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New Super Mario Bros. (DS) artwork

New Super Mario Bros. (DS) review

"I knew better than to hope for a DS game that could capture all of that for me again. Nostalgia sets unrealistic expectations. No, Iím not bitter because things werenít exactly as I wished for them to be. In many ways, they came much closer than I ever expected. Instead, Iím upset because New Super Mario Bros. has too many issues that get in the way of a consistently good time."

If you clicked a link that led to this review just because Iím giving New Super Mario Bros. a ď7Ē and you want to see how I could possibly be so deluded, please click ďBackĒ on your browser and read some other personís impressions. Youíve already made up your mind and you can probably avoid an ulcer by reading no further. Yes, Iím aware that Iím in the minority and yes, I know that score stings. You need to realize something, though: I wanted desperately to love this game and it let me down.

Like many other long-time Nintendo fans, I ached to be able to tell everyone that Mario is back and that heís never been better. Unfortunately, thatís simply not the case. What Nintendo has delivered here is sometimes great. There are moments where all the praise you may have heard rings true. Youíre running and jumping through the Mushroom Kingdom while beautiful backgrounds scroll behind you in parallax. Jaunty tunes give extra spring to your every step and you punch a few bricks out of your way just because you love the familiar crumbling sound they make. As you slide down the flagpole and run into the familiar little castle while fireworks explode in the sky above, you tell yourself that everything is perfect. A shiny gold coin has a darker side, though, and in this case itís the reason I canít award it that ď10Ē some of you most certainly crave.

Remember when a Mario game was all about the sense of exploring something new and exciting? I do. I recall slipping down that pipe and into the underground passage that was the second level of Super Mario Bros., just as I recall throwing vegetables in Subcon, exploring mushroom huts in Super Mario Bros. 3 and hopping along dolphin noses in Super Mario World. Do I even have to mention Star Road and the awesomeness of the hidden world it unlocked? Like most of you, I grew up playing and loving these games. I knew better than to hope for a DS game that could capture all of that for me again. Nostalgia sets unrealistic expectations. No, Iím not bitter because things werenít exactly as I wished for them to be. In many ways, they came much closer than I ever expected. Instead, Iím upset because New Super Mario Bros. has too many issues that get in the way of a consistently good time.

The most obvious of these is the three-coin system. Hereís how it works: each level you explore contains several of the golden trinkets. They are your currency (nevermind the chump change you trade in for extra lives) and determine what secrets you can unlock. Is there a mushroom house on the map that youíd like to visit? Thatíll be five coins, please. Do you see a path that leads to an alternate level? Pay the toll. Strictly speaking, itís not necessary to search out the elusive items. You can Ďbeatí the game without paying any attention to them, but will you?

Of course you wonít.

When an item is there, the gamerís natural instinct is to collect it. Sure, you could pass it up, but then you wonít be entirely certain that you havenít missed something special. What if that path led to a cool warp zone? What if the alternate route youíre not taking is twice as cool as the primary one? It very well could be! So it is that because of the mystery of the unknown, youíll most likely force yourself to keep searching. Youíll squeeze through tiny spaces and abandon cool power-ups like the fire flower or turtle shell because you have to see where that alternate path leads.

Sadly, the magical rabbit hole often disappoints. Youíll grab a coin and then a weak power-up (itís probably duller than what you had) before returning to action. Sometimes, this gets even worse. Sometimes, thereís a coin hidden just after a mid-level checkpoint, but just before some series of tough jumps. So you collect it, then die, then collect it, then dieÖ and so the pattern goes until you finally say ďScrew the stupid coin!Ē and manage to beat the gauntlet that lies just beyond it. Then you finish the stage and the status screen sits there, mocking you: ďLook at me! Look at how you wimped out and didnít get that coin. Itís still waiting, you know. Replay the level and claim it!Ē

This brings up the second point: some levels just arenít fun. While itís true that many of the stages are a pleasure to breeze through if youíre ignoring the coins (or if youíve already tracked each of them down on a previous play), there are occasional exceptions that are much more frustrating than they really should be. For example, one level finds you climbing a vertical shaft while spiny enemies rain down from above. This is a neat homage to the original Mario Bros. arcade game, but the first time through you might get hit by a falling enemy you had no way to see coming. Then there are underwater stages where you swim past green fish that home in on your slowly-moving form like torpedoes. Other sequences find you hopping over rotating platforms that hang suspended over boiling lava. Instant deaths werenít fun ten years ago and that hasnít changed.

Still, lava and bottomless pits have always been part of the Mushroom Kingdom. Weíre used to them by now. What you might really wonder is whether or not other mainstays have returned. The answer is the resounding ďyesĒ that makes the game so worthwhile. Mushrooms, fire flowers and invincibility stars are all back and every bit as good as before. Itís amazing how the simple pleasure of throwing fireballs goes such a long way toward ensuring that retro gamers find new reasons to smile. There are other ďimprovements,Ē as well. One is a massive mushroom that briefly expands Mario to gigantic proportions. He can stomp his way through pipes and walls of brick, racking up points toward extra lives and unlocking secrets with every stomp. Heís also learned how to shuffle along precarious ledges, and to hang from them like Tom Cruise in M:i-2. Not only that, but now he can jump against a wall and bounce away from it just like he could in three-dimensional titles. Every ability he possesses will be put to the test, and youíll almost certainly adore each twist.

Perhaps youíll also appreciate smaller details that other developers wouldnít have bothered with. My favorite touch is related to the music. When Mario runs through some stages, youíll notice particularly catchy music playing in the background. Well, the Goomba and Koopa enemies are listening, too. Theyíll even sidestep to the rhythm at key moments, meaning you have to pay close attention to the soundtrack if youíre planning a sudden jump attack. It sounds like a small thing, but it brings a smile to my face every time. You know youíre playing a good game when someone actually bothered to include something so silly just for the heck of it.

Those same people no doubt were responsible for making sure that New Super Mario Bros. is packed with secrets. As you progress through the adventure, youíll notice that certain areas appear to be inaccessible. For instance, youíll only get to explore World 4 if you satisfy certain conditions in the sand-covered second world. World 7 is similarly cloaked. You really have to dig, whether that means exiting levels by way of alternate routes or just spending coins to highlight paths you otherwise couldnít have explored. Branching paths mean that even after youíve come out on top in the final battle, thereís other stuff to see.

Eventually, though, every last secret is unearthed and youíve played through most stages until you know them by heart. Thatís when you start asking yourself if the game is really so perfect as you once thought, if it really lived up to its heritage. For me, New Super Mario Bros. was just one more great game that wasnít perfect. Iíd recommend it to my Mario-loving friends, and Iím sure Iíll continue to play it for years to come, but Iím not going to kid myself: it could have been better. We can tell ourselves itís perfect. We can even believe it. But at the end of the day, those golden coins arenít going to collect themselves and we wonít clear every last stage without stumbling through blind corners and across bottomless chasms more frustrating than they are fun. If itís all the same to you, Iíll save my ď10Ēs for the Mario games that deserve them. This just isnít one of them.

Rating: 7/10

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Staff review by Jason Venter (May 20, 2006)

Jason Venter founded HonestGamers in 1998, and since then has written hundreds of reviews as the site's editor-in-chief. He also is a prolific freelancer with game reviews, articles and fiction available around the Internet.

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