New Super Mario Bros.
System: DS :: Rating: Everyone :: Players: 1-2
Genre: Platformer :: Released: 19 May 2006
23 May 2007 — If I were asked to name one title in particular that's responsible for my life-spanning interest in console gaming, like so many others of my generation, I'd have to name the original Super Mario Bros. as the one. I can still vividly remember the day I walked into the house of a friend and saw it shining there on that mildly sized living room television set. I couldn't tell you whose house it was, who had led me there, how old I was nor how long I stuck around to absorb the experience, but that one moment remains burnt into the depths of my memory and my imagination. In the years following that meeting, I've enjoyed some ups and some downs with the industry — even walking away from the scene for several years during my adolescence. And, while I've experienced many hundreds of games of comparable stature, magnitude and excellence, none have really recaptured the sense of ingenuity, imagination and innocence that poured from that first title.
Many Mario titles have come and gone since that original took the world by storm, some better than others, and the ultimate goal of reclaiming those old senses has always been paramount. For nearly a decade, the realm of the 2D platformer was owned by the Mushroom Kingdom. Every argument regarding the series would start and end with Nintendo's front man. But then the series took the leap to three dimensions, and things weren't quite the same. Mario 64 was an enjoyable game with a few control and camera issues, neither of which were problems with previous games. Super Mario Sunshine addressed those concerns, but the game itself felt almost like self-parody with its over-the-top atmosphere and childlike characters and motivations. The series seemed to have lost its way, parallel to the corporation that had produced it since day one.
New Super Mario Bros. carries with it a lofty goal; to marry the white-knuckle, high-quality 2D-platforming of the legendary first games in the series with the refined 3D sensibilities, graphical possibilities and processing power of the later chapters. It presents a two-dimensional world as rendered by a decidedly three-dimensional engine. It grants players a single, uncontrolled camera angle, complete with the traditional limitations. If Mario falls off the edge of the camera's display, whether it is over the side of a cliff or pressed between a line of bricks and the left edge of a self-scrolling level, he sacrifices a life. Simple as that. Once again, you're presented with a short list of limitations and the rest is up to you. No more cheap, surprise deathtraps hiding beyond the camera's unpredictable eye.
In the tradition of those which had come before, the storyline is kept extremely simple and under-explained. The Princess has been kidnapped, Mario has a hunch about who's responsible and the best way to make everything right again is to dash through eight worlds' worth of debatably cognizant mushrooms, beetles and turtles. After recent games had lost sight of this simple formula, introducing bundles of new concepts, characters and tools (what the hell was the deal with that stupid water-cannon-backpack, anyway?), it really is a breath of fresh air to return to such familiar confines. We've reached a day and age where the average gamer must set aside several hours' worth of time just to begin a new title, what with the limitless supply of cutscenes, on-screen text, explanations of in-game mechanics and so on. It's really eye opening to boot up NSMB, see that the princess has been kidnapped and begin your game immediately.
That first level, an almost-direct replication of the first stage of that original Super Mario Bros., immediately sets the tone for what's to come. It's warmly familiar, something that I'll confess brought a genuine smile to my face, an instantly recognizable trip down retro avenue. But just as soon as you reach the point where you're wondering if this is just a handheld Super Mario All-Stars with perks, it gently reminds you of its own fresh identity.
All of the original power-ups are there, from the traditional power-up mushroom to the much-missed fire flower (complete with the classic white-overall, red-shirt Mario wardrobe), but they're accompanied by a trio of all-new powers. Two new varieties of mushroom are introduced to the psychedelic fun, allowing Mario or Luigi to grow to an astronomical size (roughly three-quarters the size of the entire screen) or shrink to a miniscule proportion. Additionally, the blue turtle shell that's been heretofore associated with the Mario Kart line is introduced to the main series for the first time. While wearing the shell, Mario can climb inside while stationary to become temporarily invulnerable, or do so while running to smash blocks, ricochet around the screen and unleash all sorts of chaos upon the world before invariably falling into a bottomless pit.
These new powers are initially mesmerizing, but ultimately prove to lack the purpose and functionality of their brethren in previous chapters. I found the Mega Mario power-up to be all flash and no substance, since its use is forbidden against later bosses and most levels beyond the first handful of worlds rely more heavily on maze navigation. It's nice to stomp around the overworld, breaking off pipes and blocks and whatnot for the 15 seconds you're granted before the power fades away, but it loses its appeal fairly quickly and there's never a time when you absolutely must have it. Likewise for each of the other powers. Unless you're a completist in search of every last golden coin and each hidden world, there's little reason to bother with the underpowered Mini Mario, and the turtle suit is frustratingly useless. It's nice when you need to smash a few well-placed blocks, but after the first dozen times Mario automatically climbs into the shell at full speed just before making a precise jump, you'll develop an aversion to the power-up as a whole. Each of these new powers is visually appealing and a great concept, but they just aren't integrated into the progression of the game itself. They're never vital, and for that reason they never really make the leap from cool concept to enjoyable new feature.
There's also no flight in this game, which is a significant departure from every title in the series since Super Mario Bros. 3, and serves to make things significantly more difficult. Sure, that's not the only thing that makes NSMB every bit as spirit-crushingly difficult as its predecessors, but it's a factor. Make no bones about it, this is a tough game — doubly so if you want to go back and collect all of the hidden extras, as I did. I was still reeling from my recent play-through of SMB3, and how incredibly tough that game really was, when I sat down to play around with this one. It's every bit as difficult, perhaps even more so. If you're looking to complain about a franchise that's gone soft and lost sight of what a challenge it once was, you're going to have to keep looking.
The amount of replay value provided in this tiny package is astronomical, even if the payoff for finally reaching 100% is less than striking. The main game offers two entirely optional worlds. (Not stages, entire worlds!) The only way to reach boards three and six is to defeat the preceding bosses as Mini Mario, which is no small feat in and of itself. Add to that the ongoing hunt for the golden star coins scattered around the land (three coins are hidden in each level, amounting to a total of well into the hundreds), the dual multiplayer modes and the multitude of touch screen-centric mini games, and you'll begin to see what I'm talking about. This is an amazingly deep game, but the only thing you're rewarded with upon completion is a set of three stars next to your save game on the load screen and perhaps a wealth of personal satisfaction. I'd expected something more, but I can't really fault the overall package for that. It just seems like a cheap shortcut for a game that is otherwise overflowing with detail.
For all of its new bells and whistles, this is still the game that the original, two-buttoned NES control pad was developed for. That means it had already vaulted over many of the hurdles that usually stand in the way of a simple, effective control scheme, and the developers rightly chose to merely build upon that rock-solid foundation, not reconstruct it from the ground up. The D-pad moves you around, the A button jumps, B shoots fireballs, sprints and picks stuff up — end of story. Simple, easy to learn, effective, never gets in the way. The touch pad is used sparingly, but not infrequently, and primarily serves as your quick access point for stored power-ups (you're only afforded one slot). That bottom screen also serves as a storage point for information and statistics that would have otherwise bogged down the in-game screen. Inconsequential stuff like your current point total, number of lives and location are displayed down there, easily visible when you're curious, but never intrusive when you don't need them.
Visually, this is every bit a 3D homage to the heyday of the 2D platformer. Nearly everything appears to have been rendered in polygons and textured, but that's not the focus — honestly, the modern technology is merely used to add simple touches to the style that would have been impossible with simple sprites. The subtle zoom in for a close-up as Mario celebrates after finishing a level would've been hideous if they'd done it in pixels, for example. The sheer size and number of moving objects on the screen when Mega Mario is present, or when one of the few enormous enemies are on the screen would have unquestionably resulted in some major slowdown if the DS's tiny engine were trying to punch out that many squares. Even something as simple as the fluidity of every creature's motion would have been a major hurdle, were it animated frame-by-frame rather than vectorized and set into motion. This is a game that looks like the best 2D game ever created, and never overtly portrays itself as anything else. An utterly brilliant artistic direction that works beautifully here.
Again, true to what had come before, everything you'll see on the screen is overflowing with personality, life and attention to detail. Whether it's something like the appearance of a hill in the background or the look and feel of a Goomba, Koopa or Squid, it's all handled masterfully and fully realized as it was intended to be. Different creatures walk with a unique bounce in their step. One can gather the personality of a fish from the way it moves. Although he only makes a few strategic appearances (for the most part, the villainy is conducted by his son), Bowser himself has never looked as menacing and dangerous as he does here. It's a gorgeous game.
The in-game audio provides a wonderful combination of old and new, in regards to both the soundtrack and the incidental sound effects that go along with almost any action. The old school SMB power-up noises, from the classic 1-up ditty to the sound of a spit fireball to the famed Mario jump are all there, classic in their execution but mildly refined in their performance. It's like remastering an old LP in 5.1 surround — it's the same stuff, it just sounds crisper than before. Likewise, these retouched, remastered old songs sound fresh and exciting without losing any of their charm or appeal, which is something that's much easier said than done.
This is positively a must-have for Nintendo's current handheld treasure, and goes a long way toward proving the company's dedication to the system. Neither the original Game Boy Advance nor the SP had an original SMB like this, and what New Super Mario Bros. delivers was worth the wait. It's just long enough, just difficult enough and while I wish the new powers would have been expanded just a bit further, they are what they are. It's a great game to pick up and play for anywhere from five minutes to five hours, which makes it a perfect candidate for a portable. Add this thing to your library if you haven't already, because they don't make them like this very often.
On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.5