New Super Mario Bros. Wii
New Super Mario Bros. Wii must have been especially problematic for Nintendo: they couldn't make a game that was a pure homage to the past titles
It wasn't easy for me to review New Super Mario Bros. because it was hard to separate myself from the process. It's easy to take yourself out of the picture with most games because rarely do you have a deep-seeded connection to it; at worst, you may go into a review with preconceived expectations because you've been following the franchise since its inception or you were a huge fan of a related title. But this is Mario we're talking about. For people of a certain age group and proclivity, Mario wasn't just a blip on the TV screen: he was as much a part of your childhood as Graham crackers and naptime. I'm not exaggerating when I say that Mario -- along with other Nintendo stalwarts such as Link and Samus -- are responsible for more childhood memories than I'm willing to admit outside of a therapy session.
- There are moments when it perfectly recaptures the spirit of old Mario games, but...
- ..it tries too hard to cater to both the hardcore Mario fan and new Wii gamers, making for an uneven experience
Taking myself out of the equation allows me to see the game's positives -- it's a polished packaging of the Mario license that fits comfortably on the Wii-but my personal feelings are so inextricably linked to my thoughts on Mario that it's hard not to let my memories of what was and what should have been affect my judgement. It pains me to award it anything that might be seen as a negative score but it would also wound me to give the game a high rating just for old time's sake.
So when Nintendo releases a game that harkens back to the classic Mario titles that I played during my formative years, it is, to steal a phrase from Ron Burgundy, "kind of a big deal." What makes New Super Mario Bros. especially interesting for me is that it takes Mario out of the 3D space and puts him back in the familiar 2D perspective of Super Mario World. At the risk of raising the ire of Wii "enthusiasts" everywhere, that was the last Mario title I actually cared about. While I found Mario 64, Sunshine and Galaxy interesting, they just didn't have the same profound effect that the 2D Mario games had. I should also note that I wasn't a big fan of the original New Super Mario Bros. on the DS; it felt a little soulless, like a Xeroxed reproduction of the Mona Lisa -- it looked a lot like the original but it was missing something essential. I had higher hopes for the Wii version and I was excited to finally get what I wanted -- a true 2D Mario game that closely hewed to the spirit of its forefathers -- but after spending time with it, I was left wondering if some wishes are best left unfulfilled.
It isn't that I didn't like New Super Mario Bros. Wii but rather that I didn't know how to feel about it. It's a Mario game that is immediately familiar and fun, but at the same time, it is also alien and strange. That's because the experience is so divided between the new and old. It's like Newton's Third Law of Motion, adapted for video games: For every action (geared towards the old school fans), there is an equal, and some would say opposite, reaction (aimed towards their newfound consumer base). The over-world map is reminiscent of old school favourites Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, as is the overall "feel" of the gameplay, but this nostalgic fan-service is counter-balanced by new school concepts like the addition of motion controls and multiplayer. The game did a good job of speaking to me as an old school gamer but I also got the sneaking sense that it was talking to somebody else behind my back.
Ironically, the only aspect of the game that I thought Nintendo absolutely got right in terms of this balance was the Super Guide, the much ballyhooed feature that essentially shows you how to beat levels that you're stuck on. It works perfectly because it's basically a digital version of an older sibling that would turn to whenever you got stuck; old school gamers from the NES era will definitely appreciate that. Casual gamers will also like the feature because New Super Mario Bros. gets ridiculously difficult towards the later levels and they'll require a little hand holding every now and again.
But everything else about the game left me with conflicting emotions. I kept wavering between nostalgic joy and the sense that something was amiss. Upon hearing my initial impressions, one of the other editors commented that it sounded like I was describing an encounter with a childhood friend, and that perfectly describes my reaction to the game. It was a bittersweet experience because it dredged up so many fond memories but at the same time, I was left with the realisation that things just aren't the same any more. Mario and I used to be the best friends but our paths had diverged and now, we're two completely different people. The game also had an oddly divisive effect on my expectations as well. My old school sensibilities left me ranting over things like the loss of flying privileges and Mario's new way of moving -- he walks like he's constantly on ice which I hate -- but my now matured tastes also left me railing against authentic holdovers like getting kicked out to the map screen after every death and having to fight the same boss multiple times. It got to the point where I almost gave up because I thought I was muddying the waters with my pseudo-mid-life crisis but then the light bulb went off in my brain: I was having a hard time figuring out what the game was supposed to be because the game didn't really know either.
It struck me then how perfectly New Super Mario Bros. Wii encapsulates the current state of Nintendo and its ongoing dilemma: the company whose name was once interchangeable with the words 'video games' has been standing at the cross-roads ever since they lost their dominant position to Sony back in the days of the original Playstation. Though they've reinvigorated themselves with the Wii, their ascent back to the top of the mountain comes with a new set of problems that they're still struggling to deal with: how do you cater to two very different sets of fans with two very different sets of expectations? While Nintendo is proudly forging ahead with its new identity, it has to keep in mind their established fanbase when it comes to their flagship franchises, especially one that's served as the public face of the company from the very beginning. Remember that every Nintendo console, aside from the Gamecube and the Wii, has launched with a Mario game and that's a lot of history to live up to.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii must have been especially problematic for Nintendo: they couldn't make a game that was a pure homage to the past titles because then, the legion of new Wii owners would have been left without a point of entry, and it was for the direct opposite reason that they couldn't craft a truly "new" Super Mario Bros. title that fully leveraged the Wii's capabilities. The end result is a divided game that's stuck with one foot in the past and one foot in the future; it tries very hard to maintain a hardcore vibe -- the devious and complex level designs that require you to grind out progress harken back to the old school NES era where success was earned, not given -- while also trying to come across as accessible and fun. It's a delicate juggling act and it doesn't always succeed; this is especially evident when watching casual gamers play. As an old school Mario fan, I had trouble sorting out my ingrained feelings but gamers who have no pre-existing notions face a completely different problem: the game is charming enough to win them over yet brutal enough to completely turn them off. I watched a couple of friends who got into gaming recently with the Wii play the game cooperatively and they were equally enthralled by the game's style and frustrated by the level of challenge. In fact, in keeping with the game's split personality, it's best if there's at least one old school gamer in the driver's seat so the rest can just come along for the ride -- in other words, a mixture of the old and the new, working together in harmony.
That sense of cohesiveness isn't always present in New Super Mario Bros. and it makes for an uneven experience that's difficult to score. Taking myself out of the equation allows me to see the game's positives -- it's a polished packaging of the Mario license that fits comfortably on the Wii-but my personal feelings are so inextricably linked to my thoughts on Mario that it's hard not to let my memories of what was and what should have been affect my judgement. It pains me to award it anything that might be seen as a negative score but it would also wound me to give the game a high rating just for old time's sake. It's funny because I've never felt such a personal conflict with a review before but I suppose that's the price you pay when you do business with old friends.
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