New Super Mario Bros. Wii is, first and foremost, a multiplayer game. This may seem like an odd thing to say about a franchise that has, before now, been primarily single player experiences. Yes, the early entries in the Super Mario series had two player alternating play and the original Mario Bros. arcade game flirted with competitive multiplayer, but the series has mostly sold on the strength of its solitary platforming, not as a social experience. This is a trend that New Super Mario Bros. Wii inverts: it offers a solid single-player experience, but, it’s the frantic, ingenious multiplayer that is the true core of the game’s appeal. Nintendo seems to have been aware of this, as they have printed “Up to Four Players!” in bold white print on the front of the game’s bright red box. All of the game’s other features? Well, they have to be content with small text on the box’s back.
Without other players, the title’s gameplay is very much a copy of its predecessors. You are tasked with guiding Mario through a series of levels in search of the eternally victimized Princess Peach, who has, once again, been kidnapped by Bowser. Most of the gameplay consists of making increasingly precarious jumps over bottomless ravines and landing on the heads of enemies. If you have played a Mario game before, or, well, any 2D platformer, ever, you have a clear idea of what to expect. Jump, jump, jump, wince, swear, grip the controller tighter, jump.
If you have played past Mario titles, there are a lot of nostalgic touches to appreciate. The Koopalings, Bowser’s children who served as end of world bosses in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, are back, and each has been given an updated design and set of abilities that remains true to the original while offering a fresh challenge. Many other iconic and peripheral enemies return, but I won’t list them here to protect you from insidious spoilers. Many objects and items from past Mario titles, both 2D and 3D, return also. The game’s design and structure is also a combination of the best elements of past Mario titles. The end level flagpoles are back from the original Super Mario Bros. The item-replenishing mushroom houses are back from Mario 3, as is the ability to store items in your inventory for use in latter levels. Meanwhile, the overworld map blends touches from both Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. And, amazingly, none of these elements feel out of place. The game mixes and past and present with ease, producing a seamless mix of Mario’s greatest hits.
However, if this were all that the game did, it would simply be homage. It would be a great gift to Mario fans, but offer very little new. This is where the multiplayer comes in. The game allows up to four players to cooperate (or compete) in each level simultaneously, helping each other past obstacles or fighting each other for coins and points. This may initially seem like a gimmick, but it actually works fantastically, effectively reinventing the otherwise standard gameplay. With additional players, each already frantic and demanding level is given even greater urgency. You must now not only watch yourself and you navigate jumps and defeat enemies, but you must also be aware of the other players. You must be ready to save (or escape) them, and you must prepare for how their moves might influence your progress. Take, for example, one of Mario’s most iconic objects: the Koopa Shell. In past games, when your only concern was yourself, the issue was simple: make sure that you kick the shell in a useful direction and be ready to jump if it hits a pipe or block and spins back towards you. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii, your once simple relationship with the Koopa Shell is complicated by the presence of other players. Now you must worry about the possibility of hitting them with a poorly aimed shell, or them knocking the shell back in your direction (intentionally or not), or breaking a block that they had plans for, or numerous other possible consequences. And the same goes for nearly every other action in the game. If you play without considering others, you (and they) will suffer. This imbues the relatively simple gameplay with additional strategy.
That’s not to say that other players are only there to frustrate and create complications. The game adds a new feature that allows you to encase your character in a protective bubble by pressing the “A” button. Once inside this bubble, you cannot be injured by enemies or fall into pits. However, the only way to leave a bubble is to have another player pop it by walking or jumping into it. Theoretically, this allows a single player to navigate particularly treacherous areas that other players are not yet ready to handle, then, once a safe point is reached, pop the other players’ bubbles, effectively ferrying them past danger. But there’s a catch: If a player dies while all other players are in bubbles, the level is lost and must be restarted from the beginning or the last checkpoint. This forces players to use bubbles cautiously, rather than depending upon them as a crutch, while still offering them as an option to allow players of different skill levels to player together without excessive frustration.
The game includes eight worlds (plus one secret world) and about 80 levels (including secret levels and special coin challenge levels). Each of these levels is exceptionally well designed, with pits and enemies placed intelligently (or insidiously). The game has a smooth difficulty curve, progressing from a relatively easy first world and a blisteringly difficult eighth. As is true of most Mario titles, each world has theme, and these themes are fairly typical: desert, ice, sky, etc. However, the game utilizes these standard themes to good effect, offering clever takes on existing formulas. This is particularly true in the sky world, where platforms bend and move and rotate in unexpected ways, producing unexpected challenges (and perhaps motion sickness). A simple, start-to-finish run through the game will probably take between 8 and 12 hours. However, returning to finished levels is encouraged, as each level contains three special hidden coins and finding all of the coins in a world will unlock a hidden level. Also, playing different levels with different friends (and enemies) will yield vastly different results, adding a great deal of replay value.
Since this is a Wii title, this review would be incomplete without mention of motion controls. Thankfully, the game uses motions carefully, and mostly to expand the range of moves possible in a three button control scheme. (The game uses the Wii Remote held sideways, and the B button is left unused.) Shaking the remote during a jump will trigger a ground pound, while holding 1 and shaking the remote while near certain blocks or another player will cause your character to lift and carry that block or player. There are also special platforms that can be adjusted or manipulated by tilting the Wii Remote. All of these motions are responsive and work consistently.
While this review has been glowingly positive thus far, the game does have a few faults, mostly in the form of omissions. Everything present in the game works almost flawlessly, but there are a few additional features that would have improved the experience. First, there are no options for online play. Granted the focus of Wii clearly is towards offline social experiences, and I don’t imagine most people build the system for online multiplayer, but given that multiplayer is such an integral part of the game, it would have been nice to be able to enjoy it with those outside your living room. Also, there are only four playable characters, and two of them are toads. All characters play identically, so this has no impact on gameplay, but Nintendo has no shortage of beloved characters, and having such a small selection seems like a needless sacrifice. And a few more new transformation suits would have been nice (but the new suits that are included, the propeller suit and the penguin suit, are exceptionally fun).
New Super Mario Bros. Wii reimagines the traditional Mario experience as a cooperative/competitive multiplayer platformer with great success. Level design is challenging and clever. The motion controls are unobtrusive and smartly implemented. Elements from past games are incorporated wisely, making it equally rewarding to established fans and new players. Multiplayer is frantic but strategic, challenging for veterans but accessible to new players. More characters and online multiplayer would have been nice, but this is still an excellent title.