Version tested: DS
It's a deceptive little thing, this game-card.
"Game-card". Feh. It's been hard for Nintendo. Tech lingo's shifted into a language they've often had difficulty speaking - certainly in the years since the curtain fell on Yoshi's Island, the last true Mario game of the type we're addressing. The good thing is they're catching up though. They've done their language tapes. The last few months have been virtually poetic - even if Reggie Fils-Aime sometimes gives the impression of speaking in tongues.
By that token, then, you might argue that New Super Mario Bros. is a bit of an anomaly. Scratch the surface and it looks and feels like an old Mario game. Go outside and poke it with a shovel and it's like a geological cross-section of nuance ripped from the swing-ropes, bounce-pads, wall-jumps and graphic procedures of a decade of furrowed pretenders. Old words in a new mouth.
Keep going though and you'll want to throw off your wellies and kiss it on its spangly chops. Because New Super Mario Bros., which only takes what it needs from the technological diversity of the DS dialect, proves there's a difference between the language of gaming technology and the language of games - and that's a fundamental part of Nintendo's 21st century rhetoric. It may be on a "game-card", with all that imparts, but what makes a good new Mario is still the same.
Which is all a ponderously indulgent way of saying: If you dig in properly, it really is more than just a ploughed up genre patted down with a butt-stomp. (Although, sadly, this intro really is just a rubbish language metaphor thrown together with some sort of demented gardening riff. Apologies.)
New Super Mario Bros. is actually a bit of a pain to review, you know, because there's a massive temptation, when you start, to simply name-check everything you might expect to find in a Mario Bros. game. It's all here. Similarly, you can reel off a list of everything of any worth that's been introduced to the genre outside Mario games, probably glossing over some of the things that make such a big difference to the sheer - oh go on then - playability of the thing in the process. I simply can't be bothered to do that. It'd take all day. So I'm not going to.
(Oh alright then: Running jumps, fireballs, butt-stomps, wall-jumps, piranha plants, goom-bahs, big boos, question blocks and winged ones, koopa troopas, bom-ombs, castle whomps, guppy fish, fortress levels, ice worlds, desert worlds, lava worlds, sub-bosses, three hits, forced scrolling, warp pipes, beanstalks, Hammer Bros., moving platforms, ghost houses, flagpoles, smash blocks, Bow-ser, Prin-cess, gold coins, spike traps, castle doors, spring pads, 1-ups, toadstools, rising lava, falling water. Swing-ropes, led-ges, shape-shift, dang-ling, etc. Also: did you know that NSMB houses the mini-games from Mario 64 in subtly tweaked and single-card-multiplayer versions? Coo, eh?)
So instead of doing all that, I'd rather... oh for heaven's sake stupid revisionist editing procedure - well instead I would have rather sat here and talked about things that make me smile. Like how absolutely, totally and utterly right the controls are.
During my reading around of all things Mario in the last few days, I came across a favoured old-days review of Yoshi's Island (a game which I'm going to bore you all to death about shortly). And there's a line at the start which I'm going to paraphrase here because the simple fact that it holds true today is evidence enough of how seamlessly all the new stuff blends in (and also because, as my old English teacher used to tell me when he realised I was nicking ideas pencilled around the margins of my War Poems book by its former owner, if you can't think of something new to say then for god's sake rip off somebody who was right the first time). So then: Mario moves with the same cunningly imparted inertia as the original Super Mario World, leaving him always doing on-screen what you were telling him to do via the pad.
Actually, Mario feels a bit heavier than I remember, here, but rather like the shift from Mario World to Yoshi's Island it's a learning curve for which there is no syllabus besides common instinct.
And with all that in mind, New Super Mario Bros. is wonderful because it's a brilliant distillation. Varied and accessible but still deep and punishing if you push it that way. It hoovers up the values of Super Mario World and Yoshi's Island. Mario World was brilliant at challenge and secrecy. The satisfaction of conquering the game's 96 levels was virtually incomparable at the time - and every one you found was another little firework show in your heart (and the last few you found were like Guy Fawkes heart attacks). Yoshi's Island was different. Forget your Half-Lifes, nippers, this was the blueprint for set-piece gameplay, with something new to grin about lurking down every warp-pipe.
Here there are eight worlds and many of them are the usual archetypes, but the content is never boring. Whether you're riding an auto-platform formed out of snaking blocks through the fiery hazards of Bowser's castle or leaping acrobatically around swinging toadstools, you're always in control and always having fun. There are new challenges everywhere, and their distribution is consistent. There's every type of platform - even ones whose movement you control with your positioning. Giant electric eels force you into narrow corridors of water just as whirlpools fight to pull you off the bottom. Intersecting auto-platforms deposit giant piranha plants on each other to snap at your positioning. Volcanoes spew crushing rocks from the distance which rain down, shattering platforms and blocks around you, just as snarling pumpkins become aggravated at your feet and start sprinting around unhelpfully. Ledges that you sidle along or hang from introduce themselves, as Hammer Bros. start lobbing fireballs as well as boomerangs. Giant boos deflate as they puff themselves out following but grow if you let them sit still - and they're not the only new additions to the haunted houses, popping up in close proximity to oily-footed charging brutes that you can manipulate to smash through into inaccessible areas. You could argue that there's more actual imagination concentrated in the first world of Yoshi's Island than there is in the entirety of NSMB, but you can't argue that this is less fun to play - and that owes a lot to fresh takes on old themes.
Another example is the introduction of three big golden coins per level - perhaps something of Super Mario 64's legacy. SM64 comported itself differently - the jumping, the butt-stomps, the ice-slides, the snowmen, the ships underwater were the things you liked; the Stars were the things you loved. NSMB's coins don't end the level the way Stars did, but they do burn the same candle for you, and it's their placement in difficult-to-reach areas that makes the difference between completing NSMB at a canter, as you can, and doing your very best platforming to get the most out of it. Even the most boring gamer in the world's going to come over a little bit perfectionist here and there, angling for The Big Golden Coins because, well, why not? They're tangible golden progress. If nothing else, they build up a currency that gives you access to alternative routes home to bonus houses and uncharted levels.
You might argue that contrary to the lessons of Super Mario World it's too open about its secrets - particularly worlds 3 and 7, shadowed on the touch-screen world-map, neither of which is drastically hard to unlock. Secrets are more entertaining when you know they're there but simply don't know what they are or how to get to them until you do. So: know they're there. The keys to the properly hidden bits are invisible question-mark boxes you pump with your head when prancing over a row of visible ones, sprouting a beanstalk, or the hidden pipes just off-screen at the peak of your bounce-rope ascent. They're shadowed artfully. Available but inaccessible. Fun to reach. It's all there - there are just layers of secrecy, same as there were with SMW. It lacks a Star Field, but then, hey, maybe it doesn't. I've spent more hours than I can count chipping away at it in various places but there's no guarantee I've found everything. There's always something I want to do when I come back - that's one of the reasons I've given up taking it out of the game-card slot when I turn the DS off.
God - the DS. I suppose it's actually telling that I've gotten this far and haven't made any reference to the fact that this is a Mario game on a wacky two-screen touch-sensitive handheld games console. But then this isn't really about the DS features at all. You play it the traditional way - pad to move, A to jump and X to run or toss fireballs. You can keep an eye on your progress through each level thanks to a line of dots with a flag at the end on the touch-screen, with Mario's head showing you how far he's made it. On the map-screen, you can tap one of the eight world icons to transport yourself there and replay levels for more of the big coins, and so on. You can store one power-up, including the Giant or Mini powers, Mario World-style, in a box that you can access by tapping an icon.
That Giant Mario mode certainly looks nice in the screenshots, but actually the Mini-Mario one's the more interesting of the two. Giant Mario can stomp around smashing things - including useful warp-pipes if you're not careful - and he's handy to call upon when a golden coin lurks tantalisingly out of reach at the top of an area too broad to wall-jump, but whereas he's a temporary form like invincibility, Mini-Mario's something frail that you struggle to keep hold of because there are things he can access, like tiny pipes and secret level-endings, that no other Mario can.
Getting to the end, it's worth pointing out I've been quite conflicted about all of this. I realise it doesn't sound like it, but then you're not typing into a Word document overlaid on three others each full of conflicting prose I've spent the last three days polishing and ripping apart with escalating contempt and self-hate, so quiet you. I have been wrestling - brawling, really - with how much I like New Super Mario Bros. Whether it really is as good as the games it follows. Whether the fact that Mario chirps "bye-bye!" when you close the DS lid to suspend is delightful attention to detail or just retro-chic. Things like that. No I don't go out much. In the end, I'm just going to take a cue from the game's name - after all, it's hard not to embrace something titled with such jarring honesty. At intervals today I've opened the lid and gone after some golden coins I hadn't got. There's been one level that's annoyed me intermittently over the past two days - a sequence of jumps just after the halfway point involving a waterwheel that turns if you linger on it and a group of flying turtles that have to be artfully bopped in sequence to reach a big coin and then a swinging vine to a warp-pipe that holds another. And I've done this sort of thing before hundreds of times across thousands of days in what feels like a dozen Mario games. I still love it.
It has been more than ten years since Yoshi's Island. And it's easy to look around and say that the balance has shifted. Mario - this kind of Mario - is in some sense a relic from a past long forgotten. A period that saw Nintendo standing tall in every sense amongst its competitors. In the years since, Nintendo's star has fallen and Mario's has too, to some extent - with even the towering achievement of Super Mario 64 gradually slipping out of a memory once full of treasure upon which his subsequent outings on GameCube and GBA have heaped little interest.
Fitting, then, that Nintendo saved some of his finest moments for this diminutive game-card - which, along with the emergence of DS and Wii, some have marked as a bookend to a period of dynastic chaos. The balance could yet shift again. But New Super Mario Bros., with its faultless controls, effortless variety and deceptive simplicity, argues that while market ratios can sweep back and forth and erupt and diminish in unexpected ways, the balance of ideas can always be relied upon to settle in one place: in the welcoming arms of a friendly little company from Kyoto called Nintendo.
9 / 10