New Super Mario Bros. Wii

New Super Mario Bros Wii takes the classic Mario format into unfamiliar multiplayer territory. While we’ve had the occasional battle and race modes in previous handheld versions, this is the first time the game has been built from the ground up around a four-player competitive mechanic.

We recently got the chance to spend some extended time with the game and its ten varied levels. Naturally we explored every last nook and cranny, in both the single-player mode – that we suspect many players will use – and the headline multiplayer mode.

There’s a huge difference between the two. Although the levels, enemies and item placement seem to be identical in both modes, playing without two or three buddies makes NSMBW seem a lonely place. The camera is positioned quite a long way from the action to fit as much scenery as possible onto the screen, and a lone Mario is dwarfed by massive contraptions such as cogs, wheels and entire chunks of hillside that rotate to reveal secret entrances.

The scale of the levels means there are plenty of huge jumps and tall ledges, reachable only by getting flung into the air on a springy block or an inexplicable geyser of sand. Despite the gimmicky distractions it’s still a challenging game for one player, but it’s nowhere near as tightly designed as Super Mario World. There are a lot of areas that seem like filler, which is effectively what they are. But when you rope in some friends for a multiplayer session you’ll soon see why it was designed that way.

With the levels fully populated by human players, the open areas don’t feel quite so devoid of enemies. There are probably just as many Goombas, Koopas and other creatures wandering around as in any other Mario game, so maybe ‘empty’ isn’t the right word, but when you’ve got three or four people hopping around, bashing into each other and competing for hard-to-reach coins and items, the game would look busy even if there was nothing else moving in the level.

The competition is frantic. You can play co-operatively, helping each other over big gaps or giving somebody a boost to grab something that’s tantalisingly beyond normal jumping range, but no matter how we set out to play at the start of a round, that’s never how it finished.