Every Nintendo console needs to launch with a Mario game, or so the saying goes. Nintendo itself reiterated that mantra on stage at E3 as the curtain was pulled back on New Super Mario Bros. U. What's surprising, though, is that for a Mario launch title there's little new in the game to show off the Wii U's unique features.
New Super Mario Bros. U won't convince the masses of the GamePad's potential (that concept is far better explained in Nintendo Land, or Game & Wario). Neither is it designed to set out Nintendo's stall for the Wii U's technical prowess. The game's HD visuals are delightfully crisp, the action utterly smooth. But its looks still pale to the depth-filtered 3D world of Pikmin 3, or the hand-crafted feel of fellow 2D platformer Rayman Legends.
It looks like a Mario game in HD, which is admittedly a fairly stirring achievement when you first see it. It's designed as a familiar face for prospective Wii U customers, a task it lives up to admirably. Do you want the new Mario game? You'll need a Wii U. The gameplay, controls and world design are all heart-meltingly familiar, from its simple D-pad control scheme to the shuffling dances of the Mushroom Kingdom's Koopa Troopas.
This has been the job of the New Super Mario Bros. series from the outset: to tickle the retro urges of Mario's original 2D audience, while staying simple enough to appeal to anyone else who wants to pick up a Wii Remote (although Nintendo will soon have made so many New Super Mario Bros. games that the subseries' prefix will lose all meaning).
Mario Bros. U is more inclusive than ever in this regard: five players can now game together, with four Wii controllers working alongside a single Wii U GamePad. The four players can run around the game's world as Mario, Luigi, Yellow and Blue Toads plus your Mii, while the player holding the GamePad can use the touch-screen to place temporary platforms within levels to aid or hinder others.
This is the only real use of the GamePad's touch screen. The tablet-sized controller is otherwise designed to be used as if it were a standard Wii Remote, even down to the lack of support for the pad's analogue stick. You can stare at the game's world on the tablet instead of your TV if you prefer, but shunning the newly-720p Mushroom Kingdom out of choice is likely an option few will volunteer for.
The GamePad's platform-placing mechanic is a novel addition however, allowing one player to hold the power of god over others' success. You can charitably save a falling friend, or helpfully offer a leg-up to an out-of-reach Star Coin. Alternatively, if you're feeling a little more devilish, you can pick a foe amongst your other players and suddenly block their assault on the end of level flagpole.
There's a soupçon of other new features, too. Pink Yoshi Babies can be held and inflated for floaty aerial adventuring. It's similar in essence to the Propeller Hat pickup, which presumably won't be returning. Then there's the PETA-baiting Squirrel Suit, a proper gliding version of the now-ubiquitous Racoon Suit, which also allows you to hang off the edges of blocks.
Yoshi Babies are useful for exploring the upper areas of levels, for discovering clumps of coins and reaching platforms with beanstalks into secret areas. Those inside a Squirrel Suit are better equipped to leap around any suspicious-looking lower areas, clinging to precarious platforms while on the hunt for a Star Coin-toting cave.
The game's worlds include a leafy outing in the treetops with flying squirrels a-plenty, a desert level with giant stone columns bobbing up and down in shifting sands, and a starlit, snow-capped land with huge rotating stars to jump around on.
Levels in general feel broader, taller, and more open in what's partly a necessity to allow the GamePad's platform-placing. But you can also feel Nintendo drilling home the fact that, just as with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, this is a game to be played with others at your side. As a lone adventurer the rest of the screen feels slightly empty. Together? It's a mad assault, a compulsive and competitive race to nab all the coins and survive with the most lives.
It's fun in single-player but feels like the perfect party game. And that's New Super Mario Bros. U in a nutshell, then: a retread of Nintendo's well-worn formula, and a game with visuals that for the first time are as crisp as Mario's trademark action.