It seems a little unfair that Mario’s Wii U debut arrives so shortly after the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2, as initial impressions of Mario’s latest adventure border on exhausted routine. It could all be part of some cunning misdirection on Nintendo’s part, because there’s little distinction between the two games in the handful of opening stages, as an influx of overlapping elements beyond the customary platforming – including the flood of gold coinage that was introduced to a divisive reception in the 3DS outing – make Mario U seems anything but unique.
Luckily, niggling feelings of repetitiveness soon take a back seat as Mario begins to delve further into the game’s sizeable overworld. Presented as one giant map rather than split into smaller islands, the most obvious touchstone here is Super Mario World, and like the SNES offering this inviting landscape has been tightly constructed with hidden passageways and other secrets in mind. Indeed, much of New Super Mario Bros. U’s staid template almost feels like a facade, masking an altogether more compelling Mario adventure than expected.
Nintendo’s effortless craftsmanship serves both its expanded audience and veteran red caps alike, as stages have a deceptive simplicity, which masks an underlying mastery that diligently balances the dense chaos of four-player multiplayer on one hand, while remaining slick enough for speed-runners and treasure hunters alike.
No wonder, then, that the Wii U GamePad feels so short-changed. As Nintendo’s omni-tool, it’s here primarily utilised as an alternate display method for single-player – and with its softer hues, a surprisingly alluring one at that – but for an additional player participating in Boost mode, it represents little gameplay value. At its most useful, floating platforms can be placed to guide Mario to hidden areas, but usually the GamePad user will feel redundant and, overall, a little bit bored.
However, outside the story mode it’s a different matter altogether. In Challenge mode the GamePad player will once again be tasked with just placing platforms on the screen, but the engaging focus on energetic co-operative play transforms the sedentary task into a frantic thrill. These will mostly revolve around time trials, but inventive objectives such as avoiding the squirrel-like Waddlewings or keeping a shell in perpetual motion ensure that two players will share in the tension and elation as partnerships become fruitful.
In addition to the Challenge mode, Boost Rush (a two-player GamePad-assisted speed run) and Coin Battle (a spin on New Super Mario Bros 2’s Coin Rush mode) are welcome and, much like its 3DS counterpart, share a fascination with score. But what all these modes have in common is a sense of rhythm. It bears close comparison to last year’s Rayman Origins, as players pursue Bowser across the diverse stages.
Similar to the Wii outing, the soundtrack reacts to the player’s movements, while Koopa Troopers perform a little jig to the beat and Baby Yoshis sing along to the infectious melody as music is put to significant use. Backed by a high-definition sheen that redefines the vibrancy of the Mushroom Kingdom, this is unequivocally the most, dare we say it, charming Mario adventure since Yoshi’s Island.
And the green dino has an integral role to play here too. While Yoshi will appear in a handful of stages, his infantile kin represent one of the few notable additions. What’s interesting to note is how little the Baby Yoshis are pressed upon the player as a gameplay solution. Of the three breeds – Kirby-like inflatable pink, luminous yellow that lights dark passages, and bubble-blowing blue – only the yellow is ever essential to a stage, and that’s merely on a couple of occasions. They can all be found residing on different isles on the main map and can be escorted to assist in most of the stages, but the game never relies upon them.
There are other dynamic elements to the map screen as well. A sticky-fingered rabbit hides among previously completed stages and can be chased for a bonus; random enemies obstruct pathways and can be fought for another prize; elsewhere, you’ll see a floating stage concealed by a secret pathway. It offers strong encouragement to retrace your footsteps and venture back into previously explored areas.
That last statement isn’t exactly news to the contingent of fervent Star Coin hunters. They remain one of the steadfast features, but they are certainly more of a robust challenge here than expected. On top of that, certain stages undergo an unanticipated difficulty spike, particularly in the haunted house segments of the story, which both illustrate its most creative stage design and its most fiendish. These characterise an otherwise incongruent moment among the largely broad appeal of the rest of the game, but they are also some of the game’s most interesting segments. Areas where the game doesn’t just feel like another by-the-numbers retread, but instead something far more surprising and challenging.
But the mere fact that it manages to be a slave for two masters and for the most part pulls it off is a sterling achievement in itself. Mario’s Wii U debut will no doubt attract the usual detractors and jaded observers, but there’s more to this than rigid routine. It just all depends on what you want from it.