Friday, April 20, 2007

Retro Recurring: New Super Mario Brothers

New Super Mario Brothers
For some time now, handhelds have shown themselves to be mainstream console gaming’s last bastion of retro-orientated gaming – even the super trendy Sony PSP sports 80’s arcade compilations and a Lemmings conversion as a launch title.
The Nintendo DS, despite its somewhat revolutionary approach to control via the touch screen interface, is also continuing to uphold Nintendo’s “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” gameplay sentiments with New Super Mario Brothers – a 2D Mario game in 3D. Confused? Relax, pull up a toadstool and I’ll tell you about it…

New Super Mario Brothers pulls every modern technology trick in the book (though, happily, largely ignores the touch screen in favour of traditional d-pad control), but tries to remain entirely faithful to Mario’s classic left to right, two dimensional platforming exploits. So, even though each and every character, block and powerup is a fully-fledged 3D model, the view of the action never alters from a classic side-on viewpoint, making this the first true 2D Mario adventure since 1992’s release of Super Mario World on the SNES (or perhaps 1995’s Yoshi’s Island depending on your beliefs).

As you may guess, the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Clean, crisp models, vibrant colours (even on the scabby old pre-Lite DS) and fluid animation abound, with a clearly deliberate return to classic Super Mario Brothers visual fare. Green fields to potter through beneath blue skies, towering mushrooms to clamber up before pulling down the level’s flag and disappearing into the little castle at the end – it’s all here, renovated from its 8 bit origins but treated with all the respect and tactility you’d expect Nintendo to lavish on its most important and well-loved IP.

So it looks the business, but how does it play? Utterly brilliantly, as it happens. As mentioned earlier, we see here gameplay largely unchanged since 1985. Nintendo have certainly played around with Mario’s physics a little – he’ll slide more to a stop after a long run rather than stopping immediately, and feels a little less floaty in his jumps (that’s probably what 20 years does to you), but the whole world reflects these changes, meaning you’ll never feel robbed of lives by an unfair system.

Meanwhile, though Mario still kicks shells, squashes goombas, bounces off bullets and collects enlarging mushrooms and fire flowers, there’s a little more going on here to reflect the needs of a more demanding generation of gamers. Welcome, then, Mario 64’s triple jump (great for scaling new heights) and wall kick (fantastic for preventing untimely pit deaths). Three new powerups also join the fold – a blue shell that turns Mario into a koopa-esque creature who can retreat into his body, skimming across surfaces knocking out foes in exactly the way they do to him. The tiny mushroom shrinks Mario to only a few pixels high, making him unable to kill most foes but able to jump far higher and enter small gaps to uncover secrets. Conversely to this one, the jewel in the crown of new gimmicks – the giant mushroom, a huge, unwieldy spore that flops across the ground and, when collected, will make Mario fill the screen, smashing his way through absolutely anything in his path – enemies, blocks and pipes alike – earning extra lives as he goes. This Mushroom Kingdom Godzilla fantasy never really gets old, and is guaranteed to wow your friends (or scare them to death in multiplayer!).

The game is navigated by a map screen, which can be wandered around, and have stages attempted from, at will (a lá Super Mario World again). Staying true to past outings, expect the usual devious alternate exits to many levels in order to discover new routes and levels (two entire worlds in fact being hidden – think small…), with actual 100% completion of this title taking a very long time indeed. However, played simply from start to end with no frills, this isn’t the longest or most challenging game ever, and therein lies the only criticism. This ain’t no Mario 3; Mario veterans can expect to be through this thing in a matter of hours, with most levels being easily completed on the very first attempt with a bit of care.

Longevity is, however, nicely enhanced by the multiplayer angle (single game card compatible for those with limited cash). Apart from the expected “dash around the levels smacking your mate round the head and stealing his stars” stuff, a large amount of DS Mario 64’s minigames are available as multiplayer outings, and some of these have the potential to last for ages. Case in point: I spent most of a 3 hour train journey from Manchester to Kent last week having the mother of all Reversi tournaments with a friend on New Super Mario Brothers’ bobomb-based version of this classic board game.

Just like Reversi, in fact, it becomes apparent with this latest Mario update that sometimes, it’s the simple things in life that are the most enduring. For me, this notion is perhaps the essence of retrogaming, and it’s great to see that the big companies are not yet ignorant of this fact. With so many classic franchises being defaced and ruined on an almost weekly basis in the often exclusively technology-led mainstream, it’s reassuring to see a contemporary offering that, by and large, gets it utterly right for a change. Welcome back, Mario.

Copyright © 2006 Peter Michael Gothard

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