Playing New Super Mario Bros. is a lot like shagging an ex: it's familiar and feels good and is satisfying in the moment, but afterwards you're left empty and realize your effort could have been spent better elsewhere. That's not to say it's a waste of time. Quite the contrary, really -- you can easily blow through an otherwise boring half our doing both. Beyond that... nothing.
Like your occasional-fling of an ex, time has not been kind to Mario. The gameplay is great -- if this were 1989. Now -- it's a 2D, side-scrolling platformer amidst a sea of 3D titles inspired by the original Super Mario Bros., and it's sailing towards the shore of the next generation. Not just the next gen systems, mind you, but the next generation of gamers.
As the industry continues to expand, more and more new gamers -- younger gamers -- are born. Having been bred into the post-PlayStation era (and some post-PS2, as scary as that is), the likelihood that they'll appreciate games with an "old school" flair -- like NSMB -- is slim.
That begs the question: who's this game for?
Sure, younger gamers will play it, but if parts one and two of the EGM article "Child's Play" taught us anything, it's that 2D side-scrollers are "no Splinter Cell." Kids want instant flash and state-of-the-art 3D graphics, not a retread of a game which is older than their eldest sibling.
So then New Super Mario Bros. must be for those who are old enough to have played Super Mario Bros. upon its 1986 release. Well, the difficulty level being what it is -- a three on a 10-point scale -- seems to negate that idea... unless Nintendo is going for that "Hey, I remember playing that" kind of nostalgia trip, as their wont to do. In that case, The Big N will hook the over-25 crowd. Keeping them hooked, however, is another thing.
As noted at the outset: the appeal doesn't last long. After completing three worlds the tedium and repetition fully sets in. This wouldn't be so bad if one could save when and wherever one wanted. Such is not the case.
It's been said before and will be said again here: brevity is king when it comes to handheld games. The whole appeal of these tiny systems is that they can be taken anywhere and stored in backpacks and, better yet, pockets -- for play on trains and buses and in waiting rooms. Sure -- sometimes it's only a matter of clearing three or four levels before a save point presents itself, but, along those same lines, the modern/older gamer only has time enough for quick bursts of play. It hurts the game and the overall gaming experience when one has to power-off the DS in order to take a phone call -- or whatever -- without the option to save your progress.
It's one thing to replay a level to better your score or collect all of the Star Coins or find all of the secret exits, but it's an entirely different beast to do so because the developer wouldn't allow you to save when you wanted to. One adds to the game, the other... not so much.
Despite the generational problems presented above, no matter your age, there is fun to be had. The Mini and Mega Mushroom add a new twist -- in that certain Star Coins can only be reached as Mini Mario (think smaller than regular/un-Super Mario), and boss fights are a snap as the invincible Mega Mario (who takes up the entire height of the upper screen). Some of the secret exits are rather inconspicuous, thus requiring gamers to replay a handful of levels more than once -- that is, if they want a 100% clear ratio. And some of the newest villains do provide a bit of a challenge. (Some even sport interesting designs, especially Skeletal Bowser.)
Looking past that, however, you'll see a nostalgia trip for no other sake than a nostalgia trip. The additions, while fun for a while, aren't innovative; the second/touch screen is used for item storage and as a progress meter (so NSMB need not be a DS title, because we've played Mario titles for 20 years without either); and the only real challenge is trying to make it to a save point before the inevitable interruption forces premature shutdown.
Mario is an icon, and deserves his place in history -- this cannot be denied. But his best years are behind him. Familiarity is nice in that safe kind of way, but it doesn't make for compelling gameplay. Like it is with that ex, it's time for all of us to remember why we moved on all those years ago: something better came along.
26 June 2006