It's been a huge delight to re-run through the old Super Mario classics on the Game Boy Color, the GBA and, more recently, on the DS. But at the same time, there's only so long you want to wallow in nostalgia before you get to play something new, and Nintendo has finally taken the hint with this brand new DS-only offering. New Super Mario Bros. takes everything we loved about this celebrated platforming series and buffs it up, with an impressive 2D reworking that sticks to the old gameplay principles while throwing in a few new moves and graphical tricks to prove that the days of side-scrolling platforms are far from numbered.
Knowing how hit-and-miss the touch-screen controller can be on platformers like Super Mario 64 DS and Rayman DS, there was a certain amount of trepidation at the idea of playing a 2D platformer with the stylus or thumb-strap, but fortunately such worries didn't linger long. In this case, Nintendo has wisely given over the touch-screen to serve as a shortcut for your store of power-ups, so firing off stored items is a simple process.
Super Size Me
The three level demo didn't allow much room to show off too many new ideas, but we did get a flavour of some of the power-ups that feature in the game; one of which spontaneously transforms Mario into a giant version that's as tall as the screen and enables him to deal with the mutant nasties that have similarly grown out of control. Although at first the game appears to be a standard 2D platformer, the scalable visuals give Nintendo licence to play around with the camera a little, zooming in and out dynamically, while the scenery is far more dynamic than previously, with trees visibly feeling the impact of Mario's infamous returning butt-stomp.
In the true spirit of Super Mario gameplay tradition, much of your travels are simple exercises in coin collecting, block-butting for power-ups, an endless butt-stomping procession clearing Koopas and Goombas and trying to suss out ways to avoid hungry giant Piranha plants along the way. Alongside a cleaner graphical style and hugely improved animation, it's immediately apparent that new SM64-inspired moves have made it into the mix, including wall jumps and back-flips, while the powered-up Mario will also apparently be capable of dishing out kicks and punches - not that the demo provided much evidence of that in truth.
In keeping with previous Mario adventures, exploration and kleptomania is as much a part of the game as simply working your way from left to right, and it's not long before you're diving into pipes and foraging in underground lairs for all the optional coins, power-ups and other goodies that are hidden within. Typically, Nintendo switches the action to the lower screen whenever you jump down into a pipe, which is logical if nothing else. They have to use the second screen for something, eh?
Mario Versus Luigi
Wireless multiplayer also promises to be a lot of fun with one player controlling Luigi, and the other Mario in a straight up race from one side of the level to the other. In keeping with the Mario Kart power-up principle, players can grab lightning bolts that shrink your opponent, or blue blocks that transport the player to your location, allowing you to catch up lost ground. Whether the full package will also be laced with touch-screen bonus mini-games is unknown at this stage, but we're sure Nintendo will pack the game with assorted bonuses to encourage replayability.
Visually, one argument is that it pays homage to the past too much for its own good. Although the traditionalists will undoubtedly coo over the fact that Nintendo has remained utterly faithful to the look and feel and it's great to see that there's still a place for the old style, there are very sound hardware-related reasons why those games looked the way they did.
Fast forward 15, 20 years to a capable platform like the DS and the design sensibilities make the demo levels look basic, minimalist and perhaps even a little empty in places. In a sense, what Nintendo has done with its New Super Mario Bros. is akin to what modern bands often do when they release a clean-sounding cover version of an old classic song with strings and a gospel choir. In theory, the modern arrangements and crystal clear recording techniques ought to make it sound better, but somehow you just prefer the soul of the crap mono 1965 recordings that make it sound like it was recorded live in a cramped, sweaty garage with a Dictaphone. Is this "New" Super Mario Bros., or "Old"? It would have been interesting to see what a truly new 2D Mario Bros could look like, rather than one which clings for dear life to the past. Maybe Nintendo will do one of those as well?
The jury's out
That's not to say the finished game won't be utterly brilliant when it eventually comes out, because after a half-hour run through the three demo levels there were glimpses of the Nintendo design genius, especially when Mario gets super-sized and Nintendo starts having fun with the level design. Is it enough to suggest New Super Mario Bros. is a whole lot more than a basic retread of the past with scalable graphics, wobbly platforms and wall jumps? That remains to be seen, but the millions of fans that have lapped up the past versions will surely be happy in the knowledge that we're finally going to be blessed with another 2D Mario after all these years. Who'd have predicted that?
Check back for more on what is sure to be one of the key forthcoming DS titles.