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New Super Mario Bros. U is far from new (review)

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Part of Mario’s charm lies in how you can describe nearly 30 years’ worth of plots in one simple sentence. New Super Mario Bros. U, though, features the only royal abduction that actually cracked me up. Just as Mario, Luigi, and two Toads sit down to cake, Bowser’s gigantic mechanical hand crashes through the roof, daintily moves Peach’s chair out of the way, and then pounds the boys into the floor and hurls them halfway across the Mushroom Kingdom.

It’s enough to make you root for the turtle-dragon this time.

It’s also one of the few surprises. Nintendo’s new Wii U console got its Mario game at launch, but “new”? Really? Because More Super Mario Bros. hits far closer to the mark.

What You’ll Like

New Super Mario Bros. U

It’s a-Mario!
For sheer, unbridled joy, it’s tough to beat a Mario game. They revel in the simple act of play — right down to the springy buzz of jumps and dance interludes. Mario U doesn’t deviate from that formula … or any other.

Core to that equation: sterling level design. Mario U does have a few family-friendly leanings, but make no mistake, this thumb destroyer won’t take it easy on you. Nothing falls under the statutes of torture, but right around World 3, the challenges start pushing hard, and it feels good (the play-it-for-you Super Guide also returns if you get seriously stuck). The series’ haunted levels usually annoy me, but Mario U’s won me over with a smart mix of shrouded rooms, brilliant visuals (one particular favorite features moving Van Gogh backgrounds), pseudo-dead ends, and “not so fast!” rickrolling. Think you’re clever? Mario U already thought two steps ahead of you and planned accordingly.

Only one new power-up makes it into your arsenal, but it’s a good one. The flying squirrel suit gives you serious hang-time, and that’s invaluable in worlds with lots of wide gaps and sheer drops. Baby Yoshis make a long-delayed comeback, munching baddies and spewing bubbles on command. They’re annoying to carry (you must keep the Y button pressed down, which makes timed jumps trickier than usual) and easy to lose but very useful when you’ve got a ground game littered with edible pests.

You can also collect and store up to 10 power-ups out in the hub world (scaled way back from New Super Mario Bros. Wii) and equip one before you begin a level for a nice head start. And just like before, I got quite a laugh out of using abilities not otherwise available in a particular level, like gliding over a forest of Piranha Plants until a wall dropped me to the ground. That’s confidence; the game gave me some freedom but didn’t hand me a blank check. The design work behind Mario U is that strong.

New Super Mario Bros. U

Cool distractions
If you’re not too busy slamming Koopalings and avoiding Chain Chomps, Mario has a few other tasks on his plate both inside and outside the main game. In short, speed runners should prepare for heaven.

My favorite might be the Nabbit, a purple, rabbity thief who leads you on high-speed chase through a completed levels. Catching him nets you a special one-time-only Squirrel Suit that allows unlimited flight. Meanwhile, Boost Rush modes put you in non-stop race where tagging coins accelerates the pace. I wanted to go faster than that mode does. Time Trials better suited my Sonic the Hedgehog-like need for speed.

Money-grabbing Coin Battles return from New Super Mario Bros. Wii as part of the Challenge modes. Coin hunts and stomp-happy 1-Up Rallies will give you quite a workout, but I found myself drifting towards the Special category. This gives you a quick task to accomplish, like dodging fireballs for as long as you can or gliding to the finish line without touching the ground. They play fast, and they’re maddeningly addictive.

Challenge rooms and Toad House minigames also appear in the campaign’s hub world — you can avoid or engage either if your timing’s right — to help you stock up on power-ups. The latter, though generally lucrative, get old almost from the very first time you see them. Despite the repetition, the breaks in flow tend to feel refreshing more than anything.

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Party time
Mario U doesn’t have “party” in the title, but yep … it’s a party game. The four-player modes (both co-op and versus) from New Super Mario Bros. Wii return largely unchanged and serve up just as much entertaining chaos as before. With so much happening onscreen at once, it can get a bit confusing, but rampaging through the Mushroom Kingdom as a four-man pack remains consistently entertaining.

The multiplayer game does have something of a downside. Mario U only supports co-op with the old-school Wiimote controllers, which aren’t included with any Wii U bundle. Hopefully, you didn’t trade them all in at GameStop already. The WiiPad comes in for Boost mode only, allowing a fifth player to stun enemies with a tap or conjure blocks anywhere for the others to bounce on. That’s a nice way to let people with almost zero hand-eye coordination participate, but anyone who really wants to play the game will feel like their mother just sat them down at the kids’ table.

Otherwise, Mario U’s multiplayer still nails the balance, fixing it so low-skill players get their kicks even as champion Mario gamers nail every jump and dispatch any threat. Sure, you can play solo, but this is how you should play the game.

But maybe you noticed how often I said something “returns” from before.

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