Soulless. Lazy. Rehashed. Uninspired. These are just some of the words that describe the reasons people have for hating the New Super Mario Bros. series. Half of it, at least, is underrated and does not get the love it deserves. Yes, I know they’re some of the best selling games of all time, this is about their reception in the gaming community. Before I go into detail about the two I want to defend, let’s have an overview of the entire series.
New Super Mario Bros. was announced at DS’s public unveiling during E3 2004. Very little was known about it at the time, but there was one gigantic thing it had going for it: it was the first new traditional 2D Mario in well over a decade. When the game was released in 2006 it got great reviews and spectacular sales, but it didn’t take long for people to start complaining that it wasn’t as good as Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. There are valid reasons for believing that (low difficulty, poorly executed use of power-ups to find secret areas), but the predominant ones were superficial or unfair. The game’s graphical style lacked “soul”, it was too similar to a game we hadn’t seen anything like in 15 years. This led to a considerable backlash against the game, and despite how well it sold we wouldn’t hear another peep from the series for three years.
At E3 2009, Nintendo defied all expectations and announced the next game in the New series for Wii instead of DS. Called simply New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the game was overshadowed by Super Mario Galaxy 2 being announced at the same conference. While there’s no circumstance where you can say it was unfair for Super Mario Galaxy 2 to overshadow something, NSMBW still got relatively little attention for Nintendo’s big holiday game that would go on to sell tens of millions. Most focus is given to the co-operative four player mode it introduced, which is really a great disservice to the game, but I’ll go into more detail on that later.
At E3 2011 Nintendo showed a tech demo for their new Wii U console called New Super Mario Bros. Mii. Despite claims that it was a tech demo and not a real game, it was obvious from the detail in the HUD and amount of levels shown that it was going to be a full game at some point. Before the real game was shown, however, Nintendo announced New Super Mario Bros. 2 for 3DS. This is when people really started to turn on the series, furious at it for merely existing before we knew any details about it. New Super Mario Bros. Mii was renamed New Super Mario Bros. U at E3 2012 and confirmed as a launch game for the Wii U, while NSMB2 would launch in August. Despite the fact that it is not uncommon for a series to have a portable and console game released in the same timeframe (Metroid, Castlevania, Call of Duty, Resident Evil, and God of War are some examples) and that the NSMB series was averaging a new game every two years since its inception, people were absolutely enraged by this “milking” of the series. Neither game was given a fair chance by the gaming community, and one of them absolutely deserved one.
You’ve probably guessed which of the two games I feel are so underrated. They are the console ones, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. There is a pretty clear explanation for why the quality in half the series is so much higher than the other: the original New Super Mario Bros. was made by an inexperienced team and Nintendo as a whole was out of practice at making 2D Marios. The team reached their stride with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. New Super Mario Bros. 2 was made by a new rookie team while the established one made New Super Mario Bros. U. This shows in pretty much every aspect, with the console games being much more challenging, creative in level design, and willing to try new ideas.
Let’s start with New Super Mario Bros. Wii. As I said earlier, people often associate it with the ability to play the entire game in four player co-op, which spread to other 2D platformers. This undersells what makes the game great, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is at its best in single player. The level design is on par with Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, NSMBW deserves to be seen as an all-time platforming classic. The game’s best new feature wasn’t co-op, it was the Super Guide. Yes, I know that sounds insane, but give me a second. For years before NSMBW was released, the biggest complaint with Nintendo’s games was that they were too easy. So the last thing we needed was a mode where the game would literally play a level for you, right? Wrong. Super Guide allowed the designers to make the levels challenging without frustrating newer or more casual players. Ever since its introduction, the “ease disease” that afflicted Nintendo has been eradicated. New Super Mario Bros. Wii was free to deliver an experience on par with the best Mario games of old, and if you give it a chance where you’re really concentrating (instead of messing around with four players and relying on the abundant lives and instant respawns to get you through) on it you’ll see its true quality.
Now let’s look at New Super Mario Bros. U. Much of my praise for it is similar to what I said for New Super Mario Bros. Wii. The level design is even better, and the many Super Mario World references (most notably the interconnected world map) are greatly appreciated after Super Mario Bros. 3’s themes dominating the New series for so long. Being as good as NSMBW would be enough for it to earn far more praise than it has been given, but there is something else in the game that adds at least as much as the main story, and makes it easily my favorite 2D platformer of all time. This feature is Challenge Mode. Challenge modes aren’t unheard of in platformers, but it is NSMBU’s flawless execution of the concept that makes it so much better. The challenges are fine tuned to perfection, achieving a brutal difficulty that far surpasses The Lost Levels while never feeling unfair. Things you didn’t even notice when playing levels normally turn out to be perfectly implemented for a challenge all along. For example, one level has coins flying at you throughout it, in normal gameplay it barely means anything. But when you have to beat that level without collecting a coin, you realize the coins were meticulously spaced so that they were all avoidable, but only with precise platforming and timing. The gold medal times for the time trial levels are calculated to an amazing degree, it was very rare for me not to be within a second of them when I succeeded. Nothing has tested my platforming skill to such an extent in over a decade, and anyone who feels the series has gotten too easy absolutely has to play NSMBU’s challenge mode.
Okay, I’ve raved about the games, but I’m not going to just pretend the criticism of them doesn’t exist. Let’s go over a few complaints. The most common one is that they are “rehashes.” Yes, the variety of settings has pretty much stayed the same throughout the series, but do you really play 2D platformers for the backgrounds? NSMBW and NSMBU both made significant advances in gameplay. New Super Mario Bros. Wii added the co-op function that, while given more attention than I feel it deserves, was definitely something new that had an impact on the genre. It also made the use of powerups more focused, instead of New Super Mario Bros.’ annoying “Here’s a star coin you need a rare powerup not in this level to get” tactic NSMBW designed levels around a single powerup that was the only one found in that level. It also introduced the Super Guide, giving quite a bit more freedom to the level design to challenge players. New Super Mario Bros. U added Challenge Mode, which despite its appearance of being a minor bonus is actually a huge step forward for the series. The other biggest complaint is that the series feels lazy and soulless. Making great levels is never easy, regardless of how different the backgrounds are, no game with level design like the console NSMBs can be lazy. Soulless is a meaningless term when applied to gaming, it almost always refers to superficial features like art style. A game’s soul is its gameplay, and the console NSMBs have plenty of it.
2D platformers don’t make for good trailers. Showing a few seconds of a level can’t convey the important parts of level design, and isn’t going to be very flashy from a visual perspective. I understand that all of the NSMB games may look the same on the surface, but if you look deeper and give them a chance you can find two of the greatest platformers of all time in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U. Think of all the good times Mario has given you, and give his New games a chance. You’ll be the one to benefit in the end.