Brotherly Love

New Super Mario Bros. scores by plumbing old ideas.

Jun 14, 2006 at 4:00 am
Gamers are so used to Mario that the fundamental weirdness of his exploits no longer raises an eyebrow: A dumpy Italian plumber journeys through a fairy-tale land, where turtles throw hammers, mushrooms bestow magic powers, and a kingly turtlebeast holds a princess captive. Where other videogame plots might have been scrawled in a spiral notebook by the scary kid in study hall, Super Mario Bros. feels like the work of Lewis Carroll. Or at least someone really friggin' high.

Gamers have also grown used to Mario's game play, and as William Hazlitt observed: "Though familiarity may not breed contempt, it takes off the edge of admiration." Assuming one isn't turned off by the familiarity here -- and it's all pretty familiar -- New Super Mario Bros. ' same old game style is still admirable.

Make no mistake: The visuals are 2006, but the game play is distinctly 1985. All the hoary levels are present and accounted for: Ice world? Check. Water world? Check. Booby-trapped castle? Check. The game feels more like a remake of the original Super Mario Bros. than a true continuation of the series: There's no vegetable-picking (Super Mario Bros. 2), no Tanooki Suit (Super Mario Bros. 3), and no Yoshi the Dinosaur (Super Mario World). For the most part, this is old-school Mario, as understated and austere as our hero's denim overalls. (It's not even worthy of a number -- it's just "New" Super Mario Bros. )

Sure, the happy plumber has a few cool new tricks. One mushroom inflates him to King Kong proportions; another shrinks him to the size of a guinea pig. Longtime Mario devotees may salivate at the gaming possibilities, but the new skills rarely come into play. Sometimes they even trip you up (giant Mario smashes everything in his path -- including stuff you might actually want, like warp pipes).

There are a few extras to enjoy with your buddy Luigi. A simple "versus" mode allows two players to fight over coins, and up to four players can compete in a handful of minigames. Though a few of these diversions are momentarily amusing, none stands out.

Yet somehow the shtick remains as delightful today as it was 20 years ago. It's still satisfying to hear the "plink" of a turtle shell booted at an enemy -- and infuriating to watch a desperately needed mushroom slip into a bottomless pit.

That said, New Super Mario Bros. isn't the best game of the series. The biggest strike against it is that it's unusually easy. It gets harder -- but never difficult -- only in the last few levels. It's not especially long either, with only six "worlds" between the start button and the credits. Completists who scour the game for every last secret will get more out of it, but the non-hardcore will rescue Princess Peach from her Koopa Kaptors in just a few sittings.

And unlike most of Nintendo's other DS games, NSMB doesn't make much use of the handheld's unique hardware. There's no aiming fireballs with the touchscreen or blowing into the microphone to inflate Mario's cape. Fans waiting for a "true" DS Mario game won't find it here.

But that's like saying it's not the fastest Ferrari. The original was so far ahead of its time that a quick spit-polish -- which is all NSMB is -- is enough to make it one of the best platformers on the market. The game is undeniably fun.

Ironically, the game's greatest weakness -- the same old game play -- is also its greatest strength. Other games would kill to be saddled with that problem.