New Super Mario Bros U: Why it isn't really like a Mario game at all

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.

Up close and-a personal

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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  • andrew-herrera - June 14, 2012 11:46 p.m.

    This article contains an error. You can obtain the star coin you couldn't reach with the Squirrel suit power-up. I know you didn't have the power up at the time when you were doing this, because you said you tried shaking, but it didn't give you any extra height. The squirrel suit gives you that extra height you said you couldn't get by performing the same action. The guy told you to have your friends help you because he obviously had no idea or just gave you the first thing that came into his head. This -is- a Mario game. You can do everything, and I mean everything, in single player without help from anyone else. Also, before you tell me "the easiest solution isn't suppose to be with help from a friend!", all I have to say is: Are you crazy? Are you telling me multiplayer is not suppose to make the game easier? That would be bad design. What's important is that it isn't impossible to get the same results of progress by yourself, and it clearly is not. By yourself should always be harder, but in multiplayer, teamwork should -naturally- make things easier in any game. It just sounds like, to me, that you simply could not do something, and the frustration with it spit out this highly questionable article. You are looking for excuses to be pissed or not like this game based off your incompetent playing with the demo.
  • GR_JustinTowell - June 15, 2012 7:12 a.m.

    No error. I said in the article that I may have missed the power-up to fly there. Even if I had flown there, I would have come away with the same impression. The levels we played here are clearly designed for play with multiple characters at once. The 'easy way out' is always an option - the option that Nintendo *wants* you to take. Nintendo wants you to play with friends, with this 'asymmetrical gaming', because that's the Wii U way. And you know what? That's OK! It's chaotic and full of triumphs and failures as you experience this vastly different experience together. But that's why you don't get the classic Mario feel from playing those same levels in single-player. From what we played, the game feels surprisingly empty and just not the same. Not the same as the multiplayer game (obviously) or as the super-tightly designed Mario games we're used to. So, like I say, no error.
  • andrew-herrera - June 15, 2012 2:19 p.m.

    What makes you so sure these are even fully fledged levels? Skyward Sword had an entire sandbox area created specifically to demo at an E3 that wasn't in the final game in the same way it was in the demo. For all we know, these levels won't even be in the final game at altogether. Not to mention they could be early levels, even if they do end up in the game. Secondly, I've watched gameplay footage in single player. It doesn't look as empty as you say it does compared to other Mario games, at least using early levels as a standard. All Mario games start off bare bones in design but continually get better. This is assuming these will even be actual levels in the final game at all. As I said, in general, it should always be easier in multiplayer when you're working together with friends. That is how it worked in New Super Mario Bros. Wii for a lot of star coins(too high up? Jump on a friends head!). It doesn't matter if the easy route is with friends when you aren't forced to play multiplayer, and again these levels could be early or nothing more than demo levels to start with. They also look normal for early levels anyway. I don't know about you, but to me the first couple levels in Mario games have always felt sort of shallow compared to what was ahead.
  • masterjoe123 - June 14, 2012 7:01 p.m.

    Well if you don't want to play this, just play the 3DS one. I'm pretty sure that that one doesn't have this assymetric gameplay.
  • tehtimeisnow - June 14, 2012 4:06 p.m.

    i was at e3 and i playd this gane an onestly its the werst game i ever playd its a gimmeck and its no fun and its for 3 yaer olds im sure this gane will fale so hard cuz by the time it goes out a real game call of duty balck ops 2 will go out and everone will by that insted
  • Spenstar3D - June 14, 2012 6:36 p.m.

    either you're a deliberate troll, five years old, or the single stupidest person in all of the gaming industry who really shouldn't have been at E3.
  • bobob101 - June 14, 2012 9:22 a.m.

    For me, gaming is a solo experience. I play the game, and get over the challenges by my own skills. I don't like multiplayer games in general, and stay away from online gaming when I can. So to force me to rely on someone else to fully play the game is like a punch to the face.
  • Jaguar8481 - June 14, 2012 9:21 a.m.

    As far as you reaching that one coin that was just a little out of reach.....couldn't you have gotten it with the new Squirrel suit power up?
  • bboyd - June 14, 2012 8:34 a.m.

    Another game that just assumes I have Wii motes lying all over the house. How much will this thing cost me again?
  • shawksta - June 14, 2012 8:05 a.m.

    Very detailed ,and informative. Who knows, maybe its just the demo or the floor representatives goal on this one cause there are usually Star coins that force you to come back with a special attruibute. Nontheless it seems both interesting and off,time will tell how this will turn out, especially with the concept. Maybe ths is what they are planning, they are implying NSMBU and NSMB2 are 2 different experiences.
  • GR_JustinTowell - June 15, 2012 4:16 a.m.

    They are very much different experiences - I played through the 3DS demo too at the event. The Wii U game feels simplified and more about the chaos of multiplayer, while the 3DS game is way more traditional and much more hardcore (the demo even resets to the title screen if you die once). 3DS' game feels like a logical next step from the DS' New Super Mario Bros. Probably why it gets the '2' in its name :)
  • BladedFalcon - June 14, 2012 7:44 a.m.

    Hrm... Welp. That's one less reason to consider getting a Wii U anytime soon, I guess. At least it seems that the New Super Mario Bros 2 developed for the 3DS seems to have the exact opposite focus.
  • ParagonT - June 14, 2012 6:49 a.m.

    Good article, very informative. These are the small quirks that people need to know about before making a purchase.
  • Cyberninja - June 14, 2012 5:38 a.m.

    Well if they do crap like this the only way for it to be acceptable is for them to make half the game single player and half multiple player since most of the time, I don't have time to game with friends so it would be a hassle to have to relay on them.
  • Malintendog - June 14, 2012 4:14 a.m.

    Something that disappoints me about the way they did this game is that they didn't design it for multiple game pads. One of the core reasons playing multiplayer on the NSMB Wii was a bit of a hassle for me was that my friend liked to rush through the level, where I enjoyed taking my time. With the game pad the camera doesn't become an issue anymore because you don't have to share, nor split the screen to accommodate both players in the world. Regardless of this I think this game will be at the very least enjoyable. Once its out and playable I can see TheRunawayGuys doing a Lets Play of it in the future.
  • ncurry2 - June 14, 2012 8:24 a.m.

    I don't know how I didn't think of this as a potential use. It would be pretty cool to allow multiple people to play a level without the camera always panning out to a max and then the less skilled player inevitably getting killed or having to bubble. It would take away a lot of the feel of being multiplayer but at the same time, it would make working together all the more important.