New Super Mario Bros. Wii is a project packed with contradictions. It's a 3D title, but one that restricts itself to a 2D frame of movement. It's a brand new product, and yet it's essentially the same old game we've been playing for years. It's inherently familiar, and yet it supports up to four players at once - a feature that's never been seen before in a core Mario platformer.
In light of these conflicting elements, it is perhaps understandable if some people are feeling a bit confused about NSMBW. It's initially hard to say whether we should celebrate the appearance of a new 2D Mario, or whether we should lament the fact that Nintendo has chosen to make this ahead of something else - like a new Starfox game, perhaps, or a wholly original project. The game was certainly met with mixed reaction within the VideoGamer.com camp during Ninty's E3 press conference, although the appearance of Team Ninja's Metroid game and Mario Galaxy 2 went some way towards cheering up the nay-sayers.
Personally, I was quite stoked about the prospect of a new 2D (well, 2.5D) Mario. This is the series that defined an entire genre, after all. Having gone hands-on with the game, I can happily report that I very much enjoyed what I played; on the other hand, I doubt that many of the game's critics will change their minds after playing the game for themselves. Why? Because it's exactly what it looks like - an old school Mario game for up to four players. And while the multiplayer element does bring a surprisingly large amount of spice and difference to the table, the core gameplay is exactly the same as it's always been (I still find it hard to fathom how people can regard this as a bad thing, but never mind that for now).
As you might expect, Mario Brothers Wii is fundamentally old-school in its approach to controls, using even fewer buttons than Super Mario World on the SNES. You hold the Wiimote sideways, using the d-pad to move and 1 and 2 for your classic run/grab and jump commands. Shaking the controller results in a spin-jump move, and you can also perform the butt stomp that's been part of Mario's repertoire since his N64 days. There are power ups to grab, suits to wear and in-level toys to use, but the basic goal remains the same: bounce your way across platforms and past Bowser's goons until you reach the end of the stage - here represented by a large flagpole, in the style of the original Super Mario Bros.
The key difference from the norm is that Mario can now be joined on screen by Luigi and two Toad characters, blue and yellow (I wouldn't be surprised if there will be more as unlockables). With four players taking part it's almost impossible to fail a level, since each character has their own stock of lives. If you should slip down a chasm or get hit by a stray Koopa, you'll swiftly re-appear on screen in a Yoshi's Island style bubble; as soon as someone pops this for you, you'll drop straight back into the action. Speaking of Yoshi, the iconic dinosaur is once again available to ride - in fact it's quite possible for all four players to have their own mount at once. As a general rule, every time you find a power-up in a block there will be one prize per player - although this doesn't necessarily mean that everyone will manage to get one. You may not need that second or third mushroom, but if you nab it before your mate does, you'll get a nice little boost to your score.
Indeed, this healthy sense of competition seems to be a core ingredient of Mario Brothers Wii. Nintendo tried to convey this during its E3 press conference revelation, but to be honest it's something that's far easier to understand once you've played the game for yourself. The basic idea is that each player is competing to bag the top score for the level, but in practice the game's rivalry has less to do with this and more to do with the sheer pleasure of messing around as you play. Previous 2D Marios have had a certain grace and precision to their action, but here that poise is largely obscured by the sheer chaos of having four characters on screen at once. Mario, Luigi and the Toads can all stand on each other's heads, and in a nod to Mario 2 they're also capable of picking each other up. You might work together to help one player reach a high-up platform, or you might go nuts trying to murder each other over a Mario coin - giant collectible worth a stack of points.
In all likelihood, you'll probably do a bit of both. There are certain platforms and pick-ups that absolutely require players to help each other, and while you can just bounce off one of your rivals if they're in the right spot, it sometimes pays to help out your buddies - one good turn deserves another, after all. On the other hand, you probably won't want to play completely fairly either, since it's hugely pleasing to pick up your friend and throw them to their doom (you actually need to be quite quick to do this, since you can escape from someone's clutches by wiggling the remote). More than anything else, Mario Bros. Wii excels at creating a sense of play. This is a game where you're actively supposed to mess about, and it's all the more enjoyable as a result.
As you'd expect, Nintendo has thrown in a whole bunch of new toys and tools to fuel these antics. In addition to the traditional mushrooms, fire flowers and stars, there's now a propeller suit that lets you launch yourself upwards by shaking the remote - just the tonic when some back-stabbing git tries to dump you into a lava pit. There's also a penguin suit; I've not seen it yet, but apparently it lets you do massive belly slides over icy surfaces. In addition to these pick-ups, there's the usual library of environmental hazards and innovations. Interesting examples seen so far include sand jets that can be stood on for brief windows of time, and a tilting platform that corresponds to the angle of one player's remote - again, this offered a great opportunity to help or to screw over friends.
To be honest, I only have two concerns about this game. My first complaint may sound minor, but it irritated me enough to warrant a mention. As with previous Mario titles, there's a moment's pause whenever someone grabs a power-up that changes their size. Before this was never an issue - there was only one player to be affected by the brief hiatus, and they knew it was coming. Now, however, your action will frequently be interrupted because someone else has grabbed a power-up. It's quite easy to lose focus if you're halfway through a jump when the action freezes, and often you'll cock-up a manoeuvre that you'd never have a problem with otherwise. Trust me, you'll be deeply irritated the first time this happens to you - and since there's an abundance of power-ups in the game, it happens fairly often. On the plus side, this probably means it's an issue we'll all adapt to.
My second bugbear is more straightforward, but arguably far more serious: there's no support for online play. I know that online gaming is hardly a major focus for the Wii, but for a project like this it seems like a major oversight. Nintendo has done a great job at encouraging multiplayer gaming on the DS (VideoGamer.com got told off for playing WiFi Mario Kart on the flight to LA) and yet it continues to ignore the massive potential of its home console. Yes, it's arguable that this game will work better when played with four people in the same room, but that doesn't mean the option shouldn't be there. At a time when third-party developers like High Voltage are trying to promote online Wii gaming, Nintendo's lack of commitment is an ongoing disappointment.
And as much as I hate to say it, the absence of online multiplayer will be yet more ammunition for the people looking to shoot down this game. They'll say that Nintendo is being lazy, that it's sticking to what it knows when it should be pushing things forward. Well, there may be a sliver of truth in these allegations - but that doesn't mean that Mario Bros. Wii won't be excellent. A graphical stunner it may not be, but there's a rich vein of pure gameplay here - the kind of goodness that helped Nintendo to make its name in the first place. I loved it in the Eighties, I love it still in the Noughties... and if Nintendo is still making 2D Mario games in 2019, you'll find me back in the queue at its E3 booth.
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is due out for the Wii this Christmas.