One thing I look forward to every year is Nintendo’s stop in Columbus on their annual Airstream trailer trek across the country. A team of intrepid Nintendo PR people make the journey across the continental US in their Mario-themed Airstream, stopping at various locations to invite game journalists to try out the latest games and hardware. As you can imagine this is a special year, with the launch of the Wii U a little more than a month away, so I was particularly excited to take the new console and its launch titles for a spin.
Before I dive into the coverage, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the Nintendo folks for letting me stick around after our appointment was officially over, so that I could spend as much hands-on time as possible, even as they packed up and got ready to head out.
Naturally the first game on deck was New Super Mario Bros. U
. The title is the flagship first party game for the Wii U’s launch so Nintendo is understandably excited about it. Like its direct predecessor on the Wii, Mario Bros U is most definitely intended to be a multiplayer party game. Jeremy and I took control of the brothers Mario by using standard issue Wii Remotes, while Christina, one of the Nintendo reps, acted as our guide and assistance by way of the Wii U GamePad.
The first thing I noticed is that this game is very, very similar to the previous Wii game. You still have all the potential friendship-ruining, marriage-wrecking and otherwise good-time-killing possibilities at your disposal, and once again a lot of this stuff is easy to do on accident. In fact it was almost an uncanny repeat of the demo we had of the original game in 2009, with Jeremy and I taking turns accidentally scooping up all the powerups, blocking each others’ paths to coins and 1-ups, and of course sending each other to an untimely bottomless pit death by means of inadvertent stomps on the head.
This almost inevitable potential for sabotaging your teammates, intentionally or not, was one of the major issues I had with the first game. It tended to be funny for about 5 minutes and then led to successive players throwing down their Wiimotes in frustration and wandering off to find something less relationship-damaging to do. It’s a little disheartening to see that Mario Bros. U has the exact same problem, as if the barrier to successful teamwork is intentional. Of course the Wii U GamePad adds a whole new dimension to that team play dynamic, and introduces even more ways to alter the gameplay, for better and worse.
As the one holding the GamePad, Christina could place floating platforms and restrain enemies, clearing the path for Jeremy and me. She mentioned that this feature could let two-player teams work together on speedruns, or allow a parent to take a more passive assist role when playing the game with their kids. That’s all well and good, but Christina also aptly demonstrated that she could block access to powerups by repeatedly trapping me with a platform, or fake us out when we were on a roll crossing a chasm on platforms she generated. Once again, I think I’ll be playing this one alone, or with a maximum of one teammate.
The game looked beautiful in HD (finally!) and it’s due to the upgraded resolution as much as the art direction. The game’s backgrounds have been rendered in a serene, painterly style reminiscent of Zelda Skyward Sword, and while the foreground elements like characters, enemies, blocks and items are suitably crisp, high poly and well-textured, they look almost out of place and stale in comparison to the backgrounds. In fact, I think that’s my biggest issue with this game—it looks old. Not from a technological standpoint, but from a gameplay one—it simply looks rote, predictable and bland. It’s the exact same game I’ve been playing for the last 20 years and that’s a real problem for a industry-leading series like Mario. While the 3D platformers like Mario Galaxy 2 have been pushing the limit, the 2D ones are getting ever more paint-by-numbers, banking on retro nostalgia as opposed to new ideas. Maybe there are some big gameplay innovations in the later levels but I wouldn’t bet money on it.
When compared to Nintendo’s other recent platformers like Kirby’s Epic Yarn and Donkey Kong Country Returns, Mario Bros. U is looking a little lazy. Fancy new graphics and a new controller can’t cover up just how repetitive the series has gotten. I never thought I’d hear myself say this but I had a lot more fun with Rayman Legends—a series I have little experience with, no nostalgia for and nothing invested in the characters—than I do with good old Mario Bros, but I’ll talk more about that later when I get to Rayman. Suffice to say, Mario is looking better than ever but playing the same old dry way. Mario Bros. U was the game I planned to shell out for at launch, but I think I’ll save my cash for something else on day one and wait at least a few months to get Mario.