Monday, June 10, 2013

Video Game Review: New Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo DS)

2006 saw the release of the first true Super Mario Bros. game in over a decade with the release of New Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo DS. Prior to this, the portly plumber had abandoned the ways of left-to-right running and growth-inducing mushrooms after his adventure in Dinosaur Land in Super Mario World for the SNES. Though he would star in Super Mario 64 and other such masterpieces, Mario's routes seemed to be forgotten except for the occasional reference, remake, and port. There were more dimensions to explore, more damsels to undistress, and more epic adventures to discover.

The fans were unhappy. They loved Mario and that green guy for the running, the hopping, and the Fire Flowers. As good as the new Mario was, nothing could compare to what he had been. For fifteen years they begged and pleaded, but Nintendo only gave them Super Mario Advance. The closest thing to a new scrolling Mario adventure anybody could get was the first stage of Super Smash Bros. Melee's Adventure Mode and the file select screen of Super Mario Sunshine.

Nintendo relented, eventually answering the star-crossed summons. And now most people are on their knees begging for the Big N to take it all back.

"Please," they sob like dejected Sonic the Hedgehog fan boys, "Please. Take back what we wanted. In retrospect, it was all an awful, terrible idea. Please, go back to being creative!"

But it was too late. The fans had already unleashed the franchise. They were doomed to see four sequels with less change between them than the original trilogy on the NES.

New Super Mario Bros. was the first instalment in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise, which includes New Super Mario Bros. Wii, New Super Mario Bros. U, New Super Mario Bros. 2, and most recently, New Super Luigi U. These games have attracted a lot of negative attention, the most frequent complaint being that they're "All the same game", or "All dreadfully boring", or "All far too easy". A recent Googleventure into the series will show that these complaints encompass the whole of the series, with most forum-goers bitching about even the first in the series.

Which is nothing more than herd mentality. When NSMB first came out for the Nintendo DS, praise was heaped higher than my plate at a Chinese buffet. Sure, a few reviewers and masochists griped about the game being a little on the easy side, but nobody ever said the game was bad, or even mediocre. It was frequently ranked among the likes of Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island as the greatest 2D-Platformer to come out of the Super Mario franchise. It's only in recent years that the first game has come under fire as "Uninspired" as its accidental offspring have been, and this is largely due to younger players discovering it only after having played the other titles, or older players going back to it after having more than half a decade of similar-styled releases.

Of course, some things can only really be seen in retrospect, and I seriously hate the "Good for its time" clause. So just how bad is the harbinger of Nintendo hell?

It's not bad at all, actually. New Super Mario Bros. is a solid game that celebrates most of its ancestry, with the most notable influence coming from the original Super Mario Bros., although a heavy amount of Super Mario Bros. 3 has slipped in as well. This is also the first 2D game where Mario brings his new tricks from Super Mario 64 to the table, and they're addition seriously enhances the experience. The wall jump, ground pound, and triple jump can all be used to reach new locations in ways which past Super Mario Bros. games were unable to do. While past games created situations which left the average Super Mario Bros. gamer plummeting into an endless abyss, New Super Mario Bros. grants gamers with quick thumbs the opportunity to bounce back up for a chance of beautiful, glorious life!

I might also add that this game gave those blasted Shine Sprites a kick, reminding them that Starmen occupy the position of top-item 'round here!

In addition to fun new gimmicks and tricks, Mario can take advantage of three classic items--the Fire Flower, Starman, and Super Mushroom--as well as three new power-ups which nearly double the game's potential for exploration. The Mega Mushroom is a suped-up Super Mushroom, and kind of got its start in Super Mario 64 DS, although that was simply a misapplied Super Mushroom. It allows Mario or Luigi to reach simply gigantic proportions and trample enemies, as well as stage elements, into dust. Opposite of this is the Mini Mushroom, which does reduce your margin for error to almost nothing, but allows Mario to run over water and jump higher than before, meaning he can reach all kinds of new places. The most original of the new items is the Blue Shell, which actually takes its cues all from classic Mario game play. Wearing the Blue Shell will cause Mario to slide inside and act as a controllable Koopa Shell, allowing him to break blocks and destroy most enemies while accumulating 1-Ups an points.

The Blue Shell has been cast in a negative light by crybabies as it makes the game significantly more difficult. For one thing, Mario will duck into the shell automatically if he picks up enough speed while running. For another, it can be kind of difficult to stop when you want it to (mainly because of the way gamers have been trained to react in panic situations by pressing and holding more buttons instead of releasing them). However, I feel like the Blue Shell is a great addition to the game. It's a bonus challenge for the Nintendo-Hard fans, and it can be really satisfying to make seemingly impossible jumps and mow down your enemies at an intense speed typically reserved for another blue blur.

As typical for the series, each world is elementally themed. Water, Desert, Arctic, Grass, etc.. These environments are kind of old, I suppose, but this is the first time Mario's been able to explore them with any real depth. The NES games were too simple to portray these areas with much life (although their Super Mario All-Stars counterparts did an excellent job, and Super Mario Bros. 3 is splendidly detailed regardless), and Super Mario World was fairly unithemed in its level environments. New Super Mario Bros. incorporates, visually, these elements in ways previously only seen in the 3D Mario titles, so it's cool seeing them in a traditional setting.

Unfortunately, the game doesn't quite take advantage of these environments for game play. Sure, the ice is slippery, the jungle has swinging vines, and the Dark World is full of undead spooks and erupting volcanoes (actually, that one is used for a really cool level), but each level is generally played in the same manner as the ones before it. The only exceptions are the water stages (which are just as miserable as they always have been) and the maze stages (which are also just as miserable as they always have been). Sometimes there's a level which does throw out a clever trick (like volcanic debris or rapidly changing tides), but for the most part each stage is hop-hop-hop to the flag pole! A formula which still holds up pretty well.

Reaching the flag isn't the only goal in each stage, however. There are three Star Medals (or Star Coins) distributed throughout each level, definitely influenced by the Dragon Coins from Super Mario World. These coins are often in out of the way, and sometimes downright cruel, locations. Typically there's a puzzle that needs solving, usually with the aid of just the right power-up, and that will encourage gamers to return to the stage with precious Mini Mushroom or Blue Shell in hand.

The stage map returns, although it's not as fun or worldly as the ones from Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins. In those games, the map was more than just a colorful hub from which you could choose your stage. They incorporated their own little game play elements. SMB3 had the hammers, which could break rocks and create shortcuts, Hammer Bros. to battle or evade, and for the unfortunate few a tedious scavenger hunt for the escaping Doom Ship. Super Mario World and Super Mario Land 2 featured hidden paths and at least one on-map puzzle per game, with Mario World being home to the notorious Forest of Illusion. New Super Mario Bros. has none of that, and simply takes the players from left-to-right, just like the stages.

Also returning is the Spare Power-Up from Super Mario World, this time activated by a quick tap of the touch screen. This is a nice touch which adds a bit of security for less experience players, and it does allow gamers to carry the necessary power-up to whichever puzzle requires it. This is particularly important for more difficult to find items, like the Mini Mushroom.

Speaking of that, I was disappointed with the scarcity of the Blue Shell. I can remember only one stage where the item appears naturally. Any other time it is received from a Toad House, traveling mystery block, or random item block. This is kind of a huge shame, and it means that most of the game will be played as Fire Mario. I can understand some items being less common than others in games like Super Mario Bros. 3, where there was a ridiculously large arsenal to play with, but Super Mario World featured only two primary items and did a good job utilizing both of them frequently and designing multiple paths around them. New Super Mario Bros.'s developers got the multi-pathing down, but they failed miserably with item distribution. The multiplayer mode features the return of the Blue Koopa Troopa enemy, who drops the Blue Shell when stomped. Why couldn't this enemy be featured within stages of the single player game to increase the distribution of the Blue Shell power-up?

Aside from those minor issues, though, the game is pretty much gold. The graphics aren't the greatest, but they do more than just get the job done (although the stretch effects are really crappy, particularly in the cannon pipes). The music is superb, and the tunes rank among my favorites for the franchise. Characters animate well and even do cute little dances with audio cues from the stage themes, which helps breathe a bit of life into them.

Each world features two bosses: a sub-boss (always Bowser JR., filling a role similar to Boom Boom) and a big boss. The big bosses are pretty cool, and this is (I believe) the first instance of a character from a previous game being recycled and its role expanded by being a boss again. This would be Petey Piranha, who first showed up in Super Mario Sunshine and somehow became a bit of a mascot for the series. The other bosses are all pretty cool, most of them following the tried-and-true method of being giant equivalents to average enemies (something which works, I realize now, because you're introduced to the species and their method of defeat throughout the course of the game). The bosses generally aren't too difficult, although some offer secrets which can be attained by defeating them under particular circumstances.

Game controls are tight, and none of the momentum mishaps of the previous handheld releases plague this particular title, allowing it to move just as fluidly and control just as solidly as we've come to expect from home titles.

As mentioned earlier, there is a multiplayer function which can be accessed via download play and consists of two-player battle rounds. In this multiplayer mode, players battle in tight corridors for ownership of the Power Stars, and it's really a blast to launch your lovely lady friend off cliffs with the fireballs or trick her into being crushed by falling ceilings.

Note: You might only want to do this if you have awesome girlfriends. Fireballing less awesome people might result in concussions. Multiplay at your own risk.

Additionally, there are a number of mini-games ported over from Super Mario 64 DS to help players adjust to the new DS controls (touch screen and microphone). These work pretty well on the original DS consoles, and can actually be a lot of fun, but they don't seem to work with the new 3DS consoles. The touch games all play just as they should, but the 3DS microphone doesn't seem to work with this particular DS title all that well. I'm not going to subtract points from the game for this, because it's really the system's fault, but it is something to be aware of if all you've got is the 3DS and you want to pick this title up. I highly recommend getting a DS Lite for those concerned about backwards compatibility, as it is by far the most well-designed DS unit and features the GBA slot, so you'll be able to play GBA games as well as the awful Guitar Hero DS titles should you want to. Having a DS Lite and a 3DS will give you full command of the complete spectrum of DS games... I think. Not sure how DSi Ware works on 3DS if it does at all. Anyways, getting beyond derailed!

New Super Mario Bros. isn't the holy grail of a game it was meant to be, but neither is it the hell spawn certain impossibly difficult Goonies will have you believing. It's a good game that plays well on a great system as part of a great franchise. It's not must-have, but it's definitely not should-miss. I'd say give it a go, even if you haven't been satisfied with the sequels it's spawned, and will be assigning the averagely average score of seven out of ten.

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