What's the best Nintendo game you've never played? Probably a full four-player session of The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures, 2005's 2D multiplayer excursion for the Zelda series. Its devious and riotous spirit remain a mystery to most because you'd need to assemble a GameCube, four GBAs and four link cables to play it as nature intended, something which was difficult for even games journalists to manage.
But it remains a landmark piece of multiplayer game design, a game that achieved the rare feat of seeing that co-operation and competition, cruelty and kindness, mischief and high adventure could co-exist. Virtually none have followed it, save Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet, in its friendly, woolly kind of way. Now, Nintendo has finally decided to resurrect the idea - but this time, in a form that almost everyone will be able to access and understand.
The result is New Super Mario Bros Wii, and it's fantastic fun.
After romping through a few levels with three others at Nintendo's plush and airy E3 booth, I was left grinning from ear to ear. The game doesn't look like much - well, it looks like a New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, exactly like it in fact. But you need to play it for mere minutes to tell that it's got the perfect balance of order and chaos Nintendo's platformers are famous for, mixed with the sugar-coated mean-streak of Mario Kart and the mischievous invention, sharp tuning and secret surprises of the developer's best.
Players start out as Mario, Luigi and a couple of coloured Toads - who knows if more characters might be available later? - and start the time-honoured scroll from left to right. The Wii remote is held laterally and the game uses NES-style controls - d-pad, 1 to dash, 2 to jump. That's it, save a shake that performs a spin-jump or, if you run into another player with dash also held down, picks them up. But as ever with Mario, a simple control scheme doesn't mean a simple move-set. We discovered the wall-kick and ground-pound, and we're sure there are more.
As with Four Swords, physical interaction between the players is at the core of the game - chucking each other around, bouncing off each other's heads, getting Yoshi to gobble up your friends and spit them out. Yes, Yoshi's in it, along with his multicoloured dinosaur tribe, flutter jumps and fixation with eating everything in sight. Opportunities to mount Yoshi are carefully seeded through the level we play, and always an object of scrambling competition between players.
It's bopping other players' heads that makes the real difference in to New Super Mario Bros Wii, though. You friends essentially become a set of wildly unpredictable moving platforms that can be used to grab coins or items - often found floating in bubbles, or produced in fours from blocks - first, or with a bit of co-ordination, to access secret or hard-to-reach objectives. Although it's unlikely to be an essential part of gameplay - New Super Mario Bros Wii will need to be playable solo, even if it's hardly the point - it's a simple stroke of genius that defines the game: it has huge potential for both co-operation and competition, and more importantly, it's really funny.
Unlike Four Swords and LBP, the camera's fixed and doesn't scale much, so if anyone gets left behind, they'll need to find their way back blind or, more likely, die. If you do die, you'll lose a life and get resurrected in a bubble which can be popped by another player (or not) to bring you back into play - a very clever multiplayer reworking of the Baby Mario mechanic from Yoshi's Island. Just so you don't feel completely helpless, you can shake the Wii remote to gravitate your bubble to the nearest player who'll probably end up popping you then, whether they want to or not.
Lose all your lives and you're out of the game, though. The balance between self-interest and community spirit is perfect, since on one of the harder levels we tried, a mini-boss castle, it was noticeably more difficult (though not impossible) to proceed solo than with at least one other player around. The level was classic stuff - Dry Bones, ascents through treacherous moving stone slabs and see-sawing platforms that could be given an extra push with a tilt of the Wii remote (another "secret" control detail - I suspect there will be more).
The only new item we see is the propeller suit, a hilariously cute colour-coded romper-suit and helicopter-helmet combo. It's a shake-driven permanent spin-jump, essentially, which combined with the exaggerated bounce physics while spinning causes all sorts of ricochet madness between the players. It already seems a smarter addition to the canon than any of the DS New Super Mario Bros' slightly gimmicky offerings. In terms of the classics, we also see the fire flower, whose extra range is key when it comes to racking up points.
And believe me, you will want to rack up points. This being a 2D Mario, there are so many different scoring opportunities - enemies, coins, super coins, items, secret areas, based on both level-knowledge and skill - that you'll always be racing to get something ahead of your competitors, but never short of an alternative objective if you fall a little behind. Coin-filled caverns down pipes (everyone follows a single player down a pipe, after a short pause) are pure, mad scrambles for score.
It's all topped off with a fitting finale at the end-of-stage flagpole. After the first player grabs it, everyone else has a few seconds to get there and get higher up it for a higher point finisher. Scores are then totted up, and positions on a cumulative leaderboard shuffled accordingly, and it's on to the next level.
The question mark over New Super Mario Bros Wii is naturally how worthwhile it will be to play alone. But maybe that's the wrong question. It's a multiplayer game through and through, a totally open-minded, open-ended one that doesn't see the difference between rivalry and friendship. If you have at least one other to play with who can get along with the concepts of left, right and jump, then this game could be Mario remade - in a way that Super Mario Galaxy 2, however lovely it looks, can't hope to be.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is due out worldwide this Christmas.