New Super Mario Bros. U is an amazing jump start for Mario's 2D platforming career. It incorporates the best elements from the classics and mixes them into the New Super Mario Bros. formula, revamping the subseries' reputation for bland level design and menial difficulty.
As a whole, Story mode is a blend of joyful speed-run-friendly courses and precision-based platforming puzzles. It's the same balance of freedom and challenge that defined legendary entries like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, and it's the backbone of New Super Mario Bros. U's success. Also here are branching paths, a sprawling world map, and the overall sense of wonder that comes from exploring every last corner of the modern Mushroom Kingdom for secrets and alternate exits.
The first half of the game is a relative playground; troublesome enemies are at a minimum, power-ups are plentiful, and the environments are generally forgiving. Even at their easiest, the earlier stages are still enjoyable because their compositions lend themselves to acrobatic displays of triple-jumps and power-up-fueled maneuvers.
Sprinting through the first few worlds is carefree and instills confidence. Eventually, however, such hubris must give way to patience and awareness lest you squander all your remaining lives. The game's rise in difficulty is easy to miss, seamlessly transitioning from a light romp to a challenging test of perseverance.
Should you continue to fail multiple times in a given stage, the Super Guide box appears granting you a demonstration of Luigi completing the level, or allowing you to bypass the stage completely, though you may choose to forge ahead on your own. When failure persists despite your best efforts, the addition of a second player on the GamePad becomes a very attractive option. By using the touch screen, a second player can place up to four platforms at a time within a level, and can also stun enemies and interact with elements in the environment.
Where New Super Mario Bros. Wii's co-op was often frustrating and useful only on occasion, the touch screen method employed here affords an experience that rewards teamwork. There are still ways that the "ghost" player on the tablet controller can interrupt Mario's flow and ruin the experience, and this opens up delightful opportunities for the tablet holder to make a little mischief. Deviously obstructing a player's progress can be as amusing as virtuously helping them to victory, and every player should be sure to take a turn with the tablet. Up to five people may participate at a time when four Wii Remotes are used, and roles can be switched from the world map without having to exit to the main menu.
Whether flying solo or with a team, rescuing the princess isn't relegated to platforming experts. The primary objectives only take a few dedicated play sessions to complete, but they represent only a fraction of the amount of content within New Super Mario Bros. U. Like other games in the "New" series, each level contains a set of star coins: large coins often just out of sight and reach. The motivation to collect every star coin comes partly from the sense of accomplishment it provides, but primarily from the extra levels that are unlocked as a result.
In many ways, hunting for the star coins is a whole other type of experience compared to the typical race for the finish line. You need to explore every crevice, peer behind every obstacle, and risk almost certain death in your attempt to locate and collect each coin. A quick look at the star coin index also reveals that (surprise, surprise) there are hidden stages within each world to uncover before you even have a hope of completing a collection of that world's wealth of star coins. This extension of the endgame is akin to a New Game Plus mode; it offers a way to replay the main game and take a significantly different approach, thereby enriching the overall experience.
When you've exhausted your desire to hunt for secrets, or you've simply done everything there is to do in Story mode, there are three additional modes to sink your teeth into: Coin Battle, Challenge, and Boost Rush.
Coin Battle follows a basic premise: 2-4 players compete to see who can collect the most coins in a given stage. There are custom stages created specifically for this mode, but you can also compete across every stage from the Story mode. In this instance of competitive coin collecting, utilizing exits or warp pipes allows for strategic neutering of your opponents' scoring potential as every player automatically rejoins those who move onward. Competitors use Wii Remotes exclusively, though someone else can pick up the GamePad and place platforms, assisting or hindering participants as they wish.
The most diverse of the extra modes, Challenge, presents five types of trials: Time Attack, Coin Collection, 1-Up Rally, Special, and Boost. Time Attack pits Mario against the clock, racing through original stages and selections from the main game as quickly as possible. Coin Collection challenges your ability to collect, or in some cases not collect, coins as you race through stages. 1-Up Rally plays on the mechanic of earning 1-Ups for consecutively jumping on enemies' heads without touching the ground. Special challenges offer a variety of scenarios: in one, you must race through a level while leaping through rings of ghosts, while another consists of avoiding incoming fireballs with only a single block to stand on. Finally, Boost challenges are focused on using the GamePad's touch screen to help the other player reach a goal or accomplish a specific task.
Regardless of which challenges you attempt, they are all difficult to master. Only when you achieve perfection do you earn a gold medal for your efforts. Completing these challenges is like setting up a winding series of dominoes. Just as every domino must be in the right place, so too must your jumps, slides, and runs be deftly timed. It's tough to make every move just right, but when you do, the rush of satisfaction you receive makes it all worth it. If you ever feel at odds with your ability to complete the main game, challenges are the perfect playground to perfect your understanding and control of Mario's tendencies and physics.
Lastly, there's the Boost Rush mode. Essentially, Mario needs to get through levels as quickly as possible, but the rub is that the stage auto-scrolls at a snail's pace. In order to speed it up, allowing you to complete the stage in a timely manner, you need to collect coins. The problem is, do you move deliberately, thoroughly collecting coins, or do you charge ahead? You're required to balance the two objectives, but when the screen is devoid of coins and you're left waiting for upwards of fifteen seconds for more to appear, the use of "Rush" in the title no longer feels appropriate. If there's any criticism to be levied against New Super Mario Bros. U, it would be that Boost Rush mode lacks focus.
New Super Mario Bros. U is not a game that takes many risks, nor is it definitively the best 2D Mario title, but it's certainly a contender. It's consistently charming, often challenging, and an excellent illustration of that which makes Mario games so special. Nintendo seemingly recaptured traditional, distilled platforming, but also incorporated a newfound attention to modern gaming trends and expectations. It's a challenging platformer, an excellent recreation of Mario's best moments, and it's the perfect way to kick-off Nintendo's journey into HD.