I was twelve-years-old in 1985 when the original 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) took America by storm. For years Atari and Intellivision (and, to a lesser extent, ColecoVision) had battled for living room dominance, but the NES blew everything else out of the water. Even as a Commodore 64 owner at that time, it was hard not to be jealous of the Nintendo library.
I didn’t get my own NES for many years after that, but it didn’t matter as all of my friends had them. In the spring of 1986, the gaming world was all about Super Mario Bros. Only the coolest kids could beat every level, find every last coin, and knew every hidden secret. By the time we had all mastered the first game, the quirky Super Mario Bros. 2 arrived. Back then none of us knew about the game’s Japanese origins … all we knew was that, it was different. While it wasn’t as good as the original, it held us over until the arrival of Super Mario Bros 3 — one of the best and most popular video games of all time.
Super Mario Bros 3 had it all. It took every single good thing from the first game and improved on it. There were more levels, more locations, more items … just more of everything. At a time when gamers were beginning to drown in mediocre platform games, Super Mario Bros. 3 redefined the genre and set the bar so high few games would ever come close in their design.
Nintendo stuck with the same formula with Super Mario World on the SNES, but has been tweaking it ever since. Super Mario RPG dropped Mario in a role-playing adventure, Super Mario Karts found Mario and his friends behind go-kart steering wheels … and then there was Mario Teaches Typing, which nobody found fun. On the Nintendo 64, Mario and his pals entered the third dimension. Super Mario 64 was heralded as a breakthrough in technology and game play. I hated it. Say what you want about the old 2D platform games, but at least I always knew which way to go. I found Super Mario 64’s levels confusing and frustrating; and, I found the graphics nauseating, literally. I couldn’t play that game more than five minutes at a time without getting motion sickness headaches. The series moved on, of course. There were more RPGs, more racing games, and the Smash Bros series of games.
Over the years, mainstream gaming has slowly left me behind. The Game Boy Advance was the last platform to embrace Nintendo’s 2D heritage. Their latest handheld console, the Nintendo DS line, has moved into the third dimension as well. The 2D platform was forgotten in favor of 3D adventures and 1st Person Shooters.
And that brings us to the New Super Mario Bros, which is, as far as I’m concerned, a gift from the gods. It honestly feels like a present for all old school gamers. And more than that, it feels like an apology. “We’re sorry you’ve had to endure stupid Mario games for the past 20 years. Please accept this awesome new title as a token of our appreciation.” Forget about Super Mario Galaxy. Forget about Dr. Mario. Forget about Mario playing tennis, basketball, or competing in the Olympics. New Super Mario Bros (NSMB) for the Wii might as well have been titled Super Mario Bros 4. As SMB3 was to SMB1, NSMB is to SMB3. It’s everything that game was and more.
NSMB begins as many of Mario’s adventures do — Princess Peach has been kidnapped by Bowser (again). The deja vu should hit you right around the time Mario drops into World 1-1 and you find yourself holding your Wiimote sideways like an old school NES controller. (You can also play the game using the two-fisted Wiimote/Nunchuck combination, but … why?) Unlike some of the more recent Mario games, there’s not much of a learning curve here. With only two buttons reachable with your right thumb, Mario is controlled the same way you controlled him twenty-five years ago. Of course it wouldn’t be a Wii game unless Nintendo forced us to wave the wand around for something, and NSMB is no objection. To pick up certain objects or fly as Propeller Mario, you’ll need to shake the Wiimote up and down.
Propeller Mario? Yes, that’s one of the new costumes you’ll soon find Mario wearing. Some old favorites like the mushroom, fireball flower and invincibility star have returned and appear alongside new ones like the propeller suit (an updated version of Mario’s old tanooki suit), an ice flower (an updated fireball shot that encases opponents in blocks of ice) and a penguin suit (an updated version of Mario’s frog suit).
The goal of each level in NSMB is, like always, to get to the end of the level before running out of time, collecting as many coins as possible along the way. In addition to the regular coins there are three semi-elusive gigantic coins that must be collected in order to unlock the ninth world. It seems pretty easy to stockpile extra men in the early levels, but you’ll need them in some of the games more treacherous ones. I am ashamed to admit about another feature I discovered: fail a level enough times and Luigi will appear and offer to walk you through it.
NSMB allows up to four people to play simultaneously, although getting that many people in the game almost guarantees frustration. With only two it’s much easier to stay together. With four, especially on the game’s auto-scrolling levels, it’s almost impossible to keep everyone together and every game quickly turns into a contest to see who can kill whom the quickest.
It’s old and it’s new, a retro throwback with updated graphics and sound, a new romp with old rules through new levels. Gamers who cut their teeth in 3D worlds may not appreciate it, but for those of us who instantly think of “the toaster” when we hear the word “Nintendo”, New Super Mario Brothers is the greatest gift an old fart like me could receive.