Since the Nintendo DS, the New Super Mario Bros series has been a staple of Nintendo consoles, creating a sidescrolling Mario experience in stark contrast to the other 3D titles such as Galaxy. The problem with these, however, has always been that there's a feeling of blandeness, of a minimum level of effort that never seems to create a new experience, just a watered-down version of something we've already seen. Put two of the games next to each other, and it's hard to say which is which, since the assets, the music, and the level design all seem to blend in together with one another, creating a homogenous experience that just doesn't get very fun.
With the New Super Mario Bros U title for (what else,) the Wii U, this changes. And though the tech is an obvious upgrade there's more to this Mario experience than just a high-definition italian plumber.
From starting the game, you'll notice an improvement immediately: the overland map,no longer disjointed and segmented into individual worlds, is seamlessy connected, with branching paths, hidden routes, and a variety of areas to explore. Just being able to look around the world map, and see everything available to you is an experience that I've missed since Super Mario World. Of course, there are still 'worlds', each of which have a mid-castle and an end boss – the Koopalings make their returns – but that seamlessness creates a feeling of a larger world that the previous games simply missed.
The levels themselves mimic the creativity in the world map – though they start out simple, the complexity grows the further you go, with a variety of imaginitive levels and gameplay elements that get introduced over time. It's definitely more than a step up than the other New Super Mario games have been. The difficulty follows suit – there's a good balance to how hard the levels get. Starting simple, things quickly get tough, but not too tough. While there are a number of things that will send Mario to his demise, there's never a dearth of lives, so it's just enough to keep you on your toes. The Star Coins get hidden quite well, too, forcing you to search every nook and cranny to find them (for a very nice reward than fans will appreciate).
Now, the story mode of the game is your standard Mario fair – Bowser's being a jerk, and you need to stop him. It's difficult, but not too bad. But if you want to get into the real tough stuff, the kind of things that'll push your skills to the limit, there are challenges for the aspiring gamer here. Trying to dodge fireballs, sprint through levels, collect coins, and more will tax your abilities to get a gold medal in every challenge you can. Now, these challenges are fun, but separating them into another mode makes it feel rather disjointed from the rest – integrating it into the levels in the story mode would've made it feel more like part of the game.
Though much of the game is a significantly improved experience, it's not all great. The graphics, while better and higher definition, still have the same style that you've seen repeatedly in all the other games. In addition, there's the issue of multiplayer: the game: while there's the traditional, hectic four-player multiplayer this time around (which is great), to play in this mode every character needs a Wiimote (which is not great), which doesn't make any sense. Basically, you'll have to put the gamepad aside if you want to jump around with friends. However, there is a separate mode where the gamepad user creates platforms for others. It's not bad, but really just not as good as jumping around with others.
New Super Mario Bros U is one of the best Mario games to comes out in recent memory, creating a seamless world with creative levels and a well-balanced difficulty level. For those who want something harder, the challenge mode is perfect. While the requirement for people to have Wiimotes for the multiplayer is an annoyance, it's still the fun, frantic multiplayer from before. Bottom line is that the New Super Mario Bros gameplay has been polished to a fine sheen, and this latest iteration just makes it a whole lot better.