Editor Note: If you’re not familiar with the term “pile of shame”: basically, it’s all the games you’ve purchased over the years but never gotten around to playing. We’re working our way back to retrospectively review some of ours!
Not many games rejuvenate a franchise like New Super Mario Bros. did. Sure, Mario still had a lot going on. Outside of 3D platforming he was hosting parties, kart racing, and playing tennis, golf, soccer, and pretty much every other sport. Something was missing though. Mario hadn’t had a proper, original 2D platforming adventure for over a decade. New Super Mario Bros. not only resurrected Mario’s original style, but showed how it could work and remain interesting in an era of three dimensions. This is a game that not only launched a new sub-franchise, but invigorated interest in a genre that, at the time, seemed antiquated.
It’s a Super Mario Bros. game. Mario runs and jumps his way through levels on his way to save Princess Peach, sometimes having a swim, shooting some fireballs, and jumping on a boss or two. So what’s the “New” part? As well as the best parts of Mario’s NES and SNES adventures, Nintendo found a way to fit in some of the plumber’s newer tricks. Triple jumping, wall jumping and ground pounding make their 2D debut. All of these moves feel so fitting and natural that it’s almost hard to imagine how previous 2D Mario games lacked them. Not only do these few simple abilities make NSMB feel up-to-date though, but they open up so many opportunities that never would have been possible without them. Though its core is undoubtedly old, there’s more than enough evolution here to warrant the “New” on the box.
Three new power-ups also help to separate new from old. The Mega Mushroom grows Mario to giant size, allowing him to smash everything just by walking into it; blocks, warp pipes, tiny harmless Goombas, you name it. The Mini Mushroom shrinks Mario. While he’s tiny his jumps are all floaty, he can run on water for some reason, and of course, go down tiny pipes. The final new power-up is the blue shell. When equipped, Mario can duck to avoid damage and break blocks from the side with an adequate run-up. I loved the possibilities the Mini and Mega mushrooms added to the gameplay, but the blue shell didn’t impress me. Usually, it just threw me off my platforming, sending me spinning out of control whenever I ran. All of these add even more opportunities for interesting and diverse level design, but I’m not sure they’re always used to their full potential.
Each of these items (the Mini Mushroom in particular) are often used like keys. You need a Mini Mushroom to go down a tiny warp pipe, so you’ll often have to come back to a level with the power-up before you can collect all three star coins. That’s fine in concept, but it always results in needing to have the item rather than use it well. Traversing a level in a way only possible with a certain power-up to be rewarded would have been great, but what’s the point if all I have to do is use a Mini Mushroom and press down? It gets especially annoying when you’re visiting Toad houses over and over trying to acquire a Mini Mushroom, just so that you can go down one specific pipe. Sometimes it is done well. You’re rewarded for beating bosses while shrunken, for example. It just didn’t outweigh the negative for me. It might be my only complaint about the game, but it left me with a sour taste in my mouth after an otherwise sweet game.
Apart from this, the level design is really good. If you’re heading to the end of the level without worrying about the star coins you’ll very rarely have difficulty; most of the levels only require very basic platforming skills to complete. If you are going after the star coins though, it gets a little bit challenging. Still not particularly difficult, but you will have to work to get all of them. I always appreciate this kind of design – the game is only as difficult and time-consuming as you choose it to be. Just want to get through it without much challenge? Just run for the end of each level, play through the six mandatory worlds, and beat the game. Want the most you can get from the game? Collect three star coins in every level in each of the eight worlds, find every secret path, and earn three stars next to your save file. It’s all up to you.
I suppose you’d say this is a 2.5D game. While the gameplay all takes place in two dimensions, the characters and environments are three dimensional. Like the gameplay, a marriage of old and new Mario. I actually found it to be a bit jarring the first time I saw it, like someone spilt some Super Mario 64 in my Super Mario Bros. 3. Years later, finally playing it for myself, it’s easy to get used to. Now that there are three other New Super Mario Bros. games, I’m sure it’s something most people are used to already anyway. It definitely left its mark; enemy and world designs in later Mario games resemble these designs much more than the previous standard of games like Super Mario Sunshine (which had electric turtles that looked nothing like koopas and that bothered me).
The sound design is equally combined of new and old. Hearing Mario’s now iconic voice while playing is absolutely necessary; another thing it’s hard to imagine Mario without these days. The soundtrack is strange though. Rather than updated versions of classic SMB music; what I would have expected, NSMB has mostly original music. At first it doesn’t seem right; it even gets a little annoying. Like the visual presentation though, it grew on me. Despite being quite different in style to the tracks of the original games, there’s a spirit and energy retained that fits just about the same. It’s always joyous, celebratory, and most importantly, happy.
New Super Mario Bros. brought back 2D Mario, fresher than ever. Not only that, but it’d be hard to argue that it had nothing to do with the following resurgence in the 2D platforming genre as a whole. Capturing the best of old and new without confliction is no small feat for such a prestigious and classic franchise, but New Super Mario Bros. hardly falters in its attempt.