Hands-on with New Super Mario Bros. U for Wii U

One of the games I was most looking forward to getting my hands on at Nintendo of Canada’s post-E3 event was New Super Mario Bros. U. Why? Well, simply enough, I just love Mario games, and after the 14-15 year lull (depending on whether you’re inclined to count Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins or not), I’ve been very happy with the two New Super Mario Bros. titles we’ve seen thus far, and eager to play more.

As it turns out, this is a lucky thing, because more New Super Mario Bros. is just what we’re getting.

If you’re wondering what the New Super Mario Bros. U demo is like, then play New Super Mario Bros. Wii and you’ll be halfway there. Unlike New Super Mario Bros. 2, there’s less to thematically distinguish this game from its predecessor, but that isn’t to say that there is nothing new here.

At its core, New Super Mario Bros. U features the same 2D platforming action as the Wii game, which can be enjoyed by one player or up to four… or even five, thanks to the Wii U GamePad, but more on that in a moment. Your character choices are also largely the same: Mario, Luigi, a yellow Toad (who appeared a little more orange to me, incidentally), and a blue Toad.

Or, if you’re not hooked on the brothers and Mushroom Retainers do nothing for you, then you can also play as a Mii, decked out in a cap and overalls, just like Mario and green Mario. Few people, including myself, seemed to take advantage of the option, but it’s nice to have there (I probably would have, had it been my own Mii). Better still, when I had a chance to play by myself, it appeared ready to allow me to choose any character I wished for single-player fun. Those who played through New Super Mario Bros. Wii might remember that Luigi was only available when multiple players were involved, or the Super Guide was activated.

The game plays just like New Super Mario Bros. Wii when you use the Wii Remotes, though in single-player mode, you can also use the Wii U GamePad, which displays the same action on its screen. I did not get a chance to do this, though I have heard whispers that the device’s extra buttons can substitute the shaking motion required to pick many things up in the last game. Much to my regret, I did not learn whether the game will also support the Wii U Pro Controller, which seemed to be absent from the event.

Alternatively, the Wii U GamePad can also be used to experience a different style of gameplay from the platforming norm. With as little as one other person playing (or up to all four), whoever uses the GamePad will be able to initiate “Boost Mode” at any time by touching the screen to make up to four blocks appear. These blocks can either help or hinder players, and I had my fair share of both with the others there. They can be broken, or will disappear after either a few moments, or more new platforms are created.

Being the one to place the blocks can be more fun than it sounds. And while I’m less likely to attempt to troll other players with my blocks, there is still a certain chemistry needed so that you’re actually helping the player and not hindering them. You might be putting a block in place to help them reach a platform, for example, but they might be trying to cross the pit instead; teamwork and communication are definitely key if you plan to get through together.

Besides placing blocks to assist players, you can also use the blocks and touchscreen to mess with enemies on screen. Touching a Goomba, for example, might topple him, while doing so with a Piranha Plant will make it quickly retreat into its pipe. Or you can place blocks in their way, keeping the plants from coming out or changing the Goomba’s path. Or, for a guilty pleasure, you can put some blocks in the path of the flying squirrels and watch them slam into them face-first.

Speaking of flying squirrels, they carry what will no doubt be the iconic power-up of the game: A magic acorn which turns Mario into Flying Squirrel Mario, quite possibly the longest name for a Mario form to date. The seeming replacement to the Propeller Mushroom power-up of New Super Mario Bros. Wii allows you to gain an extra boost in the air by shaking the controller; from there, Mario can extend his arm-flaps and glide down slowly. In addition, you can also stick to sheer vertical surfaces, though in one instance, this actually made reaching a secret passageway more difficult.

Perhaps even more fun is the return of baby Yoshis. Mario’s dinosaur buddies were in New Super Mario Bros. Wii as well, but not in their newly-hatched form. Returning to the look seen in their debut in Super Mario World, up to four baby Yoshis, uniform in color, can pop out of an egg found in an item block. And much like World, Mario and friends can pick them up and allow them to eat enemies in their way, though getting hit will cause you to drop the tyke. Incidentally, I didn’t get to see if eating five enemies would cause them to grow up.

Much like the differently-colored Yoshis in Super Mario World, different colors here means different abilities. However, unlike World, these powers are used while they’re still young. A shake of the controller will see a pink Yoshi balloon up and rise to the top of the screen, slowly descending back to the surface, while blue Yoshis will spew enemy-trapping bubbles. And frankly, between the Flying Squirrel suit and the pink baby Yoshi, which act similarly, I found the latter more fun to use.

The only question I have regarding power-ups at this point is whether my favorites from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the Ice Flower and Penguin Suit, will return for this installment. Fingers are crossed!

Visually, I can say New Super Mario Bros. U looks terrific. Granted, it’s still New Super Mario Bros. at its core, but the crisp, clean visuals in high-definition breath some new life into things. There are also some new textures to the backgrounds and areas, which would be easy to miss at a passing glance.

We were only given three courses to play (and sadly, no map to connect them): A regular “grassy plains” type level, the type typical of the first stage of any of these games. One noteworthy aspect which sets this one apart is the enormous tree bearing the magic acorns in the background, though some may also recognize the mountain as looking Super Mario World-esque. The second stage was your typical in-the-clouds mushroom-top bouncing platform stage.

The third, however, was by far my favorite. It’s been a while since we last saw a proper nighttime level in a 2D Mario game, as the New Super Mario Bros. titles have been devoid of those, or even sunsets. I love the night, and the third level promised to deliver on that in a big way.

As you can see above, it’s a snowy nighttime stage with a lot of jumps involved. What makes it interesting in terms of gameplay are the large star-shaped platforms you see scattered throughout, as stepping on one causes it to spin on an axis, sort of like a pinwheel. With a bit of skill, you can jump from one to the next, or even position them for some handy wall-jumping tricks to reach areas hidden above.

The music the stages had are new pieces, though they carry the same sort of sound as the previous games. And yes, the enemies still dance to the beat. In the case of the snowy nighttime stage, there’s even a bell-jingling sound which gives it a certain festive cheer that should be fun come the holiday season, when the game likely launches.

A few other things of note are some new enemies, including the flying squirrels (some of which give up a magic acorn when defeated, much like the Super Koopas of Super Mario World) and acorn-like Goombas (or Goomba-like acorns?). There is also a new variation on the red coin challenges which involve gather clusters of sequentially-appearing green coins to earn a 1UP.

Of course, what we saw in the demo only tells part of the story. As the screenshots in the gallery and the video below show, there is also a yellow baby Yoshi which will guide you in the dark by glowing, and a seeming return to Giant Land, where enormous enemies roam among larger-than-normal blocks. And, as you can see above, there is at least one stage which has a style like a van Gogh painting (and at night, at that).

We’ll no doubt learn more secrets as New Super Mario Bros. U nears its release date for the Wii U, but we can say that while it looks a lot like the previous games on the surface and may not have the same hook as New Super Mario Bros. 2, there seems to be plenty to help it stand out from its predecessors. Finding out what should be a lot of fun once it’s released this holiday season.

One other thing, for those of you who watched the opening of the video: Is it me, or does the way Mario looks right at you when you’re not moving (such as at the start of the stage) seem a little weird?


About the author

David Oxford

David Oxford is a freelance writer of many varied interests. If you're interested in hiring him, please drop him a line at david.oxford (at) nyteworks.net.