I have to start this retrospective on a personal note – New Super Mario Bros. came out ten years ago. Bloody hell, I feel old all of a sudden! To put into perspective how much of a whippersnapper I am, I hadn’t even been alive for a decade when Nintendo released what at the time was their first side-scrolling Mario platformer since 1992. You’ll be happy to know that this this feature isn’t about me though – it’s a retrospective on a game that gave the world’s most famous plumber a new lick of paint, reinvented the platforming genre for the 21st century and has spawned a long-lasting legacy that continues to influence Nintendo’s approach to creating games, ten years on.
At the time of New Super Mario Bros.‘s release in 2006, it had been a good long while – almost 15 years – since the plucky moustachioed hero had put on his platforming overalls (the side-scrolling variety, to be precise); aside from a variety of remakes and re-releases on the Game Boy Advance, home console outings were limited exclusively to a 3D space, with 2004’s Super Mario Sunshine being the only mainline title in the Super Mario series to release on the platform. The system’s other offerings consisted of a wide variety of spin-offs, covering everything from baseball to dancing – it could be said that Mario was as popular as ever, but the direction that Nintendo were taking with the series was straying further away from the core Super Mario concepts established in 1985 that had helped lift the titular character to his iconic status. With this in mind, New Super Mario Bros. was envisioned as a title that would bring the series back to its roots, offering up some authentic platforming fan-service for those who favoured a more traditional 2D Mario.
New Super Mario Bros. was a title which, in principal, aimed to serve as a re-invention of the plumber’s earliest adventures, drawing inspiration and elements from many highlights across the series’s history. Influence from the likes of Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Yoshi’s Island and of course, the original Super Mario Bros. can be observed throughout, with these elements collectively used to build a game both nostalgia-invoking whilst feeling fresh – a true ‘best of’ Mario title.
Despite taking inspiration from many older titles bound to bring up fond memories in any long-time fan of the series, a simple, modern yet appealing new visual style would be effective in attracting a brand new audience to the title and by extension, the series, including many younger players – the art direction and character/enemy designs, whilst somewhat divisive amongst hardcore Mario devotees, have served to be highly influential on the series as a whole, setting a new house style for the series going forward, as well as Mario and friends’ appearance in spin-off titles, merchandise and marketing material – the famous red cap and blue overalls were now at their most modern, and although some believed this look lacked artistic flair and appeared too clinical for the relatively upbeat and cartoony experience found in Mario games, it has distinctly set the tone for how players will view the characters and environments of the Mario universe for years to come, and for those younger fans, likely will stand as the version of Mario that they will best associate with.
Since 1986 Mario and his brother Luigi had picked up a fair few new tricks; wall jumping and somersaults had emerged as a result of the dynamic duo’s leap into 3D for the first time, their diversified moveset a result of more complex, well-crafted environments that accommodated a wide mixture of approaches to completion. To see some of these skills adapted into a 2D setting would prove to be a real treat for seasoned players, offering an optional degree of technicality to traversing each stage that those with skills or experience would easily be able to take advantage of, without becoming overbearing and allowing for a more methodical approach to still be taken.
Along with new physical abilities came a variety of original power-ups adding further variety to Mario’s arsenal; the ‘Mega Mushroom’, which has since gone on to make appearances in both mainline titles and a selection of spin-offs, provides a particularly devastating power to the normally stocky hero, transforming him into an almost invincible giant who will crush anything, terrain and enemies alike, into dust. In contrast, also introduced is the ‘Mini Mushroom’, which significantly reduces Mario’s stature and physical strength whilst taking his mobility to new heights, allowing him to sprint across water and up walls.
After carelessly kicking potentially thousands of Koopa shells across his various adventures, New Super Mario Bros. finally gave the titular plumber a first hand chance to feel what it’s like to glide along the ground at a breakneck pace thanks to the ‘Shell Mario’ suit, which provides impressive stopping power whilst moving, at the cost of reduced control. These fresh ideas for power-ups all work effectively to create an original (and quite likely satisfying) experience for long-time Mario fans, without compromising the key simplicity of the series’s now age-old platforming formula. As well as this, the implementation of said items is well-constructed within the game’s level design, ensuring they don’t feel in any way out of place despite their adventurous concepts.
Abilities and traversal methods aside, New Super Mario Bros.‘s level design is something that can be praised on its own. Whilst not every single one of the game’s 80 stages are memorable experiences, it offers a hefty selection of stages that showcase a consistently high standard of level design – everything from your first experience with the all-powerful Mega Mushroom in World 1, exploring the Mushroom Kingdom’s murky sewer system and outrunning rising lava and volcanic debris in World 8 – these are some of the game’s most exciting, original and memorable moments, as well as ones that serve as a display for some of the aforementioned top class level design, as well as a fine return to form for 2D Mario. Extra collectables such as Star Coins and the inclusion of many secret areas, hidden exits and additional levels demonstrate how New Super Mario Bros.‘s level design may appear straightforward at face value, but offers plenty of incentive for the adventurous few who take their time to explore what the game has to offer.
A variety of new thematic concepts are displayed alongside the physical makeup of each level, with various environment-based stages serving as the precedent as the game progresses (continuing a trend that emerged in Super Mario Bros. 3, as well as serving as something which has continued to appear in various forms in recent instalments). This not only directly affects the gameplay through various elements unique to specific environments for the first time(for example, differing terrains such as quicksand or heavy snow), but simply contributes to a sense of visual individuality that breaks up the potential monotony of many stages of a similar appearance.
Along with the more significant gameplay and visual changes, smaller elements of the game help to craft it into a distinctive and original experience overall – new enemy designs stand apart from their veteran counterparts whilst remaining stylistically and conceptually in-place with the rest of the Mario universe. Individual bosses for each of the game’s 8 worlds add to a sense of progression as Mario and Luigi’s enemies become more threatening the closer he comes to his arch-nemesis’s castle, not to mention improving on the lack of variety seen in earlier titles which utilised very similar challenges in each world’s final stage.
The game’s multiplayer options, whilst not particularly fleshed out, provide simple yet highly competent entertainment for more than one player – ‘Mario vs. Luigi’ mode’s frantic platforming battles likely helped pave the way for New Super Mario Bros. Wii‘s four player co-op focus, whilst the included set of ‘Minigames’ not only provide some amusing challenges of wits and skill on their own (despite being something of a downgrade in terms of minigame selection from 2004’s Super Mario 64 DS), but provide us with the unique opportunity to see Luigi dealing cards in a tuxedo, something for which the game can be heralded.
When discussing the presentational elements of New Super Mario Bros.‘s design, it’s impossible not to mention the game’s soundtrack, composed by a remarkable team of Asuka Hayazaki (née Ohta) and Hajime Wakai and directed by the legendary Koji Kondo, the man responsible for composing the soundtrack of the original Super Mario Bros. Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated components of New Super Mario Bros.‘s overall experience, as well as causing something of a divide of opinions when it comes to its use of bizarre vocal sound effects, the game’s music carries about with it a joyous and upbeat tone whilst invoking a sense of both adventure and nostalgia (no small part thanks to outstanding arrangements of classic themes from across the series), perfectly suited to what was then Mario’s most vivid platforming experience yet. Perhaps for the current generation of children, the chirpy tune of New Super Mario Bros.‘s overworld theme (linked above) will allow for the same feelings of nostalgia and reminiscence that the classic ground theme creates in those who first picked up an NES controller in 1985.
New Super Mario Bros.‘s legacy has been divisive, to say the least. When the game released on the DS in 2006, Nintendo could hardly have predicted the heights of success it would quickly attain – as a matter of fact, the company internally believed that the game would only appeal to long-time fans and Mario veterans, its popularity amongst children and series newcomers coming as something of a pleasant surprise. Off the back of this remarkable success with a casual audience, 2009 saw the release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a sequel with a heavy focus on local multiplayer – the addition of four player co-op, as well as the return of many much loved series elements such as rideable Yoshi and Bowser’s minions the Koopalings took the game in a much grander direction, with level design arguably suffering as a result of an emphasis on this multiplayer element. Four player co-op could quickly become hectic and leading your supposed comrades to their peril was a particularly simple feat. Whilst the idea of a four player Mario game was certainly groundbreaking at the time of release, it would fail to receive the same critical success as its predecessor (although commercially, it was not far behind, also taking pride of place as one of the best selling games of all time).
In 2012, a more direct followup to the DS original, New Super Mario Bros. 2, would release on the 3DS alongside the 2DS, a budget variant of the system primarily aimed at younger and more casual players. This time, the game’s overarching concept involved the collection of coins, the function now given an importance beyond simply increasing a player’s lives – despite this emphasis however, the lofty goal of collecting one million coins was a particularly unrewarding one, requiring players to repeatedly play certain levels for any hope of quickly assembling such a colossal tally. The second portable offering in the New series was also used as an opportunity for some of Nintendo’s more inexperienced level designers to put their abilities to the test in a commercial release – whilst the idea of such an opportunity to train level designers is a promising one, some consider the game’s quality to have suffered as a result.
Later that year at the launch of the Wii U, New Super Mario Bros. U would return the series to home platforms, bringing with it a return of four player co-op. However, with veteran designers in tow, not to mention some stunning visuals brought about by the Wii U’s enhanced power over its predecessor, this proved to be an experience that surpassed many elements of previous entries in the series, arguably even the original in some regards. DLC expansion New Super Luigi U, released during 2013’s ‘Year of Luigi’ event, seeked to re-invent the New Super Mario Bros. concept through challenging, strictly timed stages, succeeding in appeasing the players who felt alienated by the generally simplistic and undemanding design that defined the New series.
All of the elements described, both big and small, draw together to make this game a truly remarkable one, as well as one that still holds up 10 years after its release. Truly a 2D Mario platformer for the 21st century, it’s no surprise that New Super Mario Bros. has successfully drawn in fans young and old alike, the world over – its status amongst the top ten best-selling games of all time still stands testament to this. Some may believe that New Super Mario Bros. stands testament to a more negative outlook on Nintendo’s approach to the Mario series in recent times, settling for tried and trusted methods to ensure repeated success. Perhaps it is more suitable to view the New series as a celebration of the elements that have made Mario such a beloved franchise in the first place – the fact that the sights, sounds and experiences New Super Mario Bros. has to offer invoke such strong feelings of nostalgia and fondness for the Mario games of old is no mistake on Nintendo’s part, but when you consider that these same concepts and design principles that won over a generation back in 1985 have been able to draw many a newcomer in 2006 not only towards Nintendo and the Mario series, but gaming as a whole, suggests that clearly they did – and still are – doing something very right.