Rekindles the flame of a bygone era. With fireballs!
New Super Mario Bros. plays like the original NES adventure, but has much of the exploration and backtracking priority of Super Mario World. There are eight worlds to play in, though two of them can be skipped entirely on the way to the end. That said, it's entirely possible to breeze through and save the princess over the course of a weekend if you want to, but opening up all the hidden levels and secrets -- the real reason to play the game -- requires considerably more time and devotion.
Three giant gold coins lie hidden in the nooks and crannies of every level. For the most part, they will basically throw themselves at you, twirling fancy-free in some obvious, accessible location, but other times they can be devilishly tricky to track down. More often than not, bagging the gold boils down to knowing when to use one of Mario's three new powerups, or recognizing inconspicuous areas where wall-jumping or ground-pounding can lead to new areas.
Among the new power-ups is the mini mushroom, a tiny blue spore that shrinks Mario small enough to fit into Luigi's pocket, giving him a drastically longer hang time, access into itty bitty crevices and pipes, and the ability to sprint on water. The mega mushroom temporarily turns him into Mariozilla, who lumbers through areas and snaps warp pipes like matchsticks. And finally, there's the spankin'-new blue koopa suit that lets him glide through levels like a chucked shell, or stroke through underwater levels with heightened speed and agility.
Beyond solving a couple riddles here and there, the new power-ups are too limiting to be truly exciting. There are some tiny pipes Mario can sink into that lead to these cute little labyrinths filled with even cuter wee goombas, but it's rarely worth losing whatever power-up you initially had in order to go mini. The mega mushroom has its obvious benefits, but it's too short-lived and spatially limited to enjoy repeatedly. The blue koopa shell is too unwieldy on land to be of any practical use there. So it's not actually the new power-ups, but the new levels and creative gameplay that vault this title. The essentials are long-established -- throw fireballs, slide on ice, duck down pipes, and so forth -- but they're expanded upon and implemented so well you'd think the genre was born yesterday.
In fairness, there is a chance that the game might adhere to convention a bit too much. The few things that are truly new to this game aren't very compelling on their own, often being reduced and confined to solving puzzles and little more. Also, until you save the princess at least once, the only way to save the game is to spend five coins to open a mushroom house, or by beating ghost houses and dungeons. That’s easy to overcome since the DS will put the game to “sleep” when you close it, but it’s still an issue that many players won’t be fond of. Every Mario game to date has had its own defining feature, yet New Super Mario Bros. simply doesn't do as much to differentiate itself. As a result, this wonderful trip down memory lane leaves traces of that ever-elusive "something" to be desired.
It would be a shame to miss out on it though, because the game is absolutely brimming with subtleties, and it's the most graphically-nuanced 2D entry in the series. Blending polygonal characters with planar backdrops, the widths and heights of the scrolling backgrounds are painted with rich color and meticulous detail. Thanks to the unstoppably smooth frame rate, everything flows with unprecedented silkiness, with full, round animations that look great even under the toughest scrutiny. Players will enjoy the little touches too, like how patrolling koopas and goombas stutter-step and hop during accented moments in the music, or how Mario always throws fireballs with his left hand regardless of which direction he’s facing. It might seem menial to point such things out, but graphical excellence means more than big numbers. The attentiveness to these details exemplifies Nintendo’s heritage of excellence, and makes New Super Mario Bros. great to look at no matter how many times you see it.
Most of the music in New Super Mario Bros. is unique to the game, but every once in a while, remixed versions of classic melodies surface. Let it be known, the quality of the new concert is worthy of the Mario name in every conceivable way. While mountaineering in the chasms of World 6, a flirty flute and banjo duet plays a lively run alongside a clicky drum beat. Moody doomsday themes flesh out the levels within the volcanic wastelands of World 8, while the familiar Super Mario tune rocks steady in the blue-block underground. The score, as vibrant and unique as the levels themselves, blends in perfectly with the standard array of sound effects, and it never falls short of brilliance.
If you could hear this game being played without seeing the screen, you could still instantly identify it as Mario. Like the graphics, the sound effects are excessively detailed, as evidenced by the sound of Mario's feet sounding off individually as they strike the ground. If you close the DS at any time during play, Mario shouts out "buh-bye!" Then when you open it, he reminds you of who he is with "Eetsa mee, Maaahrio!" The trouble is, he even chimes in when you're playing as his Luigi, which makes no sense, and rather spoils the charm of it all. Besides that, and a bit of jarbled, staticky noise that comes in the jet-laden areas in the later levels, the effects are generally as solid and enjoyable as the music.
New Super Mario Bros. is a fun, quality title that every DS owner can be proud of. The single-player adventure is the heart of the package, but there are also a handful of touch screen minigames a la Super Mario 64 DS that support up to four-player gaming off of a single card. Then there is the wildly fun, albeit shallow, Mario vs. Luigi mulitplayer component which is like an enhanced version of the card-stealing duel on Super Mario 3. In this game, the brothers race to collect randomly appearing stars on one of six assorted levels, and can attack each other with jumps and power-ups to force the stars out of the other guy's clutches. There's not a whole lot to it, really, but this is still the best single-card shareware available on the DS.
As time marches on and games get bigger and more dynamic, it's refreshing to have a simple, approachable title restate the case for elegance in simplicity. New Super Mario Bros. shines like a beacon even amongst the biggest, best, and brightest games in the history of the hobby. It’s not just any blast from the past; it’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. And we all scored. Big time.