Mario has done a lot in more than 25 years worth of gaming. When he wasn't jumping and stomping on stuff, he was appearing as a boxing referee in Mike Tyson's Punch Out, teaching people to type, and taking on pretty much any sport Nintendo thought to throw at him. He has appeared in films, his own television program and has made millions upon millions for Nintendo. Not bad for a character whom Shigeru Miyamoto, the legend behind Mario and many other characters, defined as little more than "a middle-aged man with a strong sense of justice who is not handsome." Some have said, with fair cause, that Nintendo have relied too much on the humble Italian; that they have spoiled his good name with games that did not deserve the accolade or cashed in too readily by remaking old hits on new platforms. Whichever view you subscribe to, one thing remains constant: Mario sells. Mario sells games, sells systems, and remains an icon for gamers of all ages.
New Super Mario Bros. (NSMB) is further evidence, if any were needed, that Mario sells. It sold 500,000 units in only 25 days in the USA, at an average of 20 units sold per minute. That's a phenomenal feat even by Mario's standards. As the first original 2D Super Mario for quite some time, it has a lot to live up to. So it's a more than cunning move by Nintendo to sneak the 'New' into the title for this game. It's not quite a lie, this is a new game, but it is quite pointedly the spiritual successor to the franchise that made its name on the NES and SNES.
Mario has got some new power-ups this time around, with the addition of Mini Mario, Mega Mario and Shell Mario. They are mostly self explanatory, with Mini Mario allowing you to access very small nooks and crannies, Mega Mario allowing you to smash everything in sight and Shell Mario allowing you to break awkward blocks and swim faster. But Mario isn't all about power-ups, with the ability to wall jump and ground pound added to his arsenal of tricks for this outing, whilst Fire Mario makes a welcome return too. To compliment the main single-player game there's also two multiplayer modes: Mario vs Luigi for two players and a generous collection of touch-screen-based mini-games for up to four players. With these and eight worlds to conquer, there's quite a lot to get on with.
Naturally, though, the single-player aspect is the real draw of NSMB, and it rarely disappoints. Stretching across eight worlds the level design is consistently imaginative and challenging, with difficulty levels progressing at a steady and manageable rate. Each level contains 3 rather tricky to obtain Star Coins, which you can collect to spend on opening up new levels and bonus areas. Of all the new power-ups Mini Mario is by far the most interesting; as well as having the ability to get into places normal Mario can't, he can also jump much further due to his small size. The trade-off being that as Mini Mario you're pretty much helpless against all enemies. Jumping atop enemies in the traditional way has no effect and any contact with enemies will end in a swift and unforgiving death.
'The ability to Wall Jump adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay. It's perfect for reaching those awkwardly placed Star Coins and can also get you out of trouble if you fall.'
Mega Mario on the other hand is a much less interesting addition to the gameplay. When in mega mode Mario grows to the size of the screen and a bar at the top of the screen measures how much damage you cause during the short period of invulnerability. Filling up the bar will furnish you with extra lives once the effect ends, but, as fun as it may sound, there is very little satisfaction to be had in Mega Mario mode. You can sometimes inadvertently destroy key bits of scenery and it only really serves as a brief and rather pointless way of navigating more of the level in less time. Ultimately it takes away all of the skill and concentration normally necessary during a level, and a lot of the enjoyment with it. Shell Mario is not an especially interesting or useful addition either - only in the water, where it allows you to swim faster, is it of any real use. Overall, the new power-ups are mixed bag, with only Mini Mario adding anything really interesting to the gameplay.
The ability to Wall Jump adds a whole new dimension to the gameplay. It's perfect for reaching those awkwardly placed Star Coins and can also get you out of trouble if you fall. The only majorly disappointing aspect of the gameplay is the lack of any challenging bosses. Each world has a tower and castle level, with an easier and harder boss respectively. Yet, with the exception of a couple of occasions, these are often short-lived encounters. If you're playing as Fire Mario many bosses will take a matter of seconds to defeat, and 'harder' bosses can often be beaten with little effort. Boss battles needn't be impossibly hard, but it would have been nice to see the challenge and variety seen in the level design carried over to the boss battles too. As much as I criticise, I'm merely pointing out weaknesses in an otherwise top class platformer.
Visually NSMB is a perfect blend of 2D/3D graphics, with the typical visual flair we have come to expect from Nintendo's flagship Mario titles. With the extra power of the DS over the GBA, Mario is now a fully rendered character model and has many new animations to accompany his new move set; enemies also look more complex than in pervious Mario 2D platformers, making for a lovely looking game. The extra graphical power has also allowed more variety in the level design, with platforms that sway, shake and shrink. It's good to see graphical power being used to create new gameplay mechanics, rather than simply to look better. NSMB also sounds the part, with a cracking soundtrack and the all-round audio quality that you'd expect from a Mario title.
With a brilliant single-player game to get on with it would be easy to forget that NSMB also offers the multiplayer Mario vs. Luigi mode. Cynics might dismiss it as a box ticking add-on, but there's a lot of value in it. It's fast, frantic stuff, and although restricted to two players, is great fun with a friend for regular sparring. The mode is based around several looping levels with Big Stars appearing at random points all over the level. The first person to reach the target of Big Stars, as set before you start, wins. Each level is full of re-spawning enemies and power-ups, and you'll have to avoid both the enemies and your opponent's attacks to win. It won't have you playing for months on end but it's a great addition for those boring trips in cars, trains and planes. You can also play in a number of mini-games with up to four players, but they're something of a mixed bag and feel rather tacked on to take advantage of the touch screen.
Nintendo has once again saved some of their best work for their effervescent plumber. New Super Mario Bros. treads the retro platformer line beautifully, adding just enough originality and imagination to the mix. Gameplay is perfectly balanced, always satisfying and will keep you coming back for more. If you've just picked up a DS Lite, or have been a DS owner since the beginning, this is a game that you really must own. It represents the very best of Nintendo and is a perfect handheld title.