New Super Mario Bros. U, much like New Super Mario Bros. Wii before it. How do you keep a franchise that hasn't made drastic gameplay changes since 1985 fresh, fun and exciting? Nintendo's response is simple: more of the same. Don't make drastic gameplay changes, because you don't change a recipe that works. If it worked in 1985 then it'll work now. Of course there are changes, and New Super Mario Bros. U has changed in many ways what with 5 player co-op and HD graphics.
Here's the summary if you're not interested in the details: you already know if you want this game or not.
Mario's New Toys
How do I even start this? There are only a few non-meta gameplay changes in New Super Mario Bros. U that have been shown, and they each showed up in E3 demo. Mario can change into a Flying Squirrel with a power up, much like the feather/cape we all know and love. With the Squirrel power you can glide, or perform a double jump with a shake of the controller. Overall, it's just a device that allows players to float around the map a little bit easier. Traversal is king in New Super Mario Bros.
And that idea continues with the new Yoshi gameplay elements. There are two new Yoshis that have been shown, but only one was in the demo I played. The pink Yoshi can be inflated like a balloon, allowing you to jump higher and float longer distances. It's another mechanic that makes moving around the screen easier, but also creates complications in cooperative play. The second Yoshi, the blue one, blows bubbles which players can then jump on to access harder to reach areas.
Therein lies my disappointment with the new co-op centric gameplay mechanics in New Super Mario Bros. Where tight, detail-oriented level design in the past was the focus, the new design prioritizes wide-open, sandboxy spaces. It's sloppy, but with four (or now 5) players it can be extremely hectic and fun. New Super Mario Bros. U is more of that, and has really keyed on that craziness and free-wheeling exploration style of gameplay.
Mario's New Friend/Enemy
While I was playing New Super Mario Bros. U solo, the new big deal with Wii U is the GamePad and how it changes how video games are played. For instance, I could have walked away from the television at any point of time and played the game completely on the Game Pad. The demo attendant could have flipped the channel and started watching Judge Judy while I was busy gettin' my Flying Squirrel on.
Playing solo is always an option, but as we all know New Super Mario Bros. is meant to be a cooperative experience. The Nintendo GamePad will add a fifth player into the mix. Of course, it won't be an on-screen player-character like Toad or Luigi, rather the fifth player becomes an omniscient, block dropping presence. The question is, is this powerful being representative of the greater good or the very essence of evil.
What I mean by that is that this fifth player has the power to place blocks anywhere they choose in the environment. Nintendo has marketed this as a way to cooperate, or even produce two-player speed runs that are going to be much faster than single player games. The truth is, this fifth player will use their block dropping power to punish other players, to trap them and harass them, and in all honesty it's a glorious and hilarious addition.
I mentioned in my Nintendo Land hands-on that a lot of the Wii U's success will come from holiday sales. It wholly depends on kids tearing open that box and being able to play a Nintendo game with their entire family, something that will bring parents and kids together week after week for silly fun that isn't difficult to pick up and play. From there it spreads via word-of-mouth at the workplace, and that's how we have the phenomena of the Wii. New Super Mario Bros. U is a perfect example of how Nintendo wants to sell the Wii U later this year, and it absolutely works.
Mario vs. the Internet
Another huge addition to the franchise that I wasn't able to actually try out at a booth is the game's connection to the Miiverse, Nintendo's new Wii U online system. It's nothing particularly complicated, until you consider how little is offered on systems like the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
New Super Mario Bros. U, through the Miiverse, will have its own bulletin board where you can leave feedback or peruse for tips and tricks. There will also be a variety of achievements, or at least ways to share your accomplishments, though that system hasn't been detailed 100%. Even on the world map for this game, comments from your friends will pop up around the different levels. It's an entirely new social world, all built into a game and console that's never been known for its social features before.
What's odd is most of these social features aren't really anything people have been asking for. Drop-in co-op with friends is about it, and that feature wasn't discussed at all during E3. These social features, including the Miiverse, have a lot to prove in terms of selling consoles.
I went into New Super Mario Bros. U looking for something new and different, something to get me excited to return to the franchise. Gameplay-wise, I didn't find a hook to bring me back into the fold. This is simply more of the same New Super Mario Bros. from that perspective, not that that's a bad thing. This series is inherently a social experience, and from that experience you find different aspects of the game you may enjoy playing solo as well.
Thus, the reasons for these new social features become clear. Nintendo understands why people are excited about this game and they're building a better experience around that. The gameplay itself is something that has worked, like I initially mentioned, since 1985, and so Nintendo won 't mess with that formula too much. Building a bigger, better, robust experience around that gameplay however... it's not only something that will make for a better, straightforward experience, but it's something gamers have been begging for forever.
What is New Super Mario Bros. U? It's the first $60 game most people will buy for the Wii U. It's fun, it's familiar, and it goes to great lengths to show off all the great features included in the Wii U and GamePad without making them overly complicated or threatening. If it wins awards, it'll be for not doing anything wrong, rather than doing anything spectacularly well. If that bothers you, so be it, because you're probably not the target audience for this game anyways. The family with young kids next door is going to love it, instead. In the end though, it's no argument that New Super Mario Bros. U is going to be a great game and a must buy for Wii U early adopters.