Watching games, I've learnt approximately ten years after everyone else, can be just as rewarding as playing them, something that's clearer than ever in the Switch edition of New Super Mario Bros U.
This new collection, which bundles together the 2012 game alongside its 2013 follow-up New Super Luigi U, is the latest of Nintendo's efforts to get the Wii U back catalogue, overlooked by many, onto the Switch (and if anyone over at Nintendo is reading, Tokyo Mirage Sessions and Pikmin 3 next please). It's an obvious choice for a revisit, a platformer of the highest pedigree that's undoubtedly the peak of the New Super Mario Bros series.
These are games that revisit the meticulous 2D engineering of the original Mario Bros games, the hard edges and stubborn challenge given a marshmallow-soft visual makeover that can be somewhat divisive. New Super Mario Bros U boasts some of the hardest edges to date (and particularly in its fiendish Luigi-themed follow-up), though by this point the visuals have bloomed into something more cohesive. Take the Soda Jungle's Painted Swampland, its backdrop a straight lift of Van Gogh's The Starry Night, and you've got one of the most visually striking Mario levels yet.
It's that kind of flourish - and the return of the world map which does so much to lend this particular jaunt through the mushroom kingdom a sense of coherence - that affords New Super Mario Bros U some of the soul that was lacking in prior instalments. I've even heard some people proclaim it as the best 2D Mario ever, though I wouldn't go quite that far - it's missing so much of the sense of wonder of true greats like Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World, that sense of secrets and marvels to be uncovered just under the surface.
Though maybe that's just the perspective of a fairly pedestrian Mario player, one who just bumbles through each adventure munching through extra lives. This Switch edition does its best to accommodate the more plodding Mario player, introducing Toadette and her Peachette power-up that's already earned internet infamy; effectively an extension of the flying squirrel suit that was introduced in New Super Mario Bros U, the two in tandem allow you to skip and glide through levels with minimum effort.
Which is all well and good, but the real meat here is for the more hardcore player. New Super Mario Bros U's heart lay in its challenge mode, a deliriously difficult set of levels with strict requirements, and where the kinetic brilliance that's only really possible in 2D Mario games comes into sharp focus.
It's here where you appreciate how Mario's moveset has perhaps never been better. There's the triple jump and the wall jump, of course, but also the spin jump that grants you a small pirouette mid-air (and in one of the subtler yet most welcome changes made in this Switch version, you can now perform the spin jump by simply pressing the jump button again when you're in flight). Combined it feels outrageously good, the action an invisible extension of your hands, and the moveset is put through its paces by some of Mario's most testing, diverse and tightly engineered levels to date.
Through the course of the standard adventure it's something you can indulge in at will, or you can always take the path of least resistance and pass up the three collectible coins in each level. In Challenge mode you're pushed to the extremes from the very off, though, sprinting to the goal in the quickest time possible or chaining goomba stomps to collect the most 1-ups.
It's deliciously devilish stuff, getting you straight to the essence of this brand of Mario in seconds flat (and needless to say it's absolutely perfect for portable play, those little ten second challenges that can take hours to perfect just the thing for gaming on the go). This is the Mario platformer as a racing game, and the Mario platformer as a puzzler - as it's always been, really, though never as explicitly as this.
The best bit, though, is that New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe let's you see exactly how it's done, with 200 videos of expert playthroughs included. This is Mario at its purest, it turns out - where players are tasked with racing through coin rich levels without touching a single one, the result a Buster Keaton-esque gauntlet run of sweaty palmed acrobatics that sits somewhere between ballet and slapstick. When it's the player correctly, it's a dazzling display of perfect timing slotting rhythmically into intricate engineering.
Played at the highest level, and this isn't just Mario as racing or puzzle game but also as rhythm action, the player bouncing along the musical notes of goombas and parabeetles in perfect harmony with the level designer's compositions (and I've always loved how the New Super Mario Bros series plays up to its music, the koopa troopas pausing on certain melodies to turn to the player in a knowing dance). Mario doesn't really get much better than this, even if it's something that's beyond my own skill set - so it's grand to be afforded the chance to see how it's really done here.
A shame, though, that these full-blooded runthroughs are only half-heartedly featured in New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe. You'll probably be familiar with many of the videos from when they appeared on Nintendo's site in the wake of the original release, and on the Switch they're merely collected and streamed for your convenience - or inconvenience, if you happen to be without an internet connection. It feels like an oversight to not have them more fully integrated within the game, and at a time when players are, rightly or wrongly, accusing Nintendo of overly relying on ports there's some evidence here of this being a rush job.
Still, you can't complain too much when what's being ported is of such quality. New Super Mario U Deluxe doesn't offer much by way of new tricks, and it comes up short in some regards, but it's still a fine excuse to play a decent version of an exquisite game. And maybe it's time for me to stop watching those super plays and try to reach those giddy heights myself.