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New Super Mario Bros. Wii strikes an excellent balance by giving old-school Nintendo fans the 2D Mario game they've been dreaming of since 1991, but also making an accessible experience that's just as much fun to play in co-op with the family.
Although the later levels became increasingly difficult and the manic thrill of having four players onscreen at once is a little too stressful, I still found this spiritual sequel to Super Mario World a beautiful family gaming experience.
Time for a shocking confession - I never played the Mario games when I was growing up. Being a child of the Commodore 64 and Amiga meant I was far more interested in complex flight Sims, Cannon Fodder and James Pond than the platforming delights of Mario Bros. on the NES. Whilst my peers had their videogame epiphany's on the sofa with a controller, I had mine hunched over a monitor, bashing keys on a discoloured keyboard or wonky joystick. I always felt like I missed out on those special moments that my friends had with the Goomba-squishing antics of Mario and Luigi, but fortunately New Super Mario Bros for the Wii seemed to fold back the years and gave me inexplicable, first-time videogame moment goosebumps the moment it came up on the screen.
There has to be some secret recipe that hits all the right nerve centres in my brain, but watching the brief cinematic intro and getting straight into World 1-1 with my son by my side gave me a buzz that no other game has managed to pull off. It's like a combination of small, seemingly insignificant features came together to create a vortex of addictive excellence that both my son and I adored the moment we stomped on a Goomba.
It's like a combination of small, seemingly insignificant features came together to create a vortex of addictive excellence that both my son and I adored the moment we stomped on a Goomba.
Part of this charm comes from the 2D presentation of the game that harks back nearly 20 years to the last 2D Mario game, Super Mario World. That's a game we've both been playing on the Game Boy Advance and Virtual Console and its charm and ease of play has been placed in New Super Mario Wii and enhanced by some clever new features.
The most obvious difference is the four player co-op that enables you and three others to progress through the campaign together. With just my son and I jumping into this mode at first, it felt like the perfect way for both of us to experience the game. I usually have to take over any game he's playing to get him past the awkward parts and in this mode I can do it all within the game, never breaking the flow of our experience. This was fantastic at first as the levels slowly ramped up their difficulty that meant we could both get used to the controls and I could figure out how to get him past the more troublesome parts. The simplicity of just pressing A to enter a protective bubble was sublime and it meant he could float alongside me whilst I dealt with the more complex platforming or troublesome enemies.
Playing the game this way was a lot of fun and even when the levels became too difficult another new feature stepped in to make progression easier - Nintendo's DemoPlay. This system kicks in whenever you die eight times in a row during the game and pops up the option to allow the Wii to play through the section for you. Far from being the heinous crime the more 'hardcore' gamers are declaring it as, I found this option a revelation for allowing me and my family to experience the full nature of the game. I only wish it didn't take quite so many lives for this DemoPlay feature to become active. There were certain points that I knew I wasn't going to get past and dying eight times in a row is a little tedious when you know you're at a point where you can't progress further.
Once we'd had our fill of the regular game the rest of the family joined in the action and this is where New Super Mario Wii starts to get a little... mad. Playing in co-op with my son was one thing, playing with three others of varying skill levels and attitude turned the game into a free-for-all circus that made the evening a mix of arguments, laughter and near-violence. The problem lies with the natural competitive nature of some of us and the game is quite happy to let players pick each other up and fling them into the lava or a chasm. There's no equality with the power-ups either so one person can greedily collect them all and leave the others vulnerable and (more likely) irritated.
I found my family's enjoyment of the game curtailed by the anti-social behaviour four-player co-op involved.
In a way this isn't the game's fault but I found my family's enjoyment of the game curtailed by the anti-social behaviour four-player co-op involved. The Coin Battles added a bit more structure to the game and kept events from getting too out of hand, but trying to go through the campaign with anything less than true co-operation led to some unnecessary arguments and dramatic walk-outs.
This never took away the beautiful experience I had with my son in co-op or when playing by myself. New Super Mario Bros Wii is a tremendous tribute to those older 2D platforming games and getting the chance to experience it like so many of my friends experience Super Mario World for the first time makes this a unique and special game. Playing this in two-player co-op is just as memorable and I know that it will replace Mario Kart as the de facto game of choice for many months to come. What sets it apart is that unlike Mario's racing game, I'll be playing this long after the family is tucked up in bed. As an enthusiast gamer as well as a family gamer it hits all the right buttons and shows that Mario, no matter how many dimensions he's in, is still the man to beat.
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