New Super Mario Bros. review
Mario's come a long way since the old 8 bit days. Ever since he bashed his first enemy (who may not really be imposing enough to be classed as true enemies) he has cross many lands and beaten up many creatures in the name of saving his princess. He's also branched out in many ways, from kart racing to golf to RPGing to puzzling. From the 2D realm to the 3D one. Now on the DS Mario's coming home, returning to the side-scrolling platforming roots that made Mario what he is today. With a promise of old school platforming with new gameplay mechanics, Nintendo hope to deliver to us a clever combination of the new and the old.
Almost as a sign of the design approach is the graphical display, which uses a mix of 3D and 2D to present a rather bright colourful display. Essentially all the character models and foreground objects, such as powerup items or blocks, are in 3D. You won't get the full 3D effect due to everything being locked to a 2D plane, but the way characters and objects move and dance about really does help make it look good. Then we have the 2D usage in the form of stage backgrounds that scroll with the level. Despite the loss of a dimensional plane these backdrops do look very nice.
The HUD also works out nicely. On the top screen where the action is the various meters and icons are clear enough to see without being overly intrusive. The bottom screen is often used for more noticeable stats and menus. During levels you'll see collected star coins here and your backup item, while the map view shows the icons for the different worlds. It all works well.
The music is pretty much classic Mario, remixed to better suit the better hardware of the DS. It's very upbeat with energetic tracks pumping out across each world, with the track selection bringing about a wave of nostalgia for the older gamers amongst us. The tracks are tailored to their respective worlds or level types too, so the boo mansions have a more spooky tone to them for example. It's also neat to see that on some levels the enemies will jive with the music.
Characters are quite vocal in here too, with Mario and Luigi yelling out at any given opportunity. Thankfully this doesn't get annoying so it works as a compliment. I was kinda surprised that Bowser Jr didn't actually talk but rather growled (spoiled by Mario Sunshine perhaps?) but not too bad. You also have various enemies with their own effects, like kicking a koopa tucked into their shell or the splashing of bloopers as they chase you down and even the classic cheeky laughs of the boo ghosts as they sneak up on you.
The story... well, it's a Mario platformer. Put simply, it's yet another case of the princess getting kidnapped and thus causing Mario to run across eight worlds to rescue her yet again. It's almost as if they didn't bother writing up an actual story and just reused the same one almost every Mario platformer has used to date. Oh well.
Gameplay is split into two parts - the overworld map and the side scrolling levels. The overworld map is a rather interesting mix of the maps used in Super Mario Brothers 3 and Super Mario World, but for those of you who missed these classic games I'll explain in more detail. Level progression across the overworld is largely structured. You'll complete a few standard levels, complete a mini-tower with a mini-boss, complete a few more standard levels and then end up at the end castle for that world, which leads to the next world upon defeating the boss. Like SMW though you can reach alternative exists in certain worlds which can lead to different levels or bonus areas on the map, and you can also replay any level you've completed already. This is an interesting way of approaching the design. It gives you a clear goal of where to go but offers some flexibility in coming off the main path.
Also like SMB3 are the addition of bonus areas. Toad houses can be found on the maps, where you can get either extra lives or a backup item. Cannons can be reached, which act as the warps of this game and allow you to shoot forward to a later world (although you can revisit any world you've reached by using the touch screen icons). You also get moving objects like the red flying question boxes and the hammer bros, which causes those elements to appear near where you start if you enter a level where they are also positioned. That last element seems to have little impact on gameplay though.
Once you jump into a level the action becomes side scrolling and the true essence becomes apparent. The goal is to get from the start to either the flagpole or the boss (for towers and castles). Usually this means going from the far left to the far right, although some levels go up or down instead of across. Along the way you have to fight past obstacles, enemies and leaping hazards.
Controlling Mario is simple enough that the game doesn't even bother with a tutorial section. The default setup has A and X for jumping and B and Y for dashing and throwing fireballs, although you can switch this to a BA/YX setup instead (which I did as I felt more comfortable that way). The D-Pad moves Mario and lets you enter pipes and doors. It's all pretty classic stuff aside from a couple of more modern moves. Holding down in the air will send you into a butt-stomp move, or you can leap towards walls and perform wall kicks to reach higher areas. These are also pretty straightforward and will be used a fair amount during the course of the game.
The levels are often set up for exploration to a degree that 2D allows. Each level often goes from one direction to the other, but also ends up offering varying levels of height, along with separate chambers, alternate paths and the aforementioned alternate exits to find. Some of these will be pretty simple to find, while others will be more obscure without hitting frustration. You might need a certain powerup to access certain routes, or you may need to manipulate the local environment to reach a set area. This openness is quite nice to see and makes the levels feel fresh.
Powerups are on offer for the gamer too. You'll start off as regular Mario, but by grabbing a mushroom you'll become Super Mario, which basically allows Mario to take a hit without dying (although this then powers him down) and gives him the strength to break blocks. A fire flower allows for another hit and lets the player throw bouncing fireballs for better offence. A starman acts as a separate aspect, offering limited time invincibility to all except bottomless pit falls or crushing.
Those items will be familiar to longer term gamers, but the game also mixes in a few new ones. The shell item has Mario put on a koopa style outfit, allowing him to launch himself along in the shell. The mini mushroom shrinks Mario down to tiny size, where he can't even flatten goombas without butt-stomping them but can access small paths and pipes that would be inaccessible otherwise. The mega mushroom is possibly the most fun, as you grow to giant proportions for a limited time and can then proceed to destroy enemies and even many level objects while on the rampage. Seeing even blocks and pipes going flying is a cool sight.
The powerup system is further boosted by the backup concept. It's possible to store an item in reserve much like in Super Mario World. By touching the item icon on the touch screen you can drop the item down for Mario to grab.
However, this is really where I started to draw the conclusion that this is a good game but not an amazing game. The thing that really struck me is that the level design isn't as tight as it is in past Mario games, and while it can still stand up to be a rather fun game I can't help but wonder what may have been.
For one thing, the difficulty itself seems too shallow. This may be in part due to the ease of building lives, but in general it won't be until late into the game that hazards will really become a notable threat. Most enemies are too basic to deal with, and while there is some enjoyment to bouncing on a koopa and then sending him flying into his comrades for a chain combo it'll be a while before successful defeats translate into immense fun. Just to illustrate this point, by the time I hit the final castle (bearing in mind that I had used warps to basically skip a few worlds) I had over 30 lives in stock.
Jumping could use with being more challenging as well, as while good it doesn't really get notably difficult until the last two worlds. You might slip off a ledge earlier on at times, but these will be the result of simple player blunders and not a result of difficult level design. While this may make the title more accessible to the casual gamer it does lessen the experience for those of us more capable to tackle harder challenges. It's not bad as such. You can still show off by bouncing off enemy heads to reach platforms off the main path. Bouncing around and charging through the levels is still fun, and we do have the last couple of worlds to tackle harder platform sections, but I wish the rest of it was more like those last two worlds.
With that said, NSMB is probably a good example of how easier titles can still provide some level of enjoyment. The ability to revisit any level I wanted was a nice touch. Then there is the star coin challenge. This side quest is open from the start, where every single level has three star coins hidden in them. Collecting them all becomes it's very own challenge. While some may be in plain sight others will be in out of the way areas, either teasing the player by being very visible but no clear means to reach it or they can simply be hidden in chambers you may not even know exist. These coins can actually be spent on the map too in order to open even more paths that alternate exits alone won't reach.
When you tire off the main game you have the minigames on offer, and the selection here is both good and bad. If you've never played Super Mario 64 DS before then great, you'll love this. You have all sorts of minigames that mostly use the touch screen. One game involves dragging coloured bob-ombs onto their respective colour boxes, another sees you drawing trampolines to keep numerous Marios airborne and another sees you watching coins fall into blocks and then hitting the correct blocks to get them. These do provide a lot of fun away from the single player.
However, for those of us who have already played SM64DS then some disappointment comes, because most of the games here are taken directly from that game and dropped in here. In fact, there are only three new games here, and one is a lame one that involves blowing into the mic to send Yoshi skywards. The take on Whack A Mole and dragging a bob-omb around to avoid fireballs are good, but it just wasn't enough newness for me. Granted you've got multiplayer support here, but it's still retreading old ground.
Speaking of which, you can also challenge a friend in some versus play as you tackle levels while competing for star coins, which is ideal of building up friendly rivalry (or destroying friendships, depending on how you play).
So then, the verdict on New Super Mario Brothers? On its own merits it's a fun game with open levels, some interesting ideas, a good replay factor, totally accessible and a number of extra touches you'd expect from a Nintendo title. As a Mario game it's still good but falling a bit short in what makes a Mario game what they are. Ideal for quick casual fun, and I imagine that's what matters.
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