New Super Mario Bros. is now 15 years old, hooray! Yet it's not always universally loved, so our reviewer Stuart Gipp explains why it's actually an under-rated classic.
It’s quite funny to consider that the highest-selling Nintendo DS game of all time - shifting in excess of 30 million copies worldwide – is still a title I’d consider to be under-rated. If anything, it’s respected as the formative entry in a divisive series that’s considered to never really have evolved.
But that’s the thing – New Super Mario Bros. was never about evolution. The clue is in the name. New Super Mario Bros. Rather than being a step forward for the series, this was a fond remembrance. A distillation of the elements that made Super Mario Bros. the most acclaimed platform game series of all time. A victory lap for the undisputed champion – the best of all time.
That’s not to say that New Super Mario Bros. didn’t introduce new variables to the 2D Mario equation. After all, at the time of its release the world hadn’t seen a new, traditional 2D Mario title since 1990’s seminal Super Mario World (though it came to NA in 1991 and EU in 1992). One could split hairs and point out the e-Reader levels from Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3, but those registered as a novelty above all else – a bonus feature. That's quite a gap, and New Super Mario Bros. was the real deal – a brand new (brand old?) entry aiming to recapture the essence of the series that made Nintendo a household name.
And it did so, with an effortlessness that makes you wonder why both Game Boys Color and Advance were denied a fresh plumber platformer, instead graced with (the admittedly wonderful) Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and the series-spanning Super Mario Advance series. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Big N had lost its mojo, but on the evidence of New Super Mario Bros. it was clearly far from rusty.
The game was and is a joy to play, marrying classic Mario momentum with an updated move set taken from the absolute classic Super Mario 64 – Mario’s three-step triple jump is present and correct, with his ground-pond and wall jump abilities adding further possibilities to vertical level design and skilful recoveries. You’ll need to use these athletic moves, too, because levels are rather larger than before and laced with well-hidden secrets, some hiding the new and elusive Star Coins. With three of these per level, the more contemporary “collectathon” element comes into some focus, though these treasures are used only to unlock gates on the map screen that allow access to certain extra levels and Toad Houses, which return from Super Mario Bros 3. full to the brim with extra lives and power-ups.
The game was and is a joy to play, marrying classic Mario momentum with an updated move set taken from the absolute classic Super Mario 64
Power-ups, indeed, are largely returning classics. The mighty Super Mushroom and Fire Flower obviously make their return, but the brand new Mega Mushroom turns Mario into a screen-sized behemoth who mows down enemies and terrain alike in a state of invincibility. Just make sure you don’t kick away that green pipe you need to explore! The yang to the Mega Mushroom’s yin is – you guessed it – the Mini Mushroom, which shrinks Mario to a miniscule size and allows him to explore tight spaces and run at high speed. This form is key to accessing the game’s secret worlds, too, requiring you to conquer boss stages from start to finish in Mini Mario form, a task easier said than done. It also makes Mario so light that he can run across water, like a sort of portly Italian Jesus.
Most interesting, however, is the new Shell power-up that allows Mario to don a blue shell and cosplay as a Koopa Trooper, ducking inside to whirl around as though he’s just been kicked along the ground by himself, ricocheting off every surface like a champion and smashing through brick walls into new areas. It’s enormous fun and sets a place for the marvellous self-imposed challenge of seeing how many levels you can conquer in Shell mode. It’s unusual that the power-up never made a triumphant return considering how transformative it was. The best Mario upgrades let you see each level in a totally new light and the sadly-forgotten Shell was a sterling example.
Given the exhaustive and demanding nature of post-Donkey Kong Country platform games, it’s quite refreshing to see the return of secret exits and level warps – a traditional Mario element completely lost in the intervening years as games being designed around going for 100% completion became the norm. Of course, that element isn’t totally lost here with the Star Coins, but it’s still great to carve your own path to that final battle with Bowser through your own observance and ingenuity.
Exemplary level design, then, and it’s married to an aesthetic that – while divisive – presents its obstacles clearly and confidently. You could never accuse New Super Mario Bros. of looking spectacular, but it’s equally innocent of being too busy, too cluttered. It’s function over form, a game that puts level design and player control first. Locked 60 frames per second, an incredibly responsive player character and clean, easy-to-read graphics that brilliantly utilise both pixel and polygon.
Anything else worthy of comment? Why, they threw in a bunch of the mini-games from Super Mario 64 DS, as well as some new ones.
If that were the end of it, if an exemplary single-player game was all that you got in the package, New Super Mario Bros. would still be a straight 10/10. But Nintendo didn’t stop there – a frantic multiplayer component that pits Mario against Luigi in a quest to collect Power Stars. Naturally, you can mess with one another to knock the Stars out of the opposition and nab them for yourself. It’s a fast-paced, super fun and criminally under-played gem, that no doubt inspired the madcap local multiplayer of the forthcoming Wii version.
Anything else worthy of comment? Why, they threw in a bunch of the mini-games from Super Mario 64 DS, as well as some new ones. Crucially, though, the best game ever – Sort or ‘Splode – is present and correct. (You can see the minigames below via YouTube channel YTSunny)
And that’s New Super Mario Bros., really. Forever in the shadow of its own sequels (despite said sequels receiving near-constant criticism from some), buried within Nintendo’s greatest games library of all time. It’s the highest-selling DS game ever, one of the best-selling games of all time full stop, and – somehow – it remains under-rated.
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