a review of New Super Mario Bros.
a videogame developed by nintendo
and published by nintendo
for the nintendo DS
text by Brendan Lee
New Super Mario Bros. was a retail explosion; it racked up the kinds of stratospheric sales numbers that keep the graying home-office octogenarians on Nintendo’s payroll simultaneously idle and employed. Mario was back. Not trying his hand baseball, or tennis, or basketball, or golf, or baccarat, no, but back and in his element: coins(!), Goombas(!!), tasty powerups(yes). And Lakitu!
What’s more, Mario was doing it in style: while the Nintendo DS may groan under the weight of all but the most cleverly tooled 3D titles, here the polygons were used with a clear-headed attention to detail and the simple joy of primary colors. The music might have occasionally done that thing where you reheat the classic themes and stir in some Mario Paint-esque farts, and Mario’s constant observations that “ITSA SO NICE!” to clear a stage might have occasionally given you cause for both worry and shame, but all in all it felt like a Mario game: meaty physics that changed with each power-up; classic (yet lovingly reworked) enemies, and the nostalgic sense of gentle fun that made Nintendo an entertainment powerhouse in the first place.
Nintendo’s Japanese advertising angle said a lot about how the company was positioning the release: they chugged the advertisements along on a near-constant loop on the JR Yamanote line in Tokyo, showing a professionally lit thirtysomething playing a bit of DS between (apparently) difficult yoga bends. It wasn’t about the game, the ad – – it was about how much fun it could be, at thirtysomething, to enjoy one of those experiences you’d kind of kicked to the gutter as you got older. There was a brief clip of the game toward the very end, showing how INCREDIBLY LARGE MARIO COULD BE IN THIS ONE, totally BREAKING EVERYTHING THAT STOOD IN HIS WAY . . . but mostly it was about the woman, legs folded on her bed, brand-new (and just released) DS Lite in her soft, soft hands, remembering the splendid pigtailed afternoons of Super Mario Brothers back in the day. And, I suppose, pointing out how great it was to be able to sport Aphrodite’s midriff all the while. I’m pretty sure that much of the commercial was real, at least – – she wasn’t sucking her gut or anything. Big smiles.
It tickled most people in the same way it did Yoga Lady: the reactions to the game were largely positive, and even now it would be staggeringly disingenuous to saddle the game with accusations of soulless cash-in . . . if NSMB is indeed an exercise in calculating committee-belched cynicism, they were certainly able to Febreeze it enough during the QA process so that it doesn’t actually smell like one. Even if you’re having sinus trouble, any such accusations crumble for one simple fact:
The game just isn’t competently designed enough to warrant them.
More than one corner of the Internet has called it the highest-budget doujin game ever made, and it certainly plays like one in parts . . . for every section that sings like the glory days of Miyamoto, there are five others with spaghetti-at-the-wall enemy placement and goofy environmental fudges that are just zany for the sake of being zany. The new powerups are one hell of a mixed bag – – Very Tiny Mario has a fun correct-in-the-air floatiness to him that just kinda clicks in your hands, but things quickly go downhill from there: the Koopa shell is kind of a gas, I guess, but you’re never really given the level design you need to enjoy it. All you end up doing is empathizing with the Koopas themselves: good god, those creatures lead a doddering, pointless existence. It’s like driving the ZZ Top Eliminator past an H & R Block.
The Giant Really Big Mushroom is . . . well, it’s Saints Row right there in the middle of your Mario Brothers, and it’s as galling as it is exhilarating. Yeah, it’s great, the first time: there you are, smashing that hecking level to hecking bits. Fuck that level! You’re big (literally!) and important, and all of the rest of the level is a bunch of ****ed kindergarten children, ha ha! As crunchy as it is to blast through the level like that, it really starts to strip the emperor: if all you needed was that big mushroom, well . . . what’s the point of the carefully-stacked bricks and lovingly-placed question blocks? Why couldn’t I have a rocket launcher and a hovercar as well? If your grandfather is beating you at poker, why not just knock over the card table and hide his walker on the fire escape?
Well, because the game should be fun to play, that’s why. Getting out of playing the game through a testosterone-and-Red-Bull Frat Boy Jam shouldn’t even be one of the options on the table. Don’t step on the sand castle – – make it compelling enough for everyone to play with.
In NSMB, you just won’t want to, after a point . . . and usually that point is around the time you save Peach from the harrowing clutches of an admittedly on-note final boss. There are other worlds to sneak your way into, but at this point they feel like pointless noodling. You could be feeling up Peach at the drive-in and getting some cheek-reddening nose kisses; instead you’re going through the motions and clearing squatters out of the unkempt corners of the game’s basement. Skipping bits of the game through clever gameplay has always been a staple of the Mario series, but here the options to do so are staring you right in the face, and the whole thing chugs along with mechanical ennui.
Gallingly, you start to ask if the entire thing was a waste of time – – because, you know, there really is no Peach, and she was never in trouble in the first place. Just as a novel is only as believable as you think it is, so too is a videogame: for you to get those little psychological sparks that keep you playing and buying, the games need you to be a sucker for a little while . . . and unfortunately for both itself and us, New Super Mario Brothers just ends up being too goofily honest to really sap you over the head.
It might, however, be a rather fine gift for an OCD-befuddled child who is constantly trying to pull shiny quarters from behind his own ears.