It’s a testament to the ongoing evolution of the Mario franchise that a return to its humble 2-D sidescroller origins seems almost revolutionary. Two years ago Mario went on a cosmic trek to warp gravity and bend minds one weird constellation at a time. Perhaps he fell into a wormhole in 2007, because his subsequent outing feels distinctly 1992. In fact, smudge the graphics and compress the delightfully silly voice work and you might be able to convince yourself that it’s really Super Mario World: The Lost Levels. And isn’t that what you’ve been waiting for all along?
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is classic Mario in every sense. You’ll spend the game traipsing through the Mushroom Kingdom on your quest to liberate Princess Peach from Bowser. Along the way, you’ll collect coins, power-ups and more 1-ups than you’ll know what to do with. You’ll see the same old faces – Yoshi, Toad, the Koopalings – and tread plenty of recognizable terrain, including arid deserts, haunted mansions and airborne pirate ships. In fact, the experience comes perilously close to déjà vu on a minute-by-minute basis. If it feels like you’ve been here before, that’s because you have – many times over the course of many years.
At this point Miyamoto could probably design a 2-D Mario level in his sleep. But New Super Mario Bros. Wii never feels phoned in, just familiar. There are still moments of genuine inspiration to be found here, from the intermittent gusts in the Sea of Sand to the trap doors of the Haunted Mansions scattered across your path. Indeed, there’s some satisfaction to be gleaned from simply seeing elements from so many different Mario games under one roof. (Except for Super Mario Bros. 2, of course – Nintendo would rather forget about that abomination.)
There’s also a subtle change to the way the game feels compared to its predecessors. Mario and his pals respond a bit more sluggishly to your inputs in New Super Mario Bros. Wii than in earlier 2-D efforts. Those expecting to hop back into the plumber’s shoes and retain their 12-year-old selves’ platforming proficiency may be surprised to learn that there’s a bit of a learning curve to overcome here – the controls have gotten a little fluffier, but the platforming is as punishing as ever.
The latest Mario wouldn’t be deserving of its prefatory adjective if it weren’t for some novel additions to the gameplay as well. The new power-ups, including the propeller suit, the ice flower and the penguin suit, are a delight to use – especially the last of the three, which, in addition to incorporating the ice flower’s freezing functionality, allows you to glide along slipper surfaces on your belly. It can be a little dangerous to plunge headfirst into uncharted territory, but the inherent silliness of watching Mario slide across the screen is usually worth the risk.
Finally, there’s the most radical change to the Mario franchise: the inclusion of four-player cooperative multiplayer. The entirety of the game can be played with up to three friends, though after a couple minutes of chaos, it will become clear that if you truly aspire to completing it, you’ll want to go it alone. That’s not to say that the multiplayer isn’t fun – in fact, thanks to some of the slapstick ways that characters can interact, it’s more enjoyable to play New Super Mario Bros. Wii with friends than it is to fly solo. You may find even your most platformer-savvy teammates become a liability when you’re forced to share a screen with them, but at least you’ll be giggling all the way to the Game Over screen.
Unfortunately, there’s an underlying problem with New Super Mario Bros. Wii: These days nostalgia comes pretty cheap, and, well, the latest Mario doesn’t. At $50, it’s barely more affordable than the stellar LittleBigPlanet, which is deeper, more charming and more endlessly surprising than anything the new Mario has to offer. In fact, the plumber’s chief advantage in New Super Mario Bros. Wii lies more in branding than in anything gameplay related. In 1992, you were either a Sonic sympathizer or a Mario aficionado, and players have proven as loyal to their mascot as they are to their preferred brand of ketchup. That may be enough to sustain a franchise, but unfortunately, it’s not always enough to keep it fresh.
Bottom Line: New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a pleasant jaunt through many of the Mario games you’ve come to know and love. But with Virtual Console titles at a tenth of the price, a $50 trip down memory lane seems less appealing.
Recommendation: Rent it, preferably to play with your family this holiday season on a cozy winter evening. Then start looking forward to Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Jordan Deam defected to the SNES in 1994 and still hasn’t forgiven himself for it.