A new world’s calling out to you
Nostalgia is a powerful tool. We long for the comfort of the things we indulged in during our childhoods, things that we trust more than anything we have to spend our adult paychecks on. Used wisely, nostalgia can invoke a sense of familiarity and welcoming. Used rashly, it can result in a lack of creativity. But however it’s wielded, it always results in the same striking revelation, no matter how many times…
“Holy heck, we’ve gone about 15 years without making a 2D Mario platformer!? We’re old!”
That’s probably what Nintendo’s senior staff thought while they were planning their Nintendo DS lineup, anyway. Whatever the syntax, Mario’s 2D adventures were old hat by that point in time. Retro, even. It was the perfect time to wash that hat and give it a new shine. Thus began New Super Mario Bros…
This game was the textbook example of reviving a classic game formula. Many of the bells and whistles of Mario’s newer adventures were stripped away in favor of a simplistic return to form. Plot? Bowser and Bowser Jr. kidnap Peach, nothing else atop that. Gameplay? Run to the right and jump over obstacles. It feels closer to Mario’s original adventures than any game to come out since the 64-bit era.
But the New moniker meant more than just giving this formula a fresh coat of paint. A handful of new power-ups were introduced, and they were… alright, I guess? The Mega Mushroom, while a thrilling power trip, is really just a glorified Starman. The Blue Shell is fun, giving you the power to attack from the side instead of just on top or underneath. The Mini Mushroom is extremely risky, and while I kinda enjoyed its tiny floatiness, I felt much more empowered by using literally anything else. Which is kinda the point, I guess, but I still felt more anxious than anything when I used it to find 100% completion secrets, and I'm no horror game fan.
What excited me more were Mario’s new permanent moves! Many tricks that Mario first learned in his 3D games migrated over to New Super Mario Bros, such as wall jumping, triple jumping, and ground pounding, just to name a few. These additions modernized this formula by allowing new level design around them, giving Mario new challenges. This blew my mind as a kid, seeing Mario not only return to his classic gameplay but apply what he had learned since! I had never even imagined the possibility before, and seeing these moves in action opened up my mind to the possibility for 2D games to borrow more from design elements introduced in 3D games. It was a learning experience for little Chris.
The classic Mario design philosophies of time limits, secret level exits, and score attacks remained in tact. Collectible Star Coins mirrored the Dragon Coins from Super Mario World, encouraging exploration of every nook and cranny, only with the far more enticing purpose of unlocking Toad Houses and new levels. For all intents and purposes, New Super Mario Bros lived up to its name, modernizing and revitalizing the classic Mario formula. It even featured limited save points until postgame, which… okay, that’s an inconvenient and archaic design choice, but it did pull my young self deeper into what I felt was an authentic return to Mario’s roots.
New Super Mario Bros was one of my most played games on the DS. I mean, why wouldn’t I play it so much? I was still a student with lots of free time, and I was longing for a return to the gameplay that made me fall in love with video games in the first place. With my NES out of commission, this game was the ticket I was waiting for.
And Nintendo knew that. Oh boy, were they ready to milk the heck out of that knowledge...
New Super Mario Bros Wii introduced a few new powerups like the Ice Suit and the return of Yoshi, but otherwise it’s mostly the same gameplay with new level layouts. The most standout addition is local “co-op” between up to four players, adding Luigi and two Toads into the mix. I say “co-op” in quotes because these levels don't always accommodate for that many players, guaranteeing that many groups will fight with each other for space rather than help. It’s an interesting new dynamic for a platformer that adds a party game-esque feel to it.
But that’s not how I really played the game. Like I said before, I had no local gamer friends. I've seen enough footage of the multiplayer to see how chaotic it can get, but for me, this game was just “New Super Mario Bros 2.0”. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t replay it as much as the DS game. In fact, I was starting to get burnt out, largely thanks to the sameyness between these two games.
In between that and another Mario game that came out in 2011, I chose to skip New Super Mario Bros 2 for the 3DS, in 2012. This one stripped away the multiplayer in exchange for the greediest gimmick of all, coin hoarding. Score was replaced with coins, and practically everything in this game produced dozens, sometimes hundreds of coins. I’m one of the few people I know who like silly score attacks/imaginary money hoards enough that this actually hits my sweet spots, but… I had played the other NSMB games so much already. This didn’t change things up enough for me to want to drop another $40, not on the tail end of my high school days.
I was also thinking of skipping New Super Mario Bros U, but after that break gave me a little distance, I was won out by the new Challenge Mode. A bunch of mini-levels that stretch my platforming skills in unusual scenarios instantly caught my eye, and I dove right into it. It probably helped that I wanted to pad out my near-launch Wii U library with something I knew I’d enjoy. At least, I thought I would play Challenge Mode so much, but sadly that mode failed to keep my attention for long. It was fun, but it just didn’t have as much substance as I expected. Even so, the main campaign had a brighter level of polish that kept me more engaged than previous NSMB games.
Was it new core gameplay additions? Not really, just another few good-but-kinda-redundant powerups. Was it the presentation? Perhaps, this was the first ever HD Mario game, and I felt like the art was much more lively (some darker colors without any less saturation, maybe?). Was it the level design? I think so. NSMBU brought back 4-player multiplayer, but this time I felt the levels were larger and more open-spaced. That can't stop the multiplayer chaos, especially since players still have so many tools to sabotage each other, but it does moderate it to be more controllable and make multiplayer platforming less cramped and frustrating. As a solo player, I enjoyed the feeling of platforming with less focus on precision and more on speedily romping through levels with a flow in my control, so this change also complimented that. Whatever the case, I found U to be the most polished and enjoyable of the New series.
The New series has laid dormant for years now, not a peep of a new game since the dawn of the Wii U. That’s for the best, as even though I enjoyed everything about the series, they were coming out so frequently with so few fundamental changes between them they quickly wore out the “New” moniker. What was old became new, but then it became old again. Buuuut Nintendo was going to milk this philosophy a little more with an extra dimension…!
Super Mario 3D Land, released for the Nintendo 3DS, came out in 2011. Once again Mario returned to 3D platforming, except with the mechanical formula and structure of his 2D ventures. The score attacks, the power ups, the 3 hidden collectibles, the linear stages… this game, for all intents and purposes, was New Super Mario Bros 3D. Which contributed to my compiling fatigue. To its credit, opening up this style of gameplay to 3 dimensions does open up a lot of new level design opportunities, and this game didn’t waste them. I still vividly remember fun levels like a verticality-focused challenge with springy clouds and propeller boxes, or a classic Zelda dungeon.
But somehow, this game came across to me as the most artistically sterile and uninspired game in the series, and that nagged at me throughout the whole playthrough. I swear that most of the platforms in this game are flat-color blocks floating in midair. At least, the levels that fit that description somehow are the ones I remember most clearly from my playthrough.
It doesn’t help that this game pushed the comeback of the Tanooki Leaf, only to strip away its most defining power of flight. That would have completely broken 3D platforming design, if we’re being honest, but it still leaves an underwhelming taste in my mouth. I loved the opportunity to explore classic Mario gameplay in a new venue, but somehow, I left Super Mario 3D Land feeling like the experience as a whole was more uninspired than the New series. Or, again, maybe that was just fatigue speaking to me.
So you’d think I’d not be that interested in Super Mario 3D World. 3D World was another game in the vein of 3D Land, but on the Wii U and with 4 player support… so, New Super Mario Bros 3D U.
And yet somehow, even though I knew that 3D World was going to be more of that similar stuff? Something about it instantly won my attention and excitement, and that remained with me throughout my playthrough. I’m still not 100% sure why, but somehow, it instantly became one of my favorite recent Mario platformers.
I think a big part of it was the style. It was HD just like NSMBU was, but something about 3D World felt more vibrant and engaging. Levels were made of similar blocks and nonsense floating platforms, but there were also many more seemingly organic structures. Fancier textures and lighting surely helped those environments feel organic, too. And that sweet jazz soundtrack… you know what, that probably did it. I’m a sucker for great music, and this soundtrack’s quality was leagues above the rest of the games in this list!
Some gameplay tweaks also helped a lot. Firstly, Peach replaced one of the Toads as a playable character (oh yeah, the story also had some more creativity than the rest of the games in thie blog!). That meant that the roster resembled the classic 4-man team of Super Mario Bros. 2, and Nintendo took this to its logical extreme by giving everyone different gameplay abilities. Peach could hover, Toad could run faster, Luigi could jump higher, and Mario was well-rounded with no weaknesses. This was a godsend if there ever was one, as it allowed me to change up my playstyle on the fly to experiment and toy with different strategies in every level! Also, I liked Toad’s running speed. Gotta go fast.
The new powerup also gave us exciting twists we haven’t seen before in other Mario games. The Super Bell, by the power of adorable cat suits, lets any character run up any wall up to a certain distance. It’s a powerful tool that expands your platforming horizons, literally, by letting you explore and exploit every nook and cranny your kitty paws can reach. The diagonal dive attack is cool too. Many levels also took advantage of the Wii U gamepad, adding creative gimmicks like platforms using the mic or touch pad. There was even a world map with a surprising amount of interaction! In many respects, 3D World was the freshest Mario game we had in a long time, despite its heavy use of nostalgia.
Mario’s legacy has gone through many twists and turns, but all in all, it was great to see him revisit his roots. At the same time, I trust that I’ve had my fill of this traditional Mario formula for a while, especially now that I have a habit of clinging onto beloved favorites instead of trading them for pennies at GameStop. It’s fun and reliable, hence why I kept buying them, but there’s only so much you can do with it without everything feeling a little redundant. That’s why 3D World, for all I love it, was easily toppled by Mario's next platformer… but don't start that airship yet! I know I’ve gone over the initial “7 parts” I planned for this series, but we still have one more line of spinoffs we have to look at first…
I’ll see you at the party. Bring a designated driver.