New Super Mario Bros. Wii
The negative qualities of the Wii are often mentioned. The common ones: it's comparatively expensive for what you get, SD graphics look crummier than ever and the supply of quality games seems to be a little on the sparse side. Say what you might about Nintendo's money-printing license, New Super Mario Bros. Wii proves that Nintendo's premier design guru Shigeru Miyamoto is still at the top of his game. We'll just forget last year's Wii Music ever happened.
I almost didn't believe it. Nintendo, as is their way, bill their new 4-player Mario game - their big title for the holidays - as some kind of grand upheaval in gaming. Charles 'Voice of Mario' Martinet told us he sees it as "a revolution in gaming," and Miyamoto himself goes so far as to claim he'd always envisioned Mario to be played this way. Strong words for a title where the only real change to a very established formula is the addition of an ever-common gameplay mode. It might be easy to scoff at these puffed up claims, but after actually playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii I found it very hard to be anything but completely besotted.
The 2D Mario games are an art form Nintendo perfected generations ago. Nintendo know how to make them, and gamers know how to play them. There's very little the developers can do - or have done - to change their winning formula, so you still run, generally from left to right, and navigate over ever-familiar obstacles until you reach a flagpole that signifies the end of a level. The Princess, unsurprisingly, is in another castle.
As a sequel to the DS's retro-revival ultra-title New Super Mario Bros (shouldn't this be New New Super Mario Bros, then?) it shares many of its handheld brother's specific traits. For instance: gold coins, three of which hide themselves in every level. But here they aren't used to unlock paths or secrets, instead unlocking videos of various tips, tricks and tactics, such as how to control your characters in certain potentially perilous situations or detailing areas you can exploit to get an infinite supply of lives. They, alongside providing an intriguing insight from the developers on how they think their game should be played, function as a handy set of primers for anyone young or old enough to be a newcomer to the series - a very clever inclusion.
The Super Guide feature, however, proves more contentious. Hoover up eight lives in a single level and the game will present an opportunity: it'll boot you off for one level, if you let it, and run through it for you as Luigi. It's the ultimate compromise between the white-knuckle face-melting difficulty of Super Mario World's latter stages, demanded by series veterans, and the simplicity required for a whole market of society - those ones that didn't grow up repeatedly blowing into the business end of NES cartridges. The Super Guide eases the players who need it through the game's occasional difficulty spikes, as well as visually demonstrating the necessary know-how to overcome the obstacles on future encounters. Another very clever inclusion.
Make no mistake: New Super Mario Bros. Wii is hard, often surprisingly so. That's the classic Mario way, and the hardcore fans needn't worry about Nintendo simplifying the levels to cater to their lucrative casual market.
Despite the focus on the multiplayer, it's a perfectly capable singleplayer Mario adventure. The 3D-in-2D world of New Super Mario Bros, like its DS predecessor, is bright, smooth and impeccably animated. It's all there: Fire, ice, underground and underwater bits, elaborately designed architecture, levels where the screen forces you to move, colour, dooduh dooduh duh duh. The list goes on. Unlike, say, The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords, the game doesn't feel handicapped when having a go on your tod.
A few new power-ups dot the landscape. The fire flower now has a diametrically opposite companion in the form of the ice flower, which freezes monsters into functional, usable-as-platforms cubes. Giant Mario says his goodbye, but Mini Mario makes a splendid return. And the new Propeller suit flings its wearer up, up and away with a quick waggle of the Wiimote. And Yoshi is back.
The controls, as always, are the same - tight, responsive and accurate. Muscle memory can competently guide a seasoned player through most of the game. It's all very familiar, but it would be madness to criticise Nintendo for not changing a control scheme they've already perfected. But some subtle additions, like certain platforms that have to be positioned by holding the Wiimote at an angle, are well implemented and help add a sensation of the shiny and new.
Dotted around the world map, which sparkles with the excitement but slightly lacks the spirit of Mario 3, are the necessary various Mushroom huts that dish up bonus items. Here, like in past games, you can accrue a collection of power-ups to start a level with. The trick, as it has always been, is to save it all for the cruel later levels - I accumulated a hundred lives near the beginning, only to lose all of them before finishing the game.
Playing the game in co-op makes it much harder. Your individual freedom in navigating the levels, such as the ability to dodge danger by flinging yourself in any old direction, is removed: bump into another player and you'll both slow down, or fail to land a jump. Play it with four players and it's absolute chaos, made even more so by the fact everyone can pick everyone else up and, if they are so inclined, chuck them down a pit. Communication, the adulated tenet of co-op gaming, is required.
The game, virtually unchanged after two decades, requires startlingly little modification to accommodate the three extra players. Hit a power-up block and as many goodies as there are players will merrily ping out. Perish and, instead of being forced back to the map screen, you'll use up a life and come floating back into the game in a bubble that a teammate can pop to release you. That's about it. And, lo and behold, it works perfectly.
Criticism can be levied at the absence of any online features, but potentially explained away by the possibility of online mucking up the precise structure of Mario's gameplay. The truth is, of course, that Nintendo are still yet to grasp online features properly, and even if they were included nobody would bother to go to the great effort of swapping all those friend codes around in the first place.
Truth be told, I had to blow dust off the Wii before putting New Super Mario Bros Wii into the drive. But only Nintendo's device could ever push a 2D game as their big holiday number - and it's fantastic that they have.