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New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii) artwork

New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Wii) review

"Some features go a long way toward making New Super Mario Bros. Wii the best installment that the franchise has ever seen, plus the sheer number of unique stages makes it one of the most robust. However, there are some issues that definitely hold things back and rob the game of the prestigious title that nearly belonged to it. Namely, the physics are wonky, the level design is frustrating and the highly anticipated multi-player mode is a disappointment under any but the perfect conditions."

New Super Mario Bros. Wii has the dubious distinction of being one of the best games in the franchise that I've ever had difficulty enjoying. If you've poked around the game review sites in recent weeks, you've probably seen a few critics that praise the title almost unconditionally. I agree with nearly everything that my peers have to say, except then they reach their conclusions and it's clear to me that almost everyone who cared to write about the game had an absolutely fantastic time with it. I, on the other hand, did not.

There's plenty of good stuff that I need to move past before talking about the bad, of course, and it wouldn't really be fair to ignore or marginalize any of that. For example, the visual style looks very nice even on an LCD of decent size. The Mushroom Kingdom pops out like it never has before in two dimensions. There's presentational excellence here that at times extends well beyond what New Super Mario Bros. offered on the DS a few years ago, but Nintendo also didn't make any unnecessary efforts to reinvent a perfectly functional wheel. Excellent audio production meshes nicely with the visual polish, with a nice mix of easily recognized remixes combined with some music and sound effects that do a commendable job of establishing a familiar atmosphere while at the same time introducing new elements.

Those seeking a nostalgic return to franchise conventions of old will actually have a lot of reason to celebrate. I nearly cried when I saw that Bowser had brought his entire clan along when making this newest bid for Mushroom Kingdom domination. All seven kids are here and they look and behave much like you'll remember if you played Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, two of the most beloved installments in what has always been a fantastic series.

The maps between action stages also go beyond the bland stuff that was provided in New Super Mario Bros. on DS, with grander scale and far more interactivity. They come closest to those featured in Super Mario Bros. 3 and boast fortresses, mushroom houses, moving enemy encounters and even airships. Besides all of that, you'll see switch stations and ghost houses that were introduced in Super Mario World. It's almost enough to make a grown man cry, I'm ashamed to say.

I probably can't make most readers fully appreciate how much each of the above points means to me. They each go a long way toward making New Super Mario Bros. Wii the best installment that the franchise has ever seen, plus the sheer number of unique stages makes it one of the most robust. However, there are some issues that definitely hold things back and rob the game of the prestigious title that nearly belonged to it. Namely, the physics are wonky, the level design is frustrating and the highly anticipated multi-player mode is a disappointment under any but the perfect conditions.

Most of the control issues can be attributed to Nintendo's decision to bring along the physics from the three-dimensional games. That doesn't seem like a bad idea, except for one thing: precision is effectively removed. Until Mario jumps across a series of blocks and starts to skid like he's stepped on ice, you likely won't appreciate how utterly exasperating the updated controls can be. Mario has in the past enjoyed the ability to leap carefully along precise ledges. Remember Super Mario Bros. when he jumped up the steps at the end of world 8-3 and there was a gaping pit beneath him but you didn't have to worry because you knew that all you had to do was aim properly at each step? Here, you have to aim, plus there's a chance that for no good reason the portly plumber will slide off the side and into an abyss. Or you'll be helping Mario through a series of jumps and he'll catch onto the side of a block and go bouncing back in the opposite direction, which could either cause him to bump into an enemy that by rights he had avoided... or send him plummeting into another pit.

Levels are designed in such a way that what could have been a minor issue is instead a frequent annoyance. I used to thrill at the opportunity to blaze through the stages in the old games, but here haste will get Mario killed. For instance, there comes a point in one castle stage where it's necessary to negotiate a series of ledges that rise and fall from a bed of lava. In similar situations contained within past games, jumping along several of these as they rose and fell worked great. As long as he landed properly, Mario was fine. Here, he must carefully leap along only one or two at a time, then wait because if he leaps to a second or third, the platform likely will sink into the lava before reappearing a moment later. It's like every stage is 6-4 in the original Super Mario Bros.. You're constantly waiting for that big red bar to swing past so that it's safe to go again. Enemies patrol ledges with timing designed specifically to force you to wait. Water slowly rises and falls to determine when it's safe to make another dash before waiting for a new flood to recede. Blocks move back and forth in a way that prevents Mario from even being able to reach them unless he waits. If you play this game, be ready to wait a lot... or you will die and then have to wait some more for the chance to wait again.

At least all of that waiting has one positive benefit: if you're playing with a bunch of friends, it's unlikely that you'll get too far ahead of anyone. You can't, not when doing so means almost certain death. So if you're playing with a few buddies who possess a level of skill similar to your own, then you'll probably have a good time as the lot of you wait together. If you've talked your mom into joining you for a quick game, though, things can go a bit differently. Her skills might not be as razor-sharp as yours and her trash talk could prove embarrassing. As far as actual gameplay goes, she'll probably find herself floating around in a bubble a lot as you attempt any of the more difficult gauntlets that start showing up as early as the second and third worlds. Then if you mess up, she loses out too because she can't escape from the bubble to which she is consigned the minute she falls behind or produces one intentionally to avoid dying.

Amateur players shouldn't worry too much, though. They can catch up to you if they play alone for awhile. The game makes it incredibly simple to drop in and out of a game with no real penalties, too. If you start a single-player game and some buddies come over and want to join in, just pull out the additional Wii Remotes and get to work. Those who don't do well in multi-player mode can also consult in-game videos that demonstrate how to clear stages. If you regularly fail in your attempt to clear an area, you will be presented with some footage that you can watch to see suggested strategies that will help you to face your current challenge. It's the sort of feature that we'll likely see in numerous more challenging games in the future because it makes such perfect sense.

Ultimately, I can't recommend New Super Mario Bros. Wii unconditionally because of the surprisingly frequent moments where it disappointed me, frustrated me and made me wish that things had wound up just a little bit different. I have no hesitation urging Mario fans to give it a chance, however. A lot of the reasons that I don't consider the game a revolution can be attributed to personal preference. It goes without saying that your tastes could and very likely will differ from my own. At the end of the day, this is still a very good game. It just wasn't the brilliant masterpiece that I expected.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (December 30, 2009)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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