I feel like an out-of-touch grandparent when I explain to people that video games shouldn’t be 3-D. Television screens are two-dimensional! Absent some kind of Holodeck technology, it’s a mistake to attempt depth of field in virtual entertainment. I thought no one understood — until I found that Nintendo was releasing a brand-new 2-D Mario game for the DS.
HOT TIP: The classic “99 lives” trick still works — corner a koopa troopa next to a block and bounce off him mercilessly to gain near-infinite continues.
New Super Mario Bros gives Mario a few new moves. In particular, he can now jump off walls, something that turns out to be a lifesaver when you misjudge the length of a jump. He also has the killer butt stomp that debuts in 2-D, though it was prominently featured in Super Mario 64. The majority of gameplay still consists of running to the right, jumping on things, and ingesting wild mushrooms. So why is it so much fun?
Let’s be clear: New Super Mario Bros is no warmed-over nostalgia trip that coasts along the greased rails of warm memories. It’s a clinic in game design. Designers of bloated, aimless titles like Driver: Parallel Lines should be locked in a small room and forced to play it until they understand that a game should include only what it needs. This is a streamlined, exquisitely balanced experience.
Mario is once again chasing after the beleaguered princess, who always seems to be in another castle. The levels don’t deviate terribly from the green-grass-and-brown-blocks template of the original. There are tweaks, however. Some levels employ vertical forced scrolling but also allow you to run off one end of the screen and onto the other, as in Pac Man. And though there are still levels in which Mario navigates the canopy of a mushroom forest, now the mushrooms wobble relentlessly. Simple modifications, maybe, but they often make the game feel like a new experience.
Not that there isn’t enough here to vault you back in time 20 years. From the two-toned aural cue when Mario picks up a coin to the abundance of green 1-ups, New Super Mario Bros sticks to its roots. It even drops some of the features that have been introduced along the way, like the raccoon tail and the Yoshi rides. None of the absences hurts, with the possible exception of Kuribo’s Shoe. In their place are two brand-new power-ups: one that transforms Mario into an unstoppable, screen-filling juggernaut and another that shrinks him down in order to access secret areas.
FORGET THE FX: New Super Mario focuses on honest-to-God gameplay.
The single-player game is great enough on its own, with branching paths and secret levels as in Super Mario World. It’s neither long nor overly difficult, but for once there’s a game whose replay value comes from offering honest-to-God content. No new outfits for Mario, or a bonus music video featuring the princess in a thong, but whole levels of play. There’s also a head-to-head two-player mode that’s not simply a rehash. It takes place on looping versions of the single-player levels, as Mario and Luigi vie to collect the most star icons. There’s no shortage of amusing deaths in this mode.
Most of the mini-games based on the touchscreen are retreads from Super Mario 64 DS — what’s that about? Otherwise, the package is almost flawless. Although the technological progress of the past 20 years has been fantastic, it’s nice to see a game that focuses solely on fun gameplay and not transparent particle effects. I wonder whether the kids understand. If New Super Mario Bros doesn’t convince them, nothing will.