The original Mario Bros. game for arcades was released in 1983. Mario and Luigi worked together to clear the sewers of all sorts of bad guys. The co-op in that game was quite good, even by modern standards. The Mario Bros. series has remained incredibly popular through the years, spawning all sorts of sequels. The franchise is legendary, and for good reason. But one thing that has been missing from most Mario Bros. games is co-op. The latest game in the series, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, goes back to Mario's roots in co-op, allowing four players to join together to beat Bowser and rescue the Princess.
A few years back, Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. for the DS system, and this game shares a lot with its portable predecessor. New Super Mario Bros. Wii isn't a remake, though, and there are many new elements that set it apart. The DS game was excellent, probably one of the better titles for that system, and New Super Mario Bros. Wii doesn't stray too far from the things that made it work on the DS.
Though the title of the game would suggest otherwise, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a return to "old school". The action takes place in a 2D perspective, unlike the previous Wii title Super Mario Galaxy. If you played any Mario Bros. games on the original NES or the Super Nintendo, you will feel quite at home here. Mario begins each level in tiny form, and collects the familiar power ups. The growth mushroom, fire flower, and invincibility star all make appearances. Bricks are bashed, coins are abundant and ready for collection, and pipes with piranha plants are scattered throughout the landscape. For fans of classic Nintendo platformers, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a real treat.
Though there is much "old" about the game, there are several innovations. One is the Ice Flower, which allows Mario to shoot balls of freezing cold. Enemies struck by the ice balls are encased in ice, and can be picked up, thrown, or simply used as a platform to jump on. As you can imagine, this is extremely useful. Even better is the latest in the long line of suits for Mario, the Penguin suit. This snappy looking costume allows you to slide on your belly in a quite adorable manner, which is great for hopping over small pits and such. Mario doesn't slide on icy surfaces while in Penguin form, and it allows you swim quite proficiently too. The Propeller Suit allows you to leap to incredible distances with a waggle of the controller, allowing you to reach special areas and avoid dangers below.
The level design in New Super Mario Bros. Wii is fantastic. The designers have taken the classic platforming of the series and added some twists and turns, some of them quite literal. Mario has to climb moving fences, and jump across them in Spider-man-like manner. Some platforms rock back and forth, requiring perfect timing to cross. Blowing sand geysers and foggy levels would simply not have been possible on the Nintendo consoles of old. The few motion control areas are well done, not frustrating at all, and seem natural, not tacked on. There is a satisfying mix of familiarity and innovation in New Super Mario Bros. Wii that makes it very compelling.
The biggest change for the series in New Super Mario Bros. Wii is the addition of four player co-op. Up to four players can grab a Wii-mote, turn it sidewise like an NES controller, and have at it. In order from 1 to 4, players control Mario, Luigi, Yellow Toad, and Blue Toad. Two Toads is a strange choice, since they look so much alike and there are many other characters in the Mario world that could have made an appearance. There is no online co-op, which is pretty much expected for a Wii title, but still a shame.
Unfortunately, the co-op in New Super Mario Bros. Wii is not particularly strong. That's not to say that playing with four people isn't enjoyable, because it can be from time to time. But the multiplayer experience is better described as competitive, not cooperative. As more players are added, the gameplay becomes more chaotic. Instead of becoming easier with more people, as you'd expect in a co-op game, it becomes more difficult, particularly when playing with those of different skill levels. It's clear that the designers wanted a good co-op experience for the game, and I appreciate that effort. But there several issues that encourage cutthroat play, instead of cooperation.
The biggest issue is the fact that players can bump, collide, and otherwise mess with each other. At first this doesn’t seem like a big deal, until a teammate nudges you off a pipe into a Koopa or off a platform into a pit. Worse yet, you can pick up another player, carry them around, and even throw them. Far too often, this totally wrecks the timing and precision required for a platformer of this nature, even when it's not intentional.
Here’s an example: Mario freezes a bad guy and hops over it while waiting for another enemy to come in range. Luigi runs over, stands on top of the frozen baddie, and tries to pick up the block of ice to toss it at that second enemy. However, Luigi is standing too close to Mario, so the green plumber ends up picking up his brother instead of the ice block and hurls him directly at the second enemy. While the player controlling Mario is busy yelling at Luigi, the iced enemy thaws out and kills him while he's distracted. Admittedly, this is an extreme (and funny) example. But after you lose your last life because of a similar situation like this, you’ll want to throw your Wii-mote (or your “partner”) across the room in frustration.
Another issue that will have you pulling your hair out is how the screen scrolls. It is very easy for one player to run on ahead of his partners, and the screen will eventually scroll to follow them. That’s fine if you are the one who is ahead, but if you are lagging behind and get stuck behind a pipe, block, or even an enemy, when the screen scrolls, you are shoved into them, often to your doom. This is fun for neither the “squasher” nor for the “squashee”. Again, the problem is worse when playing with folks of different Mario skills. Experienced players will want to move quickly, and more casual players won't be able to keep up. This leads to some awkward moments between teammates.
Another major issue is how power ups are handled in multiplayer. When the power ups pop out of a block, one “good” power up appears, and the rest are mushrooms, the number depending on the number of players. For example, let’s say you are in a three player game. Mario bumps a power up block, and a Fire Flower and two mushrooms fly out of it. It becomes a mad dash to get to the Fire Flower. The best case scenario is that one player gets to shoot fire while the other two grow to Super size. That’s not really fair, and that’s the best outcome! Often, mushrooms fall off the screen, or get picked up by a player who was already powered up. (Penny Arcade doesn't like this too much either.) Why not make any power ups work for all players, just like the 1Ups earned by collecting coins do?
When players die, and have lives remaining, they come back in a floating, protective bubble, totally immune to damage. At any time during play, you can press A to go into the bubble, which seems like a balancing feature at first. But there are problems with this, too. Other players can pop the bubble by touching it or throwing a projectile at it. If a stray fireball hits your bubble while you are on top of an enemy, well, that's just too bad. You don't have any real control over the bubble's flight path, though if you shake the Wii-mote you can nudge towards a teammate. The bubble is meant to help those who are struggling with the game, obviously; but being in the bubble takes you from playing the game to merely spectating. That's not exactly a good thing.
The simple fact of the matter is that 2D Mario games are meant to be played in single player. Adding in four players does not make the game co-op; in fact, it's quite the opposite. All the hallmarks of good co-op are missing from New Super Mario Bros. Wii. There is not much you can do to help one another, and indeed, there are very little in the way of positive interactions at all. A weak player holds back others, instead of being brought along by them. There are few resources that can be shared with one another. So much more could have been done, but the co-op in this game is lacking, and not nearly as well thought out as the level design, for example.
When New Super Mario Bros. Wii was announced, I was thrilled. I was really looking forward to Nintendo's take on co-op in a 2D Mario game. After just a few hours of play, though, I was quite disappointed. Instead of enjoying myself, and sharing the Mario experience with my kids, we were all frustrated and quite honestly a bit angry with each other. That's not the kind of feeling I was looking for. I want to like the co-op in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but it is average at best. It is a wonderful single player game, and worth playing for that alone. Even the multiplayer can be fun, if you are looking for an "every man for himself" type of thing. But if you are looking for a strong cooperative experience, New Super Mario Bros. Wii is not it.