New Super Mario Bros. U: A Conversation

By Nick Olsen and Josh Snyder

New Super Mario Bros. U cover art

New Super Mario Bros. U cover art

Within the last six months, both Theory of Gaming co-founders (Nick and Josh) acquired a Wii U and New Super Mario Bros. U came bundled with the hardware. As longtime Super Mario Bros. fans both played the game almost immediately – the following conversation is an unscripted attempt to provide two honest views to the latest entry in a seminal video game franchise, and to understand how the game has evolved in both good and bad ways.

Nick Olsen (NO): Josh, I love Super Mario Bros. I think Theory of Gaming readers probably know that since I write about it allthefreakingtime. But even as I gush about Nintendo’s greatest franchise, I try to remain objective and point out flaws when they arise since that’s the point of this site. While playing New Super Mario Bros. U, one thing jumped out at me as wildly divergent from the early games: it was incredibly easy to get “1 ups” (extra lives). I think when I beat the game I had more than 50 still remaining! So I was wondering, did you have that many when you beat the game, and if so, what impact did it have on the game and the experience?

Josh Snyder (JS):  I actually had way more than that – something like 85 lives remaining, and to understand just how much of an anomaly that is, I need to back up a bit and describe how I play these games.

I, too, love the Super Mario Bros. games, but I am much more fond of the 3-D entries in the franchise, mostly because those games are more centered on concepts and ideas rather than skill and difficulty. In the 3-D games, 1 ups are plentiful, which works because those games encourage the player to experiment with these new concepts – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve died (and succeeded) by jumping off random ledges in Super Mario Galaxy, simply to see what effect gravity would have on me. That type of Mario game is much more my speed.

I’ve always enjoyed the 2-D entries, but never had the patience to finish them because eventually the difficulty would wear me down, and I would simply move on, frustrated by the steady stream of Marios falling to their demise. New Super Mario Bros. U is the first 2-D Mario game I have ever completed, and a large part of that is because the difficulty felt considerably lessened by the insane amount of 1 ups one could acquire in each level. No longer did I have to worry about nailing down a specific section of the level – I just kept running into it head-first until eventually I broke through to the other side. This change seemed to accomplish two things – it allowed the game to be more accessible, possibly allowing more gamers like me to beat the game, but at the same time I felt like I was cheating. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but to me, New Super Mario Bros. U looked like a 2-D Mario game, but it didn’t feel like one because there was no challenge, no threat of having to start all the way back at the beginning of the world. Or maybe it is just like every other 2-D Mario game, and I’m just that good (my money is on the former). You’re our resident expert, so I put it to you – did this feel like a 2-D Mario game to you?

NO: In terms of challenge? No. But I will say, this isn’t the first time that a 2-D Super Mario Bros. game had plentiful 1 ups; when Super Mario Bros. made its return on the Wii with New Super Mario Bros. Wii there were plenty of 1 ups to go around – I think I finished that game with 20 or more lives to spare. But in every other aspect of the game, yeah, New Super Mario Bros. U fit nicely into the canon and felt like an evolution of the Super Mario Bros. games which came before.

Super Mario Bros. world 1-1

Figuring out world 1-1 of Super Mario Bros. was an exercise in trial and error with a great payoff.

It’s interesting that you talk about the 3-D Super Mario games being all about trial and error, because that’s definitely been a part of the 2-D games for a while now too. If we’re being really technical we could say that the first screen in the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System was the supreme trial and error test: there’s a little brown thing waddling my way (a goomba) what happens if I jump on it? There’s a bunch of floating bricks, including a few with question marks on them; what happens if I hit them? A red and white mushroom popped out of a brick, is it helpful or harmful? In that sense, that one screen essentially established the most basic rules of the entire franchise through player trial and error.

Every game that’s followed incorporates that as well:

  • Super Mario Bros. 2: yanking plants out of the ground; secret doors; backwards exploration
  • Super Mario Bros. 3: super leafs; warp whistles; mushroom houses; skip-able levels
  • Super Mario World: Yoshi; power slams with the cape; vertical exploration

I really could go on forever (I won’t; you’re welcome). But I definitely get what you’re saying about the lack of difficulty in New Super Mario Bros. U making it feel more like their 3-D entries. This game didn’t have many levels that were outright game-stoppingly brutal like even the Wii entry had (I’m thinking about Bowser chasing you across a world of collapsing bricks), even if they were fewer and farther between than the early games. Do you think that’s a function of Nintendo taking what they learned from the 3-D games and applying them to their existing 2-D model and if so, what do you suppose is the reasoning behind that?

JS: I’m glad you said that the Wii entry was difficult, because it was yet another of the 2-D Mario games that I did not/could not beat. At least I made it to the final level…

Super Mario Galaxy 2 show off

Super Mario Galaxy 2 was Nintendo showing off – but that sense of exploration didn’t make into New Super Mario Bros. U.

I think I need to clarify my point on the 3-D Mario games – they certainly use trial and error, which you point out is indeed a core mechanic to every Mario game. But with the exception of a few optional levels, the 3-D Mario games are easy, devoid of almost any substantial challenge. For this reason, 1 ups do not save in the Super Mario Galaxy games – I’ve ended play sessions with over 50 lives, and when I quit and boot the game back up, I only start with five lives, and it’s never been a hinderance. The trial and error is geared more toward pure fun than it is challenge – Super Mario Galaxy 2 is just Nintendo showing off, making the player’s jaw drop at every turn. But it’s not difficult.

But here’s the catch – you ask if New Super Mario Bros. U is a 2-D game applying the lessons of the 3-D Mario games. I don’t think it is. The 3-D games do some crazy stuff, and by Mario standards, the Wii U entry was very pedestrian. It felt like a beginner’s guide to Mario games, and when dealing with the 2-D games, difficulty is, as we’ve said, a core mechanic. Take that away, and what remains? A competent platformer, but not one that wowed me.

A better example of how Nintendo took the lessons from both 2-D and 3-D games is Super Mario 3D Land. This was the first entry in the recent “2.5-D” Mario games. Many of the levels offer some interesting, unique mechanics, but are a bit more difficult, in line with the 2-D games. I am enjoying these games far more than New Super Mario Bros. U, because they are the best of the both worlds. I feel like the Wii U entry is one of my least favorite Mario games (but even a bad Mario game is better than 95% of all other games), because it lost sight of what made the 2-D entries so great. Yet at the same time, it’s the first one I’ve finished, and that has to count for something, right?

I guess there is something I’m missing, so help me out here – you say the Wii U entry was a nice evolution of the franchise, but I see it losing some of its identity in order to be more inclusive. What am I not seeing?

NO: I think it’s important to reiterate that a “bad Mario game is better than 95% of all other games.” But even that seems a little harsh to me. Yeah, the controller-toss-inducing difficult was absent in the game if you focused on just beating each level, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the game. I think it also makes sense to some degree: by reducing the difficulty in simply beating the levels, players who may traditionally struggle with 2-D platformers could still enjoy this game and get the satisfaction of beating it. And it’s not like Nintendo abandoned difficulty in this game, they just shifted it.

New Super Mario Bros. U start coin

The challenge of New Super Mario Bros. U lies within collecting the star coins in each level

The challenge in New Super Mario Bros. U lies firmly in the collection of the three “star coins” placed throughout each level. And man, some of those can be brutal to collect – especially since once you collect them you have to hit a checkpoint or beat the level for those coins to save. If you collect a difficult-to-get coin and then die before the checkpoint/end you get to try and collect that coin all over again! What’s the reward for collecting these coins? Opening up a new “star world” aka World 9 with new, more difficult levels (this mechanic was taken from New Super Mario Bros. Wii). So while these coins and levels are optional add-ons to the game, the more advanced players can still get their fill of challenge.

While I don’t want to get into much discussion on it, it’s worth noting that my copy of New Super Mario Bros. U includes New Super Luigi U which puts Luigi center stage (complete with his high jump/float abilities from Super Mario Bros. 2) and ratchets the difficulty way up by shortening levels but reducing the time to complete them while also adding a ton more enemies. This game is not for the faint of heart. But again, separate game so not really fair to discuss it in terms of New Super Mario Bros. U.

You mentioned the idea of inclusiveness (in your example it was making the game easier for a wider audience) and I think there’s something to that. To me, while I enjoyed the game in single player, the most fun I had playing it was with a group of five people at your house. I’d love to hear your thoughts on multiplayer and it’s importance to the game overall.

JS:  I’d love to talk multiplayer, but I need to respond to the shift in difficulty you mentioned. I get the point of the three star coins in each level, but I have a problem with how they are implemented. I’m going to go back to Super Mario 3D Land for a moment – that game, too, has a three star coin mechanic, and these coins are also needed to unlock bonus levels in each world. However, the key difference is that these coins unlock a level in each world, meaning that the reward for collecting them is much more immediate. It feels far more balanced to be able to enjoy the benefits of your hard work periodically throughout the game, as opposed to putting all of that effort into collecting those coins only to get one new world at the very end. The same mechanic is applied to any RPG – the player gains experience points throughout, and periodically throughout the game the player is rewarded by being able to level up. But if a RPG takes the New Super Mario Bros. U approach, they have to collect all of the experience points throughout the entire game, without being rewarded, only to level up instantly to the max level at the end of the game. It feels anticlimactic. I think the difficulty in New Super Mario Bros. U is shifted too far in this direction – as a result, I quit trying to collect those coins halfway through the game, whereas in Super Mario 3D Land, I make a point to collect all of them, because I can benefit from the rewards almost instantly.

New Super Mario Bros. U multiplayer

Multiplayer = chaos. Chaos = entertainment. New Super Mario Bros. U shines as a party game

Getting back to multiplayer, I think this is where the game really shines, and this is clearly how it was meant to be played. Because of the lessened difficulty, not only can more people play this game, but it is far easier to manage with so many characters on screen than New Super Mario Bros. Wii was with multiple people. It really feels more like a party game, a common theme in many recent Nintendo games. I know – they’ve always emphasized same-screen multiplayer and social gaming, but the franchises that felt most like they were meant to be played at a large social gathering were Mario Kart and Mario Party. But I would argue that New Super Mario Bros. U and the recent Super Smash Bros. games are just as much party games as Mario Kart 8, and in the case of New Super Mario Bros. U, the far superior party game. I think this is why I felt such a disconnect with the single player portion – it doesn’t feel like a traditional 2-D Mario game to me because it’s not – it’s a 2-D party game. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I think it does take something away from the traditional Mario experience. But that’s why Nintendo releases so many of these games – each one has its own unique style and goals to achieve, and in this case, that goal is a fantastic party game.

I feel like I’ve said my piece, so I’ll give our resident Mario expert the final say. Nick – where does this game fit into the overall Mario franchise? Is it one of the better ones, is it the beginning of a new type of Mario game or is it just a solid entry that keeps Mario fresh in our minds?

NO: You’re not getting away with throwing out a huge complaint about star coin implementation and then running off to multiplayer without rebuttal. I’ve got a problem with the suggestion that because RPGs offer something akin to instant gratification that Nintendo should offer the same in New Super Mario Bros. U, especially since the main game itself isn’t that long or difficult. By collecting the coins to open the secret world after the game is complete, it allows players to focus on the primary goal of beating the main game before slapping another random world in haphazardly – for one reason, because it would be internally inconsistent to simply drop a world in which ramped up the difficulty in the middle of an otherwise “easy” game. Putting it at the end rewards player for beating the game with both a sense of achievement – which as somebody who finally got to finish a Super Mario Bros. game I think you’d appreciate more – AND a new world which increases the difficulty to extend the life of the game and provide a challenge.

Where does it fit? Right at the end. Ha! In all seriousness, it does seem like both an evolution of the existing games (it builds on the foundation laid by previous entries) and the start of a new type of 2-D Super Mario Bros. game. New Super Mario Bros. U is most closely tied with New Super Mario Bros. Wii in terms of gameplay and mechanics which was the official 2-D reboot of the series for living room consoles and this one seems to just keep that train moving down the tracks (with a few tweaks) rather than reinventing the wheel; and that’s ok. But I think you nailed it when you called New Super Mario Bros. U a party game, because that’s definitely what it feels most like. This game, more than any other in the Super Mario Bros. series seems meant to draw players in for a social experience, one full of chaos and laughter. Until New Super Mario Bros. Wii, players alternated levels, but as you said, there were still some crazy-difficult levels in that game which were best suited for single player. New Super Mario Bros. U seems to have accepted its new identity and ditched the crazy-hard levels in favor of full-bore, multiplayer chaos – a sacrifice which was critical for up to five players playing on the same screen at the same time.