One look at New Super Mario Bros U will tell you what you think you already know. It's an HD version of modern 2D Mario. It looks like New Super Mario Bros, has anarchic multiplayer like Super Mario Bros Wii and has plenty of pixels to play about with. But forget what you think you know. It's actually a totally different experience.
We're getting ready to play the five-player demo. Four players on Wiimotes and the other on the Wii U GamePad, which is displaying the game in glorious fashion with zero lag. The tech specs say it's only 854x480 which is basically widescreen standard-definition, but the size of the screen makes the display look absolutely beautiful. But the disparity between the controller types isn't just to maximise inputs - Nintendo's 'asymmetrical gameplay' is about to come into effect. And we're not ready for what's about to happen.
Above: At the actual demo event, the console and TV did not hover in a white limbo
As the players before us finish up their go, I notice large coloured bricks are appearing in the levels. It's reminiscent of Super Mario Bros Frustration – that hack of the old NES Mario that places invisible blocks exactly where you need to jump. The Mario on the screen is dying a lot thanks to these blocks. And then I realise – they're being placed by the guy with the GamePad wherever he taps the screen.
Above: That blue orb on the right is the screen being tapped, adding a new red platform and removing the old one - you can only have four on-screen at once
And so it's time for our first go. Thankfully, the guy who picks up the GamePad this time is not a complete dick and he is trying to help. There's a platform at the top of the screen, so he's drawing in blocks like a staircase to allow me to reach it. The other three players (two Miis and a Toad) are running around on the floor.
But as I go to make one last jump (carefully judged from years of Mario experience), there it is again – another block appearing from a touch on the GamePad's screen, right where I'm jumping and right in the way. I fall to the floor of the level, undoing all that work in an instant. It's frustrating.
Despite this frustration, I can see how it could possibly be fun to work in co-op with someone. Especially if a child were playing as Mario and a parent was placing blocks to help him/her out. A bit like Super Mario Galaxy's use of the Wiimote pointer function. A second player helping out can make for an incredibly positive experience. But while the 'unwitting hindrance' himself is probably having a great time, player-invoked frustration is not the biggest issue here.
Before handing over the controls to someone else, I ask if I can see what the game is like when played in single-player on the Wii U's GamePad. As it happens, the solo Wii U experience feels very nice, at least in terms of the way the controller feels and looks. There's even a retro nod in the fact that you can't control Mario with the analogue stick – it's strictly d-pad only. I like it. But the pleasant experience of actually playing on the Wii U GamePad is about to be countered by the trade-off from having this 'asymmetrical gameplay'.
Above: Without everyone else on the screen, the levels feel much emptier
Playing on the GamePad alone doesn't switch off the TV display. Instead, my game of Mario is playing out on both the screens simultaneously. Even this 1-player game is becoming a social event as people watch and comment on the big screen action as I play on the small one. They're probably wondering why I'm back-tracking. It's because I've seen one of the big gold coins (like the ones in the DS and Wii versions of New Super Mario Bros) at the top of the screen on another one of those elevated platforms.
I can't reach it. And I'm trying everything at my disposal. I'm taking a running jump from the highest point, then wall-jumping off a lower ledge. And I'm so close to making it to the higher of the two platforms… but I can't. I try shaking the GamePad, which does recognise my motion and makes Mario spin, although it doesn't afford me any extra height. The advice from the guy giving the demo? "You have to get it with another person".
Above: This is actually a pretty accurate depiction of what 5-player feels like to play
Now, I appreciate that demo booth representatives have only been hired for the day and did not play a part in the design process. And yes, there may be a power-up block that I missed that allows me to fly there. But that's irrelevant. Mario has always been about two things. Either rewarding high-skill jumps appropriately, or forcing you to go away, find an item you need to help and then come back with it later and using it. You know, problem-solving.
From the demo of New Super Mario Bros Wii U, neither of those two traditional traits of the series appears to be present – or at the very least is not intended to be the primary method of success. The new Mario's easiest answer to such problems appears to be 'get a friend to do it for you'. And that's not the Mario we know and love.
Above: Steady on, old chap. Looks like you went to a lot of effort to reach that one. Why not get a friend to make a platform instead?
Ironically, on the basis of everything I saw at the demo event, new Nintendo's push for asymmetrical fun with friends genuinely works and is an even more deep-rooted concept than it was with the original Wii, running through pretty much everything that impressed at the demo event and being notably absent in almost everything that didn't.
But when that means tinkering with one of core gaming's most-treasured staples, it does fly in the face of everything the core gamers have thought they've been due for the past 12 months. Especially when Iwata himself has been assuring everyone the new machine will definitely cater for the core market that felt so abandoned last time round.
Normally we'd just point to New Super Mario Bros Wii which was similarly geared towards multiplayer at the expense of gratifying solo play and say 'well, it's just the social Mario game'. And we'd rub our hands together in gleeful anticipation of the 'real' Mario game. But for Wii U – so far – there isn't one.
That probably says more about Nintendo's still-misjudged guess at what people wanted to see from the Wii U at E3. As a festival of coin-collecting and squirrel-suiting for all the family, this Mario really works. But the long-term Nintendo fans may well yearn for something more grand that feels like it's just for them. It's inevitable that a big new Mario game is coming, but official confirmation would go a long way to soothing our anxiety.
Want more New Super Mario Bros U impressions? Check out our E3 preview
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