Super Mario Bros. platformers came out with a whole lot more frequency 20 years ago. Nintendo EAD and Nintendo R&D 1 pumped them out with a good deal of steadiness, alternating between home consoles and the Game Boy. Super Mario Bros. 3 was done in 1988, Super Mario Land in 1989, Super Mario World in 1990, and then Super Mario Land 2 in 1992. That’s some Beatles-level consistent output of genius. Never has Nintendo released back-to-back Super Mario Bros. platformers within months of each other though. That’s just what it’s going to do in 2012 though, starting with New Super Mario Bros. 2 for the Nintendo 3DS on Aug. 19 and then later during the “holiday launch” of the Wii U with New Super Mario Bros. U.
The fiscal logic is plain. Nintendo is hurting bad financially, and these games predecessors are two of the best-selling portable and home console games Nintendo has ever released. That’s why Nintendo is releasing them so very close to one another. For anyone worried that Nintendo might be damaging the creative potency of the Mario series though, either via over-exposure or spreading its development talent at Nintendo EAD too thin across the two teams making these games, take note: New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Mario Bros. 2 are very different games. Based on demos of both, one is a familiar but evidently solid refinement of the series’ time-tested formula while the other is a worrisome but bold piece of self-referential game making. What the latter is referencing though isn’t series tropes but the way people play Super Mario Bros.
The first of those then: New Super Mario Bros. U. Of the 3 demo levels Nintendo had on hand at its event in New York, the same three levels at E3 2012, all were excellent. They are vibrant on the Wii U hardware, taking the spare but solid aesthetics established in New Super Mario Bros. and New Super Mario Bros. Wii and giving them a smooth, painterly sheen. PR agents showing off the game repeatedly pointed out its graphical callbacks to Super Mario World which indicates that Nintendo is now plumbing that entry for nostalgia after milking Super Mario Bros. 3 in Super Mario 3D Land. What’s nice about NSMB U’s look though is that it feels distinct, rooted in the series but very much its own thing, and it puts the HD capabilities of the new console to elegant use.
Even with the new flying squirrel suit, there’s not a whole lot new here. The running and jumping are vintage Mario, and that squirrel suit and new baby Yoshis that work like inflatable balloons that keep you aloft like the helicopter helmet in NSMB Wii, feel right at home in the world. The addition of people playing helper on the tablet controller in multiplayer, making platforms for those jumping around, isn’t essential but it is nice for getting a hand accessing some tricky hidden areas. Those hidden areas, like a concealed path hidden just above a bottomless pit, demonstrate NSMB U’s best quality even at this early stage: Great Mario levels. There might not be any drastic changes to the formula, but what’s on hand is creative and solid. Given that Mario games usually have over a hundred levels, the quality in these three promises to elevate the Wii U’s marquee launch title.
The same can’t be said of New Super Mario Bros. 2 unfortunately. The three levels in the demo for the 3DS sequel are simplistic, even in comparison to the very plain NSMB on DS. The thing is though, they aren’t built for creative challenge, they’re built for speed. The demo levels demonstrate NSMB2’s “Coin Rush” mode, a special mode that has you gun through 3 levels in a row in a single life trying to grab as many coins as possible. Coins are, as we’ve discussed, NSMB2’s raison d’être.
The simplicity of the stages is purposeful, building the age-old art of speed running Mario games directly into the fundamentals this new entry. It’s also the foundation of the game’s competitive mode. Coin Rush records can be traded via StreetPass so friends can try to best each other. It’s a clever subversion of the Mario formula, and in this sample it’s engaging. Throwing golden fireballs that turn everything into coins also allows for some neat new tricks. If you’re not careful, you’ll turn some bricks into coins, leaving parts of the stage inaccessible.
Whether it’s enough to sustain a full game though is tough to say. Speed running and trying to set a new stage record is neat even in a sample size, but will there be enough variety in the levels to keep it interesting? Does it stand as a good Mario game, or just a clever twist? It’s impossible to say until we see more.
What these first demos of Mario’s new outings prove is not whether they’re major milestones in the series, veritable new classics for Nintendo when it needs classics the most. The demos just show that there are still new ideas in the plumber’s old overalls, and even then there’s enough quality left in the old ideas to revisit them.