"Discovery of fire – 787,000 BC. Invention of light bulb - 1800. Invention of sliced bread – 1928. First man on the Moon – 1969. New 4-player Super Mario Brothers – 20.11.09." So says Nintendo's online advertisement of New Super Mario Bros. Wii. But is a multiplayer Mario game really that good? Is it really as good as sliced bread?
'Tacked-on' sounds bad, doesn't it? Of course it does. It makes you think of big words like 'afterthought' and 'OMGzorzepicfail!' The four-player multiplayer in New Super Mario Bros. Wii certainly isn't tacked-on. But it isn't the incredible, all-conquering experience some might have hoped for. It's fun. It's a barrel of laughs. But it's all a bit, well, chaotic.
It seems doubtful that chaos was Miyamoto's plan all along. His games, from Super Mario Bros. to Donkey Kong to The Legend of Zelda, have always been precise, pixelated perfection. New Super Mario Bros. Wii evolves the series, to be sure, but a sacrifice has been made.
Adding multiple players to the mix makes an already difficult game harder. Accidentally pushing Mario, Luigi or one of the Toads off of a platform, or knocking them into a pit, occurs as regularly as Princess Peach is kidnapped. The more players you add, the harder it gets to complete even the early levels. Some of the later stages require hive mind-like levels of communication. The camera pans back to provide a wider view when players are far apart, but that doesn't prevent the feeling that you're a Jack-in-the Box in a box with three other Jack-in-the-Boxes. On your own, you've got room to breathe - you can jump and double jump and triple jump without a care in the world. Add another player to the mix, and there's a constant risk that your perfect jumps will be knocked off course - sending you straight into an enemy, or some other lethal hazard.
Accidental loss of life can often be hilarious, but never as hilarious as deliberate loss of life. You can pick up other players by pressing and holding the 1 button and shaking the Wii Remote, and then throw them by releasing your grip. You can even eat them and spit them out when riding Yoshi. You'd think, then, that the game would encourage co-operation. It does not. New Super Mario Bros. Wii is not a co-operative multiplayer game. You can try to play it that way, but eventually your good intentions will evaporate in a puff of mischief. Picking up unsuspecting Toads and throwing them into pits of fire, over and over again… human beings aren't built to resist such temptations. Instead, it would be better to describe it as a competitive multiplayer game. It's like Super Smash. Bros. without the special moves. Mario, Luigi and the Toads do have co-op moves, including a joint jump and a synchro ground pound, but you're never forced to use them to complete stages - that's just not how the game works. You play together, but rarely do you work together. Perhaps that's why the competitive Coin Battle mode is by a country mile the best multiplayer experience the game has to offer.
It's fun, but there's a nagging feeling as you play the game that the levels don't sit comfortably with having four players run amok inside of them. And a number of features indicate the game is well aware of its bloated innards. If a player dies and has lives left, he floats back on screen in a bubble which can be popped by another player. In this way, you'll never fail the stage as long as one player is still alive. It's useful as the game's surprising difficulty ensures frequent death. Anyone who tells you New Super Mario Bros. Wii is fun for all the family is lying - it's hard in an old school 2D platformer way. But you're also able to float in a bubble at any time by pressing the A button. The idea, clearly, is to allow skilled players to pass more difficult sections without another player getting in the way.