Back to old school.
New (noo, nyoo) adj.
- Having been made or come into being only a short time ago; recent: a new law.
- a. Still fresh: a new coat of paint.
b. Never used or worn before now: a new car, a new hat.
- Just found, discovered, or learned: new information.
- Not previously experienced or encountered; novel or unfamiliar: ideas new to her.
These are just four of the thirteen entries for “new” available at Dictionary.com, but already you can see what a confusing little word it is. It contains two basic definitions that seem completely at odds: a new thing can be the first ever of its kind or the latest in a series of old things. Curse you, Webster. You too, Merriam.
And while I’m at it, curse you, Nintendo, for confusing everyone with your fun if misnamed New Super Mario Bros. Though it’s certainly the latest Mario game to hit shelves, it follows more trends than it begins, another side-scrolling Goomba-stomper with some cool new tricks up some very old sleeves. In other words, it’s old and new at the same time.
The story, for example, begins slightly differently than in other Mario games. As Mario and the Princess return from a walk, they see smoke rising from the castle. When Mario goes to investigate, Bowser Jr. nabs the princess. To get her back, Mario must pursue him across eight worlds, including an ice world, a desert world, and a water world, constantly defeating Bowser and son at castles, only to discover that the Princess is…in the next one? Wanna bet?
To travel between levels, you navigate an overhead map just like those in Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. Most worlds include multiple paths and shortcuts, as well as Toad Houses that grant power-ups or extra lives. Chances are you’ve done all this before.
Well, almost all of it. If you win a power-up at a Toad House, it isn’t applied right away. Instead, it’s stored on the bottom screen. If you touch it during a level, your stored power-up will drop from the top of the screen. The only other bottom screen action in story mode is a meter that shows how close you are to the end of a level. This is a DS game, right?
In any case, it’s a fun one, and immediately playable. New Super Mario Bros. returns to the twenty year-old two button scheme, with one for jumping and another for sprinting and actions. You still stomp enemy heads, grab and kick turtle shells and slide under low spaces. You can also wall-jump and power butt-stomp if you press down and jump in mid air. What a horrible way to die.
Other than that, your abilities depend on power-ups. Mushrooms, fireflowers and invincibility stars return alongside the new mega-mushroom (Mario becomes huge and invincible, destroying anything he comes into contact with including blocks and pipes), the mini-mushroom (Mario becomes tiny) and the turtle shell (when Mario ducks, he becomes a turtle shell). Mega Mario looks cool but is short-lived, mini-Mario is only good for slipping into small crevices (watch out, Princess!), and Turtle Mario is useful, fun, and potentially long-lasting.
The boss fights, on the other hand, are usually very short and absurdly simple. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Bowser stands on a bridge with a switch block behind him. You run under him, hit the switch, and he falls into the lava. Bowser Jr., on the other hand, just runs at you. You bop him on the head three times, and he flees. Both of these get slightly more complex as the game goes on, but they’re still way too easy and way too old.
But the levels themselves are wildly imaginative platforming affairs. You won’t visit any new frontiers, but you’ll still have a good time hopping across platforms, scaling fences, searching blocks for secret coins and shrooms and playing red-light, green-light with boos. You have to hand it to those sneaky maniacs at Nintendo - these mechanics are so solid and so profoundly ingrained in gamer DNA, you wind up playing and enjoying the game without thinking about it.
The single-player campaign, aside from the power-ups, shares its content with several other modes, and that’s where New Super Mario Bros. begins to earn its moniker.
Mario vs. Luigi mode, playable by two players with just one cartridge, is incredibly fun and new in every sense of the word. Here, two players compete for stars in one of five, looping levels. You still hop around, avoid enemies and collect power ups, but you can also beat stars out of your opponent with well-placed fireballs and butt-stomps. Also, every eight coins you collect gives you a power-up. While it sounds simple, there’s a surprising amount of strategy as you can bait other players into lots of different traps.
The 18 mini-games aren’t nearly as entertaining and are only playable against players with their own copies of the game, but they all use the touch screen and stylus. Some are wacky and weird, like rolling a snowball down a rocky slope, while others, like matching cards, are lame and uninspired. Why these couldn’t have been woven into the fabric of the campaign is beyond me, because nobody with a DS needs more random mini-games.
Even though Mario still runs left to right on a 2D plane, he’s actually rendered in 3D. This is a slight aesthetic improvement, if not a functional one. The game itself runs crisply and is unified by the same cartoony look found in all other Mario games. It also sounds identical, although the developers had fun with Mario’s sound bites, having him say “Goodbye!” every time you close your DS.
You’ll have fun with New Super Mario Bros., too, though maybe not as much as you did oh, twenty, ten, or five years ago. The basic premise - plumber saves princess by killing turtles - is still bizarrely strong, even if our little mustachioed protagonist is starting to show his age. The versus mode breathes some fresh air into his little lungs, but this latest foray has us wondering: can Mario ever truly be new again?