At a little over six years since its original Wii U release, New Super Mario Bros. U isn’t that old. But to play it fresh in 2019, it feels like a relic from a time long gone—both for better and worse.
On some level, this is to be expected. While games like Super Mario Odyssey explore new ground, the New Super Mario Bros. series is where the franchise sticks close to its 2D platformer roots. There’s some comfort in that: if you’ve ever played a Super Mario Bros. game—and most people with a Switch surely have—New Super Mario Bros. U will be instantly familiar. There are new levels and new challenges, but the core of the game remains the same, even after 30 years.
The problem that arises is that the platform genre has grown a lot in that time, and New Super Mario Bros. U can feel downright archaic as a result. In contrast to the nimble platform heroes of today, Mario, Luigi, and Toad—the three regular characters—handle like derailed trains on an ice rink. They’re slow to build speed when you start run, even slower to finally skid to a halt when you want to stop, and control while airborne is limited, making even something as straightforward as head-stomping a goomba more trouble than it should be. In the earlier, more forgiving levels, this is more of a mild nuisance, but as the complexity of the level design ramps up and demands a level of precision that Mario simply doesn’t allow for, the game gets outright frustrating.
Contrast this with something like Celeste or Ori and the Blind Forest, where characters can change direction on a dime and you retain near full control while airborne. The plentiful deaths in those games never feel like the result of fighting against a clunky physics engine, removing a lot of the tedium from a trial-and-error approach and making repeated efforts seme much more manageable. And, if challenge is the goal, the control such games afford the player allow far more fiendish platforming puzzles than Mario could ever dream of.
This is clearly not lost on the developers, either: one of the key things that sets apart Toadette and Nabbit, the two “easy mode” characters, is their much more responsive controls. They have other tools to make for any easier time, too—Toadette has a unique power-up that turns her into a Peach-like “Peachette”, complete with dress glide and double jump, while the “very easy” Nabbit is immune to enemies—but with that extra responsiveness, more than anything else, these two pull New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe somewhat into the modern age.
Many will condemn the inclusion of “easy mode” characters, but in my experience, they take an otherwise tiresome experience and make it fun. When you’re not playing a Mario-shaped tank, you can really appreciate the clever level design and creative platforming challenges at the heart of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. Maze-like haunted mansions, clockwork castles that have you spinning giant screws to move platforms around, and an underground passage full of moving crystals join classics like the grassy plains and Piranha Plant-filled caves. One level takes you into a living painting based on The Starry Night. Another sees you climbing a giant beanstalk. Without the frustration of clumsy physics, Toadette and Nabbit really allow the fantastic level design in New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe to shine.
This is especially true of New Super Luigi U, a collection of levels originally released as an expansion for New Super Mario Bros. U. Designed around Luigi’s even more unwieldy controls than Mario—he jumps higher, but has even less traction on the ground—these remixed versions of the all the levels from the original game offer an even greater challenge. But, once again, the option of playing as Toadette or Nabbit makes those challenges more manageable for people who don’t want to deal with Luigi’s awkward movement.
That said, the “easy” characters don’t address some of the more peripheral problems that New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe has brought across from history. Until you’ve finished the game, you can only save after completing specific levels; should you run out of lives and get a game over—which is quite possible, especially if you’re the sort of masochist who chooses to play as Mario or Luigi—you can expect to lose at least a couple of levels of progress. A “quick save” will let you create a temporary save that gets erased when you load it up, but that’s still far from convenient, and when you’re playing a game on a portable system, convenient saving is crucial.
Nor do Toadette and Nabbit address New Super Mario Bros. U‘s nightmarish checkpoint system, where dying returns you to the map. Only then, after re-entering the level, do you spawn at the last checkpoint—extra loading screens and buttons presses for no reason whatsoever. The checkpoints themselves are sparse, too, with typically only one halfway through each level. That goes for boss levels, too—die in a boss fight, and you get to enjoy playing the second half of the preceding level before you get to give the boss fight another go.
Rather than adding to any sort of meaningful challenge, all these systems do is take the challenge that’s already present in the game and build more tedium around it. Every death means extra time on loading screens, extra button presses, and extra busywork replaying sections of the game you’ve already cleared before you can even think about retrying the part that actually got the better of you. Good, meaningful challenge compels you to try again and again, because this time you’ve got it, dammit!, but New Super Mario Bros. U‘s archaic systems do everything to flatten that impulse.
In something of an odd twist, the Challenge Mode remedies a lot of those problems, despite dishing up some of the most brutal challenges New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe has to offer. For the most part, these are bite-sized challenges that, win or lose, will be over in less than a minute—collect as many coins as you can within a time limit, head-stomp a certain number of enemies in a row without touching the ground, and so on. There are no life counts, checkpoints, or maps to deal with; when you fail, you simply get the option to retry or quit.
Despite being that much harder than the main game, and not giving an “easy” option with Toadette or Nabbit, Challenge Mode feels strangely approachable. It lays out some nightmarish challenges, but allows you to rise to meet them: fail, retry, and fail better, again and again until you finally get the gold.
If you can put up with with the more dated elements, there’s a lot of fun to be found in New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. Toadette and Nabbit are welcome additions for those who want a more relaxing experience (or at least a more nimble character to play), while Mario, Luigi, and Toad deliver the challenge that the hardcore Super Mario fans will want—especially in the New Super Luigi U levels. Whoever you choose, this is classic Super Mario platforming action, and having both New Super Mario Bros. U and New Super Luigi U bundled together in one package means there’s plenty of it.
|New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe|
|Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)|
|Release Date: 11 January 2019|
|The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.|