some of these levels are practically begging for speed runs, and having a way to record and post them online would have been great. What better way to share the awesome multiplayer experiences than by recording them for posterity? Oddly enough, there is a kind of playback; you can unlock movies that show you tips and secrets. There’s even the Super Guide, which provides you the option of watching a game developer play through a given stage once you‘ve died enough times. That’s fine (retro gamers might find it a little insulting, however), but Nintendo missed out on what could have been an easy way to add to the game’s longevity.
The game tries to make up for it with nostalgia. It’s practically overflowing with it. You’ll see it at the end of the first level, with the old flagpole and the little brick forts. Like the gameplay, it’s a blend of old and new. All of the Koopa Kids are back with their attacks from Mario 3, but are much harder to kill and have 3D designs. The magic wands are back as well, and their spells are brighter and better animated than ever. That goes for a lot of the returning stuff; the airships, the giant spikes, and even lowliest Goombas and Dry Bones seem more alive. The usual underground levels won’t seem so familiar when they’re only lit up by your fireballs. There’s little stuff, like how the wispy clouds get blown away when you jump through them, or how Mario has different animations depending on the progression of his Triple Jump. Between that and all of the music remixes, longtime fans are in for more than a few flashbacks.
Nintendo’s still got it. They’ve given gamers a reminder of what made the Mario series great. Not only does it use the tried and true gameplay mechanics of the old games, but it blends it with aspects of the later titles as well. The result is one of the best 2D Mario games in years. It’s satisfyingly challenging, offering a wide variety of levels and obstacles. With several items, alternate paths, collectibles, and other secrets, there are plenty of opportunities and incentives to explore. It’s the multiplayer that’ll keep you hooked; its excellent design makes the game as cooperative or competitive as you want to make it. It’s fun, chaotic, and keeps things entertaining long after you’ve completed everything. It’s just a shame that more thought wasn’t put into its other features; while the WiiMote works fine, the Classic Controller would have been even better. Even if there is no online multiplayer, they could have at least included a stage editor or video playback capabilities. Regardless of its shortcomings, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is easily one of the best titles on the system, and an impressive addition to the series. Saving the princess just got fun again.