The New Super Mario Bros. games consistently bring in excellent Metacritic scores, but that doesn't mean Nintendo's polygonal upgrade to its celebrated platformer series is without controversy. Whereas Mario's 8- and- 16-bit adventures still invite a good deal of positive discussion, people are more hesitant to heap universal praise on the New Super Mario Bros. games.
It's not as if platformer fans look back on New Super Mario Bros. games and say, "Wow, these suck." There's positive buzz surrounding New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe for the Nintendo Switch (and lord have mercy, are there ever memes. We're not exiting the Year of the Dog; we're exiting the Year of Bowsette). Though New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe only offers slight upgrades over 2012's New Super Mario Bros. U and 2013's New Super Luigi U for the Wii U, most Mario fans are just happy to see the adventures receive a second chance on the Switch.
New Super Mario Bros. series detractors still accuse Nintendo playing things too safe with the games, particularly the 2D entries. No matter how much you enjoy the subseries, new power-ups and a few fresh mechanical tricks aren’t enough to keep you from noticing, "Gosh, these games kind of look the same" as they take you through the same types of worlds, and have barely changed their soundtrack since the first New Super Mario Bros. game for the Nintendo DS.
How much should it matter, though? It's true New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe sends Mario and his pals leaping and spinning through grassy plains, sky worlds, and lava-drenched castles that look similar to other New Super Mario Bros. levels, but playing through the adventure again reminds me of how well-built every level is. Each stage is just the right length, they flow smoothly regardless of whether you're playing by yourself or with pals (I prefer to play solo; that's not a slight against New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, it's just in my super-tough lone-wolf nature to go at these things alone). New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe isn't just the best of the 2D New Super Mario Bros. games, it's also one of the best 2D Mario games, period.
That said, the New Super Mario Bros. series' hesitance to unleash its imagination keeps U Deluxe from touching the lofty thrones currently occupied by Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES (which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2018!), and Super Mario World for the SNES.
Third Time's Still the Charm
In 2017, former USgamer Editor-in-Chief and Eternal Friend of the Site, Jeremy Parish, ranked the core Super Mario games for Polygon. Super Mario World occupies the #6 spot, Super Mario Bros. 3 is at #2, and #1 is New Super Mario Bros. U for the Wii U.
"Super Mario Bros. 3 deserves a place near the top [of the list] because it's the giant upon whose shoulders its sequels stand ... but the best Mario game ever? No, Nintendo has definitely done better," Parish writes. "And of all its myriad sequels, New Super Mario Bros. U does the best job of wrapping everything great about Mario (both new and old) into a single package."
Though the list is over a year old now, its comments section is still throwing off heat like a disused reactor core. The internet's been fighting over Super Mario Bros. 3 versus Super Mario World since the '90s; Parish's suggestion that New Super Mario Bros. U (and by extension, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe) is the greatest Mario game of all time throws the Eternal Conflict into disarray. But while I appreciate Parish's determination to heap praise on the best entry in Mario's most criticized subseries, I feel New Super Mario Bros. U still ranks below Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Though New Super Mario Bros. U's levels are as polished as a Buzzy Beetle's obsidian shell, there's little about the game that's surprising. Its levels don't make me wonder, "What happened here? What's this about?" the way Super Mario Bros. 3's levels still do.
Next time you play Super Mario Bros. 3, pay attention to the first Mini-Fortress in World 7. Hitting the easy-to-find P-Switch rewards you with a bonanza of coins, which makes it easy to miss an unsettling detail about the Fortress: It's utterly abandoned. There are no enemies. The weird, white floors that usually house Stretch ghosts are barren. The candles that usually hold hostile Hot Foot flames are cold. I still ask myself: Where did everybody go? Why does Nintendo tell us a story about an abandoned Fortress instead of just letting us hit the P-Switch to collect a billion coins before beating up the Fortress' boss, Boom-Boom?
Probably "just because." Despite Super Mario Bros. 3's sparse story, its worlds are teeming with visual narrative. It's clear Nintendo wanted to make the Mushroom Kingdom a magical place that carries the familiarity of Super Mario Bros., while also stretching beyond those basic borders to touch realms unlike anything the NES offered to that point.
Super Mario Bros. 3 doesn't rely solely on imaginative settings to charm you, though. It makes full use of its most iconic power-up, the Raccoon Leaf, to encourage exploration of each level's heights. Stage One of Grass Land simply offers rich rewards like 1UPs and coins if you're brave enough to take flight, but the aforementioned abandoned fortress towards the end of the game ups the stakes considerably: If you can't fly up to the stage's exit pipe, Mario's stuck until he inevitably runs out of time. Again, you can hit the P-Switch located at the start of the Fortress to collect as many coins as you want, but all that treasure is worth nothing if you get caught in the haunted building's endless loop. I don't know if there's a lesson or metaphor Nintendo wants us to glom on to, but it's been 30 years and I still appreciate how expertly Super Mario Bros. 3 escalates its challenges and its atmosphere.
In a (Super Mario) World of Pure Imagination
Much as I love Super Mario World, I still hold Super Mario Bros. 3 in higher regard. Nevertheless, Super Mario World scores more points with me than New Super Mario Bros. U because Nintendo dared to take a big step away from the Mushroom Kingdom and invite us into a huge, prehistoric land filled with unfamiliar foes and mechanics. Super Mario World's level design reflects its primal setting: Domed mountains loom in the background, stone-like blocks replace traditional bricks, and dinosaurs and huge insects roam the jagged landscape alongside familiar foes like Koopa Troopas and Piranha Plants.
Super Mario World also doubles-down on Super Mario Bros. 3's invitation to explore its lengthy levels vertically as well as horizontally. Some stages send you scrambling through veritable mazes, while others encourage you to climb sky-high with the aid of a vine, or with Mario's new Cape power-up.
By contrast, when I play New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, I can't help but notice many of its levels are a straight run from point A to point B, barring short diversions to find secret Star Coins. True, the platforming challenges are amongst the most intense the series has to offer, and some levels–primarily the Ghost Houses and some of the Fortresses—do shove you off the beaten path. I also understand New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe's four-player co-op option wouldn't mesh well with the breed of level design offered by Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. I just can't agree New Super Mario Bros. U bests Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World when both those games deliver tremendous platforming action and cool, imaginative settings that are wildly different from one another despite an "age gap" of a mere two years.
Don't Be Afraid to Unlock Your Potential, New Mario
Maybe the New Super Mario Bros. series would benefit if Nintendo unshackled it from the four-player action it's come to be known for. Don't mistake me: New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is still a top-tier Super Mario game, and it still offers delightful flashes of imagination. It just seems hesitant to really let itself go like its 8- and- 16-bit ancestors.
If Nintendo's not prepared to detach New Super Mario Bros.' four-player option and give the series the slack it needs to go wild with its level design, I think a smaller change, like another shift in its art style and music score would be appreciated by fans. Nintendo's not shy about giving us traditional cartoon art of Mario and his pals for promotional purposes (as opposed to just giving us the computer-rendered Mario models that define the New Super Mario Bros. series). I wouldn't say "No" to a Mario game that resembles the fluidly-animated hand-drawn style of 2008's Wario Land: Shake It for the Wii.
New Super Mario Bros. U's tendency to play things safe with its visuals is made more disappointing when you encounter gems like the Van Gogh-style Ghost House hidden in the Soda Jungle. The undulating, violet swirls in the background (combined with an eerie cameo by Starry Night Bowser) might be the most stand-out location in the game, and there's nothing else quite like it on the rest of the adventure—or indeed, in any New Super Mario Bros. game.
There are certainly borrowed ideas New Super Mario Bros. U improves on, too. Mario and his friends come up against giant enemies, which is a concept born of Super Mario Bros. 3. But whereas Super Mario Bros. 3's giant bad guys serve mostly as a visual shock, it takes skill to safely dispose of New Super Mario Bros. U's big boys. A giant Goomba, for example, separates into smaller Goombas that scuttle to and fro. New Super Mario Bros. U, like the rest of the New Super Mario Bros. library, clearly knows how to surprise us. It just prefers not to, much to the detriment of the otherwise-excellent New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe and the rest of the subseries.
What's Old is New Again, but What's Next?
Though I'm glad Nintendo gave us New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, I'm curious to see what it has in store for the next installment of New Super Mario Bros. It's strange how 3D Mario games aren't afraid to go hog-wild with weird ideas, but the New Super Mario Bros. games—particularly the strictly 2D entries—are content to remain grounded and sensible.
There's nothing to do now except wait, watch, and hope the next New Super Mario Bros. game isn't afraid to loosen its tie a bit (make Bowsette canon, you cowards!). In the meantime, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is still a great game and a worthwhile purchase for 2D platformer enthusiasts.