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New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe (Switch) artwork

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe (Switch) review

"No use fretting over what will never be"

Paul McCartney has some pretty good songs. I like a lot of his stuff, and some of his albums are just great to listen to all the way through. But while I can appreciate them, in the back of my mind I'm thinking wait a minute, this guy was in the freakin Beatles. While it's great to get more music from him, it's somewhat bittersweet that he never managed to reach the heights of the first stage of his career. And I'm going to shut up now because at this point the analogy is obvious.

But before I start yammering away about NSMBU, allow me to state my thesis. In my view, a platformer can be judged almost entirely on two elements: its controls and its level design. Platformers are all about movement (rather than combat, exploration, puzzles, etc), so the movement itself must be fun, and the environment must be fun to move through. Everything else is a distant second compared to those two. So you'll find lots of complaints on the internet that NSMBU's aesthetics are stale and derivative, but frankly I don't care about that. Mario has always been about a cartoony, colorful blocky look, and this one is no different. It's good enough for me. Besides, while the "New" Mario series did get 4 games in a relatively quick fashion, other than this port there's been nothing new in that department for over 5 years. So it's no longer stale.

And fortunately, the level design is anything but stale. The Mario formula consists of putting a ton of geometry into each level and populating them with simple, easy to dodge enemies. The goal is to make the level itself fun and interesting and a joy to jump around in rather than just a sequence of discrete challenges. Likewise, the lack of any serious, discrete challenges means the game encourages the player to run as often as possible, exponentially increasing the fun of jumping through the levels while simultaneously pushing the difficulty up. It's a clever way to integrate the "easy to play, difficult to master" motif; while a slow and steady pace is allowed if you need it, you really should be flying through and reacting to the simple challenges on the fly instead. Meanwhile, an overly generous amount of coins gives you something to collect, and three star coins per level serve to provide optional puzzle solving, exploration, or added platforming challenge to players that want it.

For this game in particular, the theme of the level design seems to be moving parts and, uh, themes. Huge portions of the level are constantly in motion, whether it be giant rotating cogs in one of the fortresses or expanding and contracting mushroom tops in the desert. Coins are also bouncing around or flying in as you run up to them. It gives the game a dynamic feel that obviously wasn't possible in the NES era, which helps keep the flow interesting. As for themes, well, each level seems specifically designed around one particular idea, like those cogs I just mentioned. It's not that you'll see them sprinkled through all the fortresses, but rather that it's used liberally in one fortress, there are several variations and different challenges by combining the cogs together or with different items/enemies, and then it never appears again. This approach certainly serves to make each level feel unique, and it allows each individual idea time to breathe. The idea is introduced in a relatively easy-to-overcome manner early on in the level before putting together more challenging variants as you move along. It's a tried and true approach, to be sure, but I felt it to be somewhat of a safe design philosophy. Each individual level is perfectly fun to play, but stepping back for a moment means they are all at least a little predictable, and it's just a bit harder to surprise and delight you in a level's structure (even if the individual elements in the structure are a delight). But still, it's a trivial complaint compared to how fun these levels are to play.

The second element - the controls - are just fine...mostly. It's typical Mario run and jump fun. As one should expect by now, Mario has a little momentum to him, meaning you can't stop on a dime. But unlike many other games, the transition from running to stopping to turning to jumping again always feels smooth. There's a few new moves; the triple jump from the 3D Marios is here, as is a midair spin move that you can do to give yourself a little extra lift. Neither of these is consequential (I'm not sure I ever used the triple jump), but they're nice to have. Basically, everything should be in order, and is in order, but for some reason it still feels juuust a little bit off. For example, by my admittedly cursory analysis, Mario runs roughly as fast here as he did in SMB1 (about 10 tiles per second), but he FEELS slower. Maybe it's the fact that the screen is wider these days (obviously not the fault of Nintendo), or maybe it's the animation (which would be their fault). It's something I had to get used to, unfortunately, but ultimately this is still the same (or at least almost the same) Mario he's always been.

So control and level design are the two most important aspects (and are mostly done successfully), but unfortunately the rest the game has a few issues. Frankly, this game's biggest sin outside of the gameplay itself is just how darn slow everything else is. You complete a level (yay!) and get kicked back to the world map, whereupon you watch a new path slllloooowwwly open up. And maybe there's some other pointless event happening on the overworld in an unskippable cutscene, like Nabbit appearing or Peach whining. Or you're cruising along inside the fortress, only to have to wait and see Kamek laugh and toss his magic on Boom Boom for the sixth time before you're allowed to fight him. Remember, platformers are all about the fun of moving around, so any time you AREN'T moving around is taking away from the experience. So why does NSMBU spend so much time on these unskippable, slow scenes which only distract from the action?

Also, while I understand the classic 8 worlds route, and I understand that longer isn't always better, the game still feels narrow in scope. I think part of the issue is that World 8 felt very unepic (particularly compared to the gauntlet of Bowser's army in SMB3!), consisting of a few simple levels and a rather unimpressive castle. So I ended with a "that's it?" reaction rather than a satisfying "ah, that was it."

Ultimately, it just seemed to lack that spark of greatness that SMB3 had. There were all sorts of crazy secrets in SMB3, like hammer bros turning to coin ships or secret toad houses. There were very rare, super cool powerups like the hammer bros suit. And it was just bigger, better than any game that came before it. I understand that it's impossible for a 2D platformer to be the pinnacle of gaming achievement in our modern era, but there just seemed to be a pedestrian aura surrounding NSMBU. Star coins and the occasional secret exit are fine and all, but where's the excitement? Where's the downright crazy ideas that makes a level not just fun, but memorable?

Perhaps that's asking too much. Perhaps I should just be happy that it's another Mario platformer. It controls just fine, and the level design is as fun as its ever been. And to be honest, that is enough for me; I'm really glad they brought this to the Switch and I got a chance to play it. It's still a great game, even if it isn't as special as the series may have been in the past. While a comparison to a true classic like SMB3 may be inevitable, NSMBU is at least a worthy game in its own right.

[As an aside, this collection also comes with Super Luigi U, which is something of a remix of NSMBU. The overworld map is the same, and the levels often have the same gimmick or idea as their NSMBU counterparts. But these levels are much shorter, oftentimes more challenging, and (most importantly of all) have a 99 second time limit. They also push you to use Luigi, who can jump higher than Mario, but also has slippier controls. I could do without Luigi (and indeed, the game gives you that option), but the shorter and snappier levels (about the length of Mario 3, if I remember correctly) make them a blast to play. And the time limit really serves to emphasize the run button, making you less likely to stop and search for those three star coins, more likely to just jump into the unknown and hope there's no enemy or fireball in your way. You just don't normally play Mario games with a sense of panic about the time limit, and that added intensity turns what could have been a lame remix into a worthy game in its own right. So kudos! Just another reason why this is still a worthy game even if it isn't SMB3.]


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Featured community review by mariner (June 19, 2019)

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