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I like New Super Mario Bros. U a lot. I think it’s the best of the New Super Mario Bros. games and the best 2D Mario since the Super Nintendo. That’s why I was excited to get my hands on the New Super Luigi U downloadable content that remixes the levels of that game for Mario’s little brother.

As I booted up the game for the first time earlier this week, that excitement almost immediately turned sour when I realized something: Every single level has a 100-second timer.

That means that each level in New Super Luigi U starts with the nerve-wracking musical chime that plays in every Mario game when time is running out. That makes every level a stressful race to the finish. Add Luigi’s imprecise running and jumping controls into the mix, and you have one of the most difficult Nintendo platformers of all time.

You might think that it’s nice for Nintendo to finally make a brutally punishing Mario Luigi game, but it doesn’t feel like that. This gimmick is lazy, and what’s worse is that it is completely unnecessary.


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A beautiful world you can’t explore

I already hated the timers in all the previous New Super Mario Bros. games. They were pointless limitations that added nothing to the experience. Not one aspect of New Super Mario Bros. U (or the three other games) gave me the impression that Nintendo knew why it was limiting each level to just a couple hundred seconds.

The most likely reason all the New Super Mario Bros. games have a level timer is because the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES had one back in 1985. The timer betrays that Nintendo is much more interested in relying on nostalgia than building new memories from scratch.

That’s frustrating, and it was a real issue in the Wii U iteration of the series because this was the first high-definition Mario game. It’s gorgeous, but I never wanted to take too much time admiring the world because that damned clock was always reminding me to move along.

In Luigi U, this problem is the entire game. The levels in this DLC are nothing but a blur because I never have a moment to take it all in. I’m always moving on to the next platform and past the next obstacle because I only have 100 seconds to get to the end and collect the three star coins. My eye is always on the clock. I’m rationalizing that if it takes me 10 seconds to get from the beginning to the first pipe, well then that is 10 percent of the level and maybe I’m making good time.

What’s not going through my head is any sort of appreciation for the visuals — and that’s a shame.

The secret difficulty of the New Super Mario Bros. series

As I mentioned, the 100-second timer is a completely unnecessary step to boost the challenge in a Mario platformer. In Luigi U, that’s true for a couple of reasons. First, Luigi is much more difficult to control. Second, the level designers upped the moment-to-moment challenge. Third, the New Super Mario Bros. series has always had a secret difficulty level.

Whenever someone complains that one of these New Super Mario Bros. games are too easy, I assume that they are just talking about getting to the end of the level. Sure, that’s easy — and like I said, Luigi U beefs up the difficulty for that — but the previous New games all have a more difficult path built into every single level in the form of the three star coins.

The star coins are a trio of collectibles in each stage of the New Super Mario Bros. games. They are either hidden or they require some deft platforming to reach.

This is actually the genius of this series. It has a variable difficulty that players can choose on the fly while in the game without actively having to admit they need to set the game to “easy.” This variable difficulty still exists in Luigi, only the 100-second timer turns it into more of a variable level of frustration.

A troubling sign for Nintendo

Earlier this month, at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show, Nintendo design chief Shigeru Miyamoto acknowledged that the publisher relies on a small handful of properties. One of those is obviously Mario platformers. The 2D games tend to sell very well, which is why the company quickly pumped out each of them for their last four systems (Wii, DS, 3DS, and Wii U). Miyamoto also said that Nintendo is working hard to add innovative new ideas to make sure each new game — even if it’s just another sequel — stands apart based on the merits of its gameplay.

That’s a concept that goes back to the NES. Nintendo built its legacy on sequels like the first four Mario platformers, but each had a distinctive look and feel and really changed things up for the franchise. That’s something I think many gamers would love to see them return to, and it’s what Miyamoto implied that he would like Nintendo to do again.

The only problem is that if New Super Luigi U is an early example of that, then I have some doubts that Nintendo knows how to recapture that old, experimental spirit.

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