[17 December 2009]
Nostalgia can be a powerful force. It has the power to make the elderly believe that they’re part of the “Greatest Generation.” It can drive their baby boomers offspring to pay hundreds of dollars to see over-the-hill rockers crank out hits from the ‘70s and cause their 35-year old children to lineup to see big budget movies about toys from their youth. For video games, the call of nostalgia means that old school gamers are excited about Nintendo’s new attempt to resurrect a crusty, 25-year old platformer by the name of Super Mario Bros.
What beyond the sake of nostalgia would drive us to revisit the 2-D Mario games after countless iterations on half a dozen consoles? That’s the question I kept asking myself while playing New Super Mario Bros. on the Wii.
As it turns out, plenty.
First off, New Super Mario Bros. isn’t exactly a remake. It’s more of a fusion of the first Mario on NES, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World on Super Nintendo alongside some Wii-based quirks.
As in the aforementioned Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, there are stages divided into eight themed worlds (think “Ice World” “Desert World” etc.) to complete in order to chase down the ever-wily Bowser and snatch Princess Peach back. Just like the older games, the stages are divided into themed “worlds” that consist of regular levels, ghost houses, and castles containing mini-bosses of the Bowser Jr. variety.
Some of these stages are relatively simple affairs that let you tool around with your new power-ups, while others are like a Mario boot camp where the screen is filled with deadly cannonballs, parachuting Bob-ombs, koopas and goombas, Hammer Brothers, and the rest of Bowser’s considerable coterie of baddies. The structure and pacing is welcome—in one stage you might don a propeller suit and zip around and avoid most enemies, and in another, you’re on a crazy moving platform over a pit of lava in an underground cavern where any misplaced jump spells your doom. The game throws such a variety of things to do at you that it’s difficult to get bored.
To add to the fun, Mario has a new arsenal of moves in New Super Mario Bros. that includes a wall jump, a spin move that you activate by shaking the WiiMote, and a move that is probably best described as a “butt stomp.”
All of the familiar power-ups (mushrooms, fire flowers, stars) are here as well as new ones like the penguin and propeller suit, and ice flower, along with the “mini-mushroom,” a power-up that allows Mario to jump around like a flea and to explore secret smaller areas.
But the biggest new attraction in New Super Mario Bros. is the ability for a foursome to all play at once. In previous games, the second player basically had to take turns with the first or engage in some controller swapping with the first player. It’s not the most natural of mechanics—the camera pans in and out a lot with multiple players on the screen and it’s easy to get lost on the screen or accidentally knock your friend into some deadly spikes (you can also intentionally try to steal power-ups or kill the other players, but you probably wouldn’t stay friends too long if you do so).
However, if you play with the right partners, this mode is immensely satisfying and it feels like a different experience when you’re dealing with multiple on-screen heroes instead of playing solo. The good news is that despite the chaos that can ensue in co-op, it’s actually more difficult to die because as long as one player remains, those who plummeted to their death will return in a bubble that will get them right back into the game.
As an experiment, I played New Super Mario Bros. cooperatively with three of my nephews, ages 11, nine, and six. They enjoyed the game for about 15 to 20 minutes, but the younger kids quickly got frustrated with the relatively high difficulty level and the older one has been weaned on more complicated first-person shooters (“When can we play Modern Warfare 2?”, he asked). My thirtysomething friends, on the other hand, quickly got addicted to it.
Ultimately, the people that will probably enjoy New Super Mario Bros. most are 25 years old and over. They’re the generation that can collectively hum every note of the theme music or still has the location of the World 1-2 warp zone memorized. They’re the ones who will smile in recognition of touches like the flagpoles that you can slide down for extra points or the big floating airships from Super Mario Bros. 3.
Gaming, of course, has grown up a lot since Mario and company took the gaming world by storm in the ‘80s. Back then, the adventures of two mustachioed plumbers and their attempts to defeat a reptilian fire-breathing villain in the land of the Mushroom Kingdom fit right in with i’s NES brethren—games about little robot men and talking turtles and toads that fought crime.
But today there are plenty of games with adult themes—not only concerning violence and sexuality but even deeper questions like the morality of war and the evils of xenophobia. There has even been a Mario-esque platformer (Braid) released last year that becomes a metaphor about the ethereal and fleeting nature of love and loss.
Mario, on the other hand, hasn’t changed or grown up after all these years. He’s still literally stuck in a world of man-eating plants and flying turtle, bird things. In stark opposition to the brooding anti-heroes and complex morally gray characters that populate many modern games, Mario has no inner life and his plots contain no ambiguity. He just is. There are also no pretentious subtexts or even a real narrative. Playing a Mario is just a matter of jumping on moving platforms, collecting powerups, and jumping on enemies’ heads. Not even Princess Peach has gotten the sort of postmodern feminist update you’d expect. She’s a playable hero in Super Mario Bros. 2 and Super Mario Kart, but for the most part, she’s still a tragic damsel in distress.
This somehow feels both relevant and refreshing. And thankfully in New Super Mario Brothers, Nintendo has given us more than a stale pile of nostalgia. There’s enough new things to do and see that Mario is still a plumber worth meeting.