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10 Years Ago, New Super Mario Bros. Made Old-School Cool… or Profitable, Anyway

The only thing truly "new" about Nintendo's DS blockbuster was the notion that maybe classic platformers still had a place in the world, but that was enough to make a difference.

Retrospective by Jeremy Parish, .

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A decade ago this week, Nintendo debuted one of its most revolutionary creations ever: New Super Mario Bros. for DS. That game's revolutionary achievement? It proved games don’t have to be revolutionary in the sense of inventing new, groundbreaking concepts in order to make an impact.

In other words, NSMB made a difference by being, well, old. Many critics have lamented long and loud the irony of such a brazen throwback of a game wearing the title "New" Super Mario Bros. That seeming misappellation, however, sits at the very core of the game’s success: It went on to become the 10th best-selling retail game of all time, and the second best-selling Mario platformer to date (right behind the original Super Mario Bros., which enjoyed the benefit of being a pack-in title for most of the NES's life). To put it in perspective, NSMB was the top-selling game on the second most successful game console ever. By any definition of the word, it was a massive hit.

New Super Mario Bros. makes for an interesting study in contrasts versus the original Super Mario Bros. That 1985 classic set a new standard for video games, offering unprecedented depth, variety, and control mechanics — a tremendous achievement in action game design. More than 20 years later, its DS follow-up did almost exactly the opposite: It threw out the innovations and refinements of Super Mario's sequels through the years, abandoning the three-dimensional platform design of Super Mario 64, the complex level design of Super Mario World, and the breadth of power-ups seen in Super Mario Bros. 3. Despite its title, NSMB was the most basic and stripped-down Mario adventure since Super Mario Land for the original Game Boy.

While many long-time Mario fanatics found the game's lack of invention to be a disappointment, its predictability — its familiarity — proved to be its strength.

Mega-sized Mario, by far the most iconic image to emerge from New Super Mario Bros., appears only a handful of times in the game. Otherwise, it's mostly business as usual, as defined by Mario platformers circa 1986-1991.

"I picked up [New Super Mario Bros.] right when it came out, and remember being really excited to play a 2D Mario again," says James Petruzzi, designer of the upcoming pixel platformer Chasm, which he acknowledges drew some influence from Mario's DS smash ("I was actually inspired by its great wall-jump mechanic for Chasm," he says). "I liked the 3D Mario games on Nintendo 64 and GameCube, but they just didn’t scratch the same itch for me. So in a way, it felt like a real follow-up to Super Mario World."

Petruzzi wasn't alone. On the contrary, Mario's backward-facing sequel appealed to millions of people precisely because it reminded them of games, and game design, from long ago. Nintendo couldn't have timed the game's release better: The DS had finally picked up genuine traction thanks to a strong roster of holiday 2005 releases, and the DS Lite hardware revision — which would outsell the standard DS model by a factor of five or six — had just debuted in Japan and was less than a month away in the America and Europe. The DS's roster of unconventional games like Nintendogs and Animal Crossing: Wild World had cemented the system's popularity with a much wider audience than the typical gaming crowd, and New Super Mario Bros. was a perfect follow-up. It offered familiar, rock-solid action that appealed to older players by stirring primal memories of the NES while snaring new fans with its accessibility and raw appeal.

"I loved it," says Dan Adelman, an indie gaming business development consultant who is currently working with Petruzzi on Chasm. "The color palette was bright and cheerful, the controls tight, and the level design was varied. After putting out so many Super Mario Bros. games over the years, Nintendo could have just churned out more levels with shiny new graphics, but they put in a lot of new touches that weren’t possible before. I think everyone remembers the first time they saw that giant Mario sprite. It made the whole level feel tiny by comparison. You could also become mini Mario, and there were a bunch of small physics effects that added a lot polish."

NSMB's conspicuous references to previous Mario games, like this very obvious nod to Super Mario Bros. 3, created a warm surge of nostalgia among older gamers.

"I remember the first time I got the large mushroom powerup, and laughing with delight as I barreled through the terrain," agrees Petruzzi. "Both the shrinking and growing felt like a really good use of the 3D, something that would be incredibly hard to do with sprites. The wall jumping also felt fresh and very intuitive."

"I think what it did incredibly well was re-introducing gamers to classic Mario gameplay while updating the graphics to suit the modern age," says Active Gaming Media designer Nayan Ramachandran. NSMB effectively turned back the clock of the Mario series to the late ’80s; despite its mix of modern polygonal and pre-rendered graphics, its play mechanics, structure, and general aesthetic seemed to sit somewhere in between the first and third Super Mario games for NES. More complex than Super Mario Bros., but less elaborate than Mario 3, you could almost believe that NSMB was the real Super Mario Bros. 2.

NSMB made only a few modest additions to Mario canon. Mario gained a wall jump that worked much like that in the Mega Man X games; in addition to the standard Super Mushroom and Fire Flower power-ups, he could also gather the new Mega Mushroom — which allowed him to grow to tremendous size and smash through the scenery — and the Micro Mushroom, which allowed him to shrink, make floaty jumps, and run along the surface of water. There was also a rare Blue Shell that allowed Mario to spin almost uncontrollably through the scenery, a fun but risky skill. All of these new skills appeared infrequently and had extremely limited utility (the Mega Mushroom power-up appeared only a handful of times and wore off after about 15 seconds), placing the emphasis firmly on old-school power-ups for most of the game. It was, above all, a back-to-basics rendition of Mario. Even its level-progression world map offered only a handful of secrets and alternate routes, with a far more linear layout than that of Mario 3.

The handful of giant-sized enemies that appeared throughout NSMB had less impact than the giant-sized Mario… probably because the series had already been there and done that a few times.

In short, Nintendo played it safe with NSMB, which disappointed many long-time fans. "I liked it a lot," says Axiom Verge designer Tom Happ, "but I think in retrospect this was more because of its resemblance to Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3 than because of its own merits. I wish it had brought something more interesting to the table than just repeating the past, now with 2.5D effects. Remember how [SMB3's] raccoon tail significantly changed how you played the entire game? Couldn't they do something with the same degree of freshness as that?

"I think of this game as being a bit more like that Disney revival in the '90s where they just started aping the old formula without understanding that the old formula only worked because it was different from what came before."

"If I had to nitpick," muses Adelman, "I’d say that it would have been good to see even more innovation, but that might have defeated the purpose. It had been so long since people had a really good new 2D Super Mario Bros., they just wanted a well-polished experience. I think a lot of the innovation went into games like Super Mario Galaxy, which came out about a year later."

Polish over innovation may as well have been the mission statement behind NSMB; what it lacked in new ideas it made up for in sleek refinement. If anything, it may have been too refined; level designs lacked the go-for-broke wackiness of older Mario games, and the game's new enemy types turned out to be bland and unmemorable. On the other hand, it played smoothly. Unlike the overwhelming majority of 2.5D games of this style, NSMB presented tight controls and precise platforming, lacking the nebulous collision detection and general floatiness people had come to association with the format. Its quality was no coincidence: The core team behind NSMB had plenty of experience with the Mario series.

Producer Hiroyuki Kimura and director Shigeyuki Asuke had both been heavily involved in the Mario Advance series for Game Boy Advance, and the time they spent restoring those 8- and 16-bit classics for the 21st century gave them a unique inside perspective on the nuts-and-bolts of making Mario. After churning through the Advance line, NSBM offered them their first chance to put their experience rebuilding the classics to the test. In hindsight, NSMB definitely feels like a first ride without training wheels; the duo would go on to produce New Super Mario Bros. Wii and its Wii U sequel, along with Super Mario Maker, and each of these creations feels more ambitious and creative than the last. The duo clearly grew in confidence with each release.

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Comments 23

  • Avatar for SargeSmash #1 SargeSmash 11 months ago
    I always kept up with 2D platforming, and knew that NSMB was aiming for a simpler target than the newer games in the series. I was okay with that. There are times I want to play SMB3, and then there are times I want to just play the original, ya know?

    (I'm also weird in that I didn't find New Super Mario Bros. U that great. But Wii was phenomenal.)
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  • Avatar for muteKi #2 muteKi 11 months ago
    No mention of how great the blue shell powerup was? Sure, it was no Hammer Bros. Suit (but then what is?) but the ability to roll around and smash through blocks and enemies at speed was...inspired.
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  • Avatar for TrueNerd #3 TrueNerd 11 months ago
    Great article.

    I usually like to declare NSMB the worst Mario game (or if I'm pressed, slightly better than Super Mario Land 1 and 2) but this article made me consider that maybe I've been a little too hard on it. It may not be my favorite Mario, but I've never really realized that a lot of games I love probably don't get made if not for NSMB. So that's something! Maybe I'll just say it's the "least good" Mario game from now on. ;)
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  • Avatar for alexirish93 #4 alexirish93 11 months ago
    Whenever I hear younger players (or kids) say how NSMB was their first game they played, it makes me a sad clown. Other than that, NSMB2 is my least favorite in the series. The coin-collecting premise opened the door for experimentation, and yet the developers made it the same thing over again.
    And I fear we'll see the sub-series return on NX. Despite New U and New 2 not selling 30 million units, they did have a high attach rate, which proves to Nintendo that people will buy these games.
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  • Avatar for IPA #5 IPA 11 months ago
    This was my first portable Mario, having never owned a Gameboy. While I admit it was somewhat vanilla, I enjoyed being able to play a full-length Mario adventure in bite-sized chunks. It was the first game that opened my eyes to the joys of portable gaming, and for that I'll be forever grateful.Edited May 2016 by IPA
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  • Avatar for Neifirst #6 Neifirst 11 months ago
    I never thought about it before, but what if Capcom had instead targeted Maverick Hunter X, Powered Up, and Ultimate GnG for the DS instead of the PSP? They wouldn't have looked as nice, but they may have found a more receptive audience.
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  • Avatar for guillermojiménez88 #7 guillermojiménez88 11 months ago
    @muteKi I think the multiplayer and the minigames also deserve to be remembered. These things were still a novelty for many people back in 2006, and they served as a fine introduction to what the DS would be. Plus, they added to the game's overall replay value and shelf life.
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  • Avatar for Tetragrammaton #8 Tetragrammaton 11 months ago
    Was FEZ an early XBLA success? It came out later than Geometry Wars and Castle Crashers, which I would grant far more credit in drawing attention to the console indie scene.

    More topically, NSMB is my favorite of the subseries because it's still the only one I've played. Heard good things about Wii U, but that version coming out back to back with the 3DS version put me off. I did not know that the leads went on to make Mario Maker but that's utterly delightful.
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  • Avatar for GaijinD #9 GaijinD 11 months ago
    I was really excited for this, but ended up being disappointed. I could point to issues like only being able to save after a fort or castle, or the Mega Mushroom often leading to you smashing pipes or platforms that lead to secrets, but what really kept me from enjoying the game was the "feel". The way Mario controlled just didn't feel right to me. I've tried to give it another chance a few times, but I just can't get into it. I actually passed on NSMB Wii because of it, only to find it played much better later.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #10 riderkicker 11 months ago
    When I was in public school, the only people I knew who had Nintendo handhelds were me and my friends, because the Gameboy/DS was for Nerds. The Nintendo DS was remarkable in making portable gaming popular after fifteen years of the Game Boy's decline from the collective minds of our youth. I'd know New Super Mario Bros. was a great game, at least in terms of sales, if I spied teenage girls playing the game during a school assembly.
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  • Avatar for SatelliteOfLove #11 SatelliteOfLove 11 months ago
    "So then we said 'Hey, we got away with ear-bleeding BAHS once, lets try it three more times!'"
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  • Avatar for Godots17thCup #12 Godots17thCup 11 months ago
    I had a decent time with New Super Mario Bros. back when it came out, but I was one of those players that ultimately came away feeling a bit cold and disappointed. I was so excited to see the return of side-scrolling Mario after so long, but I had assumed that the ambition and inventiveness that helped define the classic games was an essential ingredient in Mario platformers and what we got felt more like... fast food. And fast food is fine, every now and then! It can be comforting and satisfy a craving, and you always know exactly what you're getting when you order it, but a quarter pounder with cheese can be very underwhelming when you're expecting filet mignon. It's a well-made game that accomplished what it set out to do, but I just wanted something more out of a Mario game.

    Also, I hated that you could only save after clearing fortresses/castles. Of all the things to carry over from SMW, that managed to stick around? In a portable game?
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  • Avatar for Toelkki #13 Toelkki 11 months ago
    "There was also a rare Blue Shell that allowed Mario to spin almost uncontrollably through the scenery, a fun but risky skill. " -- Sounds like the blue blur.
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  • Avatar for LBD_Nytetrayn #14 LBD_Nytetrayn 11 months ago
    @alexirish93 I kind of agree, though the DLC was really good, and perhaps even more inspired than the main game, which really felt kind of phoned in. Even the story, as bare bones as Mario stories tend to be, felt like absolutely no thought was put into it. Even just tying in to the coin thing with some sort of Wario rivalry would have freshened things up a bit. Instead, the coin thing was relevant to... absolutely nothing more than how much cash is on the title screen.

    I still love the original New SMB, and it remains a favorite of mine to this day. I feel the basic style of it is its greatest strength. As @SargeSmash says, sometimes I want to play something bigger like a SMB3 or World, and other times, I like some simple platforming action. This was really good for that.

    Incidentally, I remember my parents being turned off by Mario at 3, once there was flying and all of that. They came back for Lost Levels on Super Mario All-Stars, and then away again. I get the feeling there are just people for which less is more, and those are some of the people this really appealed to.

    Me, I love the 3D Mario games, but they didn't feel so much like Mario gameplay to me. They didn't even have Mario grow! Even Super Mario Bros. 2 did that, and that wasn't even a part of the original game before being tweaked! So after the FLUDDs and remakes, I was ecstatic to see they were making this. And it came out right after my birthday (following a short delay), too, so it felt like it was made for me!

    That said, I feel like New has run its course -- I still want more 2D Mario games to follow in its footsteps, of course, but less that retread those footsteps with the same music, the same assets, the same worlds, etc. like the three New successors. New Super Mario Bros. U was pretty much the pinnacle, like they caught up to where SMB3 and World left off, and I hope that next time they find a way to move on a bit.

    @muteKi Blue shell is awesome, and after Mario Kart, that's a weird thing to say. But it's definitely one of those items you need to master in order to unlock its true devastating power. And Hammer Suit was great, but I think Penguin Suit is better. ;)Edited May 2016 by LBD_Nytetrayn
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  • Avatar for retr0gamer #15 retr0gamer 11 months ago
    Really wasn't all that pushed with NSMB. I can't remember any of the levels since none stood out at all and a lot of it was just recycled content. It left me very unsatisfied and it all just felt so lacking.

    I ended up reviewing NSMB Wii for a national newspaper somehow and was ready to tear into it since I was expecting more disappointment. I ended up loving it. Each level seemed to have a new gimmick that was fully explored in that level before moving on to the next level with some brand new tricks. It felt more like Mario 3 and Mario World. couple that with a multiplayer mode which was complete mess but all the more enjoyable for it. I've really enjoyed the NSMB since.
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  • Avatar for Li-Bae #16 Li-Bae 11 months ago
    I was thrilled when Nintendo started making 2D Mario games again, but none of the three I've played (NSMB, NSMB2, and NSMBWii) have captured the magic and fun of the true old-school versions. I would chalk it up to nostalgia (partially, at least), but given the fact that I enjoyed Super Mario 3D Land and DKC Returns far more makes me reticent to do so. What the "it" factor was that was missing from the aforementioned newer interpretations, I can't put my finger on, but I just didn't feel it. Hollow, by-the-numbers, flimsy.
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  • Avatar for vincentgoodwin88 #17 vincentgoodwin88 11 months ago
    And Super Mario Land 2 (1992) was Nintendo's last true Mario 2D platformer (if you don't count Wario Land, DK 94, Yoshi's Island and Story).

    That's 14 years without a Mario sidescroller.
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  • Avatar for TheWildCard #18 TheWildCard 11 months ago
    I was really excited for this game (as I've never been that fond of the 3D games), and was pretty let down by it. It's just so bland and uninspired. And I'm not usually the one to say this, but the 3D models just are so lacking in personality compared to the sprite work of the previous games. Naturally, they've continued the look in every subsequent NSMB game.

    Sure the Wii and Wii U versions were better, mostly for the multiplayer havoc, but they're also pretty forgettable.
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  • Avatar for garion333 #19 garion333 11 months ago
    NSMB got me to buy a DS. It's the impetus that brought me back into the Nintendo fold. Definitely a classic to me, especially because of wall jumping. It's tough to go back to a Mario game without wall jumping.
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  • Avatar for nilcam #20 nilcam 11 months ago
    I have a deep love for NSMB. I never really got into any Mario games before it. My first platformer was Mega Man X so I got really used to dashing and wall jumping. The addition to wall jumping in NSMB really made the Mario formula click with me.
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  • Avatar for internisus #21 internisus 11 months ago
    I was very disappointed with New Super Mario Bros. It was a careless rehash of level design ideas plucked from SMB3 and SMW. I also hated its aesthetics—both the ugly 3D visuals and the irritating amelodic wah-wah of its music.Edited May 2016 by internisus
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  • Avatar for GeoX #22 GeoX 10 months ago
    @muteKi And let's not forget the ability to constantly be accidentally careening into pits. :/
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  • Avatar for GeoX #23 GeoX 10 months ago
    Count me as one of the people who were super-excited about the prospect of this game but a bit underwhelmed by the reality. I'll freely grant that part of the appeal of the old Mario games is having played them when I was ten, and that nothing is really going to compete with that, but I dunno. Sure, it's impossible for me to be anything like objective, but I still think they could've done better. It felt largely uninspired, and the graphics lacked any of the charm of the NES games.
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