Like many families who dropped a then-absurd $300 on the NES back in the mid-to-late 80’s, mine would spend a good deal of time in front of television while taking turns on Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. Duck Hunt provided plenty of amusement, but everyone knows that Mario was the place to be. There were four in my family, so we would team off in pairs while taking turns playing between Mario and a palette-swapped Luigi. It wouldn’t take long for me to demonstrate that I was a natural. While most of my family members would die as soon as the first goomba while panicking to jump or succumb to bottomless pits, I mastered the most important yet basic gameplay mechanic that you will find in every Mario game: keep the run button down at all times. After all, there is no flying in Mario 3 or Super Mario World or floating without running. Even now, twenty-four years later, I tell my wife that if she wants to get good at Mario, she needs to keep that run button pressed down. She concedes that she’ll never be good because she can’t do it. I’ll keep hope alive.
While the modern gaming landscape has been transformed by online multiplayer, when I was growing up, being a gamer was a lonesome hobby. As my family members would die and the controller would expeditiously make its rounds to me, my turn might not end for twenty or thirty minutes. My family members would find other things to do when it was not their turn—watch tv, go to the bathroom, read, run errands—and they would eventually stop coming back for their turns, leaving me to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom all by my lonesome.
All of them.
So by the time New Super Mario Bros Wii came out with its scarlet jewel case to match Mario’s outfit, I bought that game quick, fast, and in a hurry! And you should know that I almost never pay full price for games. Sort of like how boys grow up to be dads and imagine their sons playing pee-wee football or their children joining them on camping trips like they did with their fathers, one of my dreams consisted of sharing games like Mario with my kids, hoping that they would not find the pixels and antiquated graphics distasteful. NSMBW relieved me of these anxieties by modernizing Mario with its art direction. But when it came out in 2009, my kids were still too young to comprehend how to play. My wife did manage to tough it out for me in cooperative play however, though she spent most of her time in a bubble once she found out she could just hit that button when we would encounter a difficult section of a stage. In fact she became so comfortable with that button that when I died while she was safe, she would panic and hit the button, causing us both to lose! I disliked that feature, because I felt it a method to cheat, if not be lazy, and would have gladly picked her up and literally carried her through the stages, but hey, bubbled allies was better than having to play through game by myself. NSMBW was a good game, but not great. In all honesty, outside of playing with up to four people, it was a forgettable experience primarily due to the lack of difficulty. I constantly stayed at max lives. Even when I died, I would go into the next stage and find secret 1-Ups or collect 100 coins. The only time I was challenged was when I collected all the star coins and unlocked the star world, which I do not remember except that I wished that the entire game was as difficult as those stages.
So when Nintendo announced New Super Mario Bros Wii U, chronic apathy would mildly describe the nature of my response. In fact, the main reason I own the game is that it (and the shovelware known as Fling Smash) was bundled with the gently-used Wii U that I purchased late winter/early spring 2013. I have to admit that I literally nodded off while playing through the first world.
Then my quarter-life crisis happened. Maybe I’ll talk about the gritty details of it one day. Suffice to say, my life was consumed by chaos as my family and career aspects were crumbling, and yet I was still salty about my video games. I had purchased as a birthday present to myself, a brand new, $150 24” ASUS LED monitor for my PC which was confiscated on December 15, 2012 by a family friend during an “intervention” of sorts. StarCraft II had come out featuring my favorite race, the Zerg. I’ve already mentioned that I had just dropped $350 on a Wii U as a replacement for the Wii that my youngest son broke when he believed that the disc drive could take 2-3 games at once. But I couldn’t play any of it because I was separated from my wife while living in a transition house. So while many complained that their Wii Us were gaining dust for lack of games, I couldn’t even play mine. Fast forward through a bit of the chaos in my life, and here I find myself writing for PTBN, pursuing my dream of writing about video games that I had given up on for “stability,” only to find that such a thing does not exist in this world.
Speaking of stable worlds, life is a lot better in 2014 and I did finally get around to beating New Super Mario Bros. Wii U. Inspired by witnessing my three kids spontaneously embark upon NSMBW together, I asked them to join me in my NSMBWU playthrough. I am pleased to confirm that it is a remarkable improvement upon NSMBW, and right up there with the Holy Trinity, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (SNES version; none of that garbage 3DS music nonsense). My perseverance through World 2 of NSMBWU revealed to me that Nintendo followed an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach, where the World themes of the Mushroom Kingdom are almost identical to those found in Mario 3: Greenland, Desert, Water, Jungle (where Giants are encountered), Winter, and a “sky” world. There is no Pipe Land, thank God, but the final world is still full of hellfire and brimstone. Furthermore, while the themes of the individual “worlds” resemble Mario 3, the layout of the Mushroom Kingdom in its entirety resembles that of Super Mario World; after all, it is possible to walk continuously across the world map from 1-1 to Bowser’s doorstep which is much cooler than using a menu to navigate between the isolated worlds found in both Mario 3 and NSMBW.
First, what makes the game work for me is that it features an appropriate difficulty curve. I am not ashamed of falling asleep while playing the first world, because the past generation of games introduced the likes of Super Meat Boy and Demon’s Souls, titles featured in PTBN’s Games of the Generation which will kick your butt from the PRESS START screen. Failure to challenge gamers, particularly the more seasoned, is a faux-pas. I still easily reached 99 lives, but I had a reason to do so; collecting all of the gold coins and unlocking the secret levels had me reading FAQs and watching YouTube videos in order to 100% the game, tactics which were unnecessary to 100% NSMBW. Also unlike NSMBW, I actually had to use many of the items that I had collected throughout the Mushroom Kingdom in order to most efficiently conquer the stages. The flying squirrel “acorn” power-up, a prudent recalibration of the ridiculously goofy propeller hat powerup from NSMBW, is essential in working toward 100% completion. Fans of Mario 3 will immediately recognize the “P” insignia on the powered-up version of the acorn, which allows unlimited flight while the regular version utilizes limited flight but plenty of flotation. Actually, the integration of all of the items is as clever as I remember them in Mario Galaxy; you will find yourself saving the mini mushroom for that one tiny pipe in that one stage you passed by to discover a golden coin, or will have to use the ice flower to freeze an enemy in water, causing them to float to the surface as an ice block to reach some other strategically placed gold coin.
It’s this kind of item integration and implementation—the satisfaction the game provides after hitting a question mark block and getting an item because of how the present stage proceeds to demonstrate with aplomb not just how much you needed that item, but how cool the item is—that makes me rethink the 2D Mario pantheon while attempting to overcome the fierce impulses of nostalgia which violently resist any suggestion that the Mario games of the 90’s could be anything but the GOAT, much like how many gamers feel torn between A Link to the Past and Between Two Worlds as the best top-down Zelda game.
The Three Pilliars of 2D Mario include Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Super Mario World 2 Yoshi’s island. The historical importance of the original Super Mario Bros. (not to be confused with simply Mario Bros., which shows up on occasion as a battle map in Mario 3, and is also a stage in Smash Bros Brawl) goes without saying, as it is one of the touchstones for reviving the video games industry from its 1980’s crash. Yet it is completely outclassed by the enhancements Mario 3 would provide on the same system. Super Mario Bros. 2 automatically gets eliminated from the conversation because it is essentially a reskin. Still, it would be callous not to acknowledge that many of the differentiating properties between Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess
Toadstool Peach were derived from it.
So that leaves Yoshi’s Island, SMW, and Mario 3. Playing with Yoshi in Super Mario World was the most gratifying feature in that game besides playing with literally Super (caped) Mario, so when Nintendo enabled players to play with Yoshi permanently in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, I fell in love with the crayola crayon art direction and all the animation perks such as when Yoshi marches idly in place. However, the character for which the franchise is named is an infant and the game lacks traditional power-ups (instead, Yoshi transforms into vehicles). The most damning detail concerning this game is that it is spoken of as simply “Yoshi’s Island,” not “SMW2.” The reasons for this can’t be apparent enough.
Since I’ve already spoken fondly of Super Mario World, I’ll address it next. It is another excellent game (let’s be serious here; when is the last time you’ve played an objectively bad Nintendo game? Underwhelming, I could understand, but broken? Waste of money and time? Bad?) that we must remember as a sequel to Super Mario Bros. 3, meaning that it remarkably expands upon the scope of its predecessor while taking advantage of then-new hardware designed to compete with the Sega Master System/Genesis. Without question, SMW is a fun game, and I adored it so much that it is the Mario game that I have played the most in my gaming career despite never owning a Super Nintendo. Much of my playtime came by way of going over to my friend’s house around-the-corner and ROMs. I must have beaten this game from 0%-100% at least six times. Only Sonic 3 & Knuckles have I played-to-complete so many times.
That said, and recalling my criticism concerning the difficulty of NSMBW, SMW itself was an easy game. Not only was reaching the end goal easy, but even unlocking all the secrets was easy, though they were supposed to be the main challenge of the game. This game had a strange sense of balance. The more you unlock, the easier the game became, rather than the other way around. The green “!” blocks containing instant cape feathers were straight hax! Having a cape feather in my item window available at all times at the press of the select button is imba, rendering getting hit by an enemy quite meaningless, as was being able to have Yoshi in any stage that did not require Mario to enter a building. It was not until playing NSMBWU that I come to realize how balance-breaking it is to have items on command mid-stage as well as Yoshi throughout the duration of the game. In other words, for all of SMW’s bliss, it lacks the challenge that I spoke of concerning NSMBW even if it is still more fun.
That leaves Super Mario Bros 3. Yo, even though I had “beaten” Super Mario Bros (the game resets you unceremoniously to World 1-1 after finally rescuing the Princess) while finding the multiple Warp Zones and “bonus stages” along the way, my first genuine feeling of accomplishment was learning about the secret whistle in World 1-3 of Mario 3, ducking behind the white block and walking in the back of the stage exit.
Mario 3 is a masterpiece that manages to surpass the seminality of SMB and solidify platform games as a cash cow genre for the next fifteen years–or at least until Super Mario Galaxy becomes the genre’s zenith. Mario 3 brings forth a World Map that allows for non-linear progression. Items can be used from the World Map either for stages or for map navigation. Enemies can be seen on the map rather than randomly generated battles. It features mid-bosses in addition to the themed bosses in every World. It allows for items to be used from a menu before stages. It integrates specialized bonus rounds. It allows for 2-player battles. It features multiple kinds of powerups including special hidden ones. And so on. The game was legit.
Mario 3 was difficult, but in a fair way. Much like the NEW SMB games, Mario 3 began on easy mode, and as one progresses through the game, the stages become harder and harder. Note on World 1 how stage 4, a stage that is admittedly difficult for that stage of the game, is skippable. however, stage 6, which is similar to stage 4, is not. That’s excellent game design: the developers made a way for players to not become frustrated too early, and become acclimated to the game before 1-6 in case 1-4 proved too difficult. Brilliant!
I may have only played Mario 3 from start to finish once in my entire life. Most of my playthroughs involved using a whistle at some point to skip a World or several. I almost never skipped the first world so that I could farm 1-ups due to the sheer brutality of the later Worlds unless I went straight to World 8 for a suicide run. Not only is the game difficult, but it is LONG. Perfect playthroughs of Mario 3 on YouTube stretch to just under three hours. Remember I said perfect playthrough, with good video editing or someone who has played that game exclusively for months to prepare for a perfect run. That’s conceivable in NSMBW, even on a first try. But in Mario 3, the average player will die. A lot. And there are no save points but plenty of continues. Woe be to the player who takes too long during a Mario 3 session and the NES would glitch from overheating as they were known to do. I’ve experienced that myself. Pisseed is an understatement for how I felt.
I don’t have any real negative criticisms of Mario 3, as it is gaming perfection while SMW introduces many changes at the cost of difficulty. All I can think of as problematic when it comes to Mario 3 is the lack of Yoshi even if that is an anachronistic criticism. By comparison, the worst I can think of concerning NSMBWU is…more Mario, which is more of a criticism of Nintendo and its output on the Wii U than the game itself. Recalling NSMBWU’s strengths, I can’t play with four (five if you count someone, probably a “non-gamer/casual” holding the gamepad for Boost Mode), people in Mario 3. No saves. No secret levels. No Yoshi. No Miiverse. All of these are features that came after Mario 3, but that’s the entire point of making sequels, yes?To improve upon a previous formula. Sure, NSMBWU dials back the difficulty, but not to the degree of SMW does.
I think that when the dust settles, many will see New Super Mario Bros. WiiU as one of the best 2D games of all time. I think it is the best.
I am sure many will disagree with me, but I am also sure that there aren’t many who are capable of doing so objectively. After all, how many gamers own a WiiU and/or have actually played New Super Mario Bros. WiiU?