New Super Mario Bros U preview: An unexpected rush

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The last time I got my hands on New Super Mario Bros. U, I had nothing but nice things to say about it. The three level sampler Nintendo was demoing in the weeks after E3 was gorgeous, making the now too-familiar New Super Mario Bros. milieu pop in new ways thanks to an HD makeover and some subtly powerful background design. Mountains, starry skies, and flying squirrels—Maybe Super Mario Bros. games would start feeling like worlds to inhabit again, rather than glorified toy boxes like those in New Super Mario Bros. 1 and 2 on DS and 3DS?

We won’t know whether that’s the case until the full game is ready to rock on November 18th. The new chunk of game on display at last Thursday’s Wii U event in New York didn’t give a wide look at new levels, but inside of NSMB U’s new Boost Rush multiplayer mode. It’s hard to stop and admire the scenery in these speedy multiplayer challenges, but I can say this: Backing up players by creating platforms using the Wii U tablet controller is a whole lot more interesting than you’d first think.

Boost Rush is similar to the competitive Coin Rush mode from New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS. Rather than collecting as many coins as possible in three stages without dying though, the goal is to survive through an ever-scrolling stage. Survival isn’t enough though. The levels are difficult to pass through since they’re constantly moving to the right, and all the players controlling Mario, Luigi and Miis need to be extra swift, but to get the best score, you have to make it scroll faster. You do this by collecting coins in the stage.

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Here’s where it gets extra tricky. Like in the regular game, the person using the tablet controller can support four others by tapping the screen and creating new platforms. You can save them from falling into pits, helping them up to reach more coins or items, or even halt them in their path. You can only create four blocks on the field at a time. Picking who on the field needs assistance in Boost Rush is difficult because of how big the stages are and how spread out players can get. It gets even more frantic when you try to get players to jump on four consecutively placed blocks. Do that and the blocks you place spout coins, raising the boost meter, potentially make the stage go faster.

Coin Rush in New Super Mario Bros. 2 was very much a larval version of Boost Rush. Where that felt like a diversion, Boost Rush feels like a substantial way to play Super Mario Bros. with other people. Just how substantial depends on how many levels Nintendo decides to include in the game. Only three samples were demoed, and each was ranked according to difficulty. Boost Rush through a typically fire-filled Bowser castle was naturally harder than rushing through a grassy plain, but if they’re always the same levels, they’ll start to get boring, even if the goal is to improve your time. Nintendo is promising downloadable content for the Mario series going forward though, so there’s hope.

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New Super Mario Bros. U has a lot going for it. The sprawling levels of NSMB Wii have returned and show hints of even greater scale, a remedy to the cramped doldrums of NSMB 2. The interconnected overworld, hinted Miiverse functionality, and Boost Rush could make NSMB U the star of the Wii U launch, but it needs a little something extra to bring it up to par with the classic 2D Mario adventures: Surprises. That’s what NSMB 2 needed more than anything else. Boost Rush is a pleasant surprise already. Let’s see what else it’s got.