Preview: New Super Mario Bros.

It only recently hit me how big a deal it is that Nintendo is releasing a new Super Mario Bros. game. It says a lot that they didn't even bother calling it Super Mario Bros: Dual Siblings or something, tying in with the DS acronym naming scheme of many games for Nintendo's most recent handheld. No, it's really just called New Super Mario Bros., and that's all that needs to be said. I was never a console kid growing up, I was PC all the way. Still, it was impossible not to have played Mario. I can still recall all of world 1, level 1 from the original NES game quite accurately in my mind. It's been over a decade now since any original Mario games in that style came out, and two decades since the first one did, but their overall imprint on popular culture doesn't seem to have diminished any. And now we get a new one. You better not mess this up, Nintendo.

Fortunately, it doesn't look like that's going to happen. Upon first loading up the game, the sidescrolling action is immediately familiar, even with Mario's sprite replaced by a smoothly animated polygonal model, the resolution increased, and the color count raised dramatically. Actually, it's extremely familiar, since the first level of NSMB is essentially identical in design to the classic world 1, level 1 from the Bros.' first Super excursion. Cheap appeal to nostaligia? Perhaps, but there's something a bit charming about a brief return to such an iconic piece of video gaming before setting off on a brand new game. The real kicker, though, is when you grab a particularly large mushroom, causing Mario to grow to almost the full size of the screen, upon which he tramples or knocks over anything in his path: blocks, pipes, enemies. That's when the reason for mimicking the classic level design really becomes clear: you go into this game, maybe thinking it's going to be more of the same, and the expectation is reinforced when the first level is nothing but a remake. That is of course totally shattered when you suddenly become a colossal Mario of unstoppable destruction. The layout of the second level is quite familiar as well, featuring the underground level that blew everybody's minds when they realized you could actually make your way up off the top of the screen and simply run along the ceiling until the end. After that, the game diverges from the classics a bit more.

New Super Mario Bros.' basic gameplay mechanics are what one would expect. You play as Mario (or Luigi!), traversing endlessly to the right, in classic 2D platforming style. The growth mushrooms are there, as are fire flowers, as well as a new blue shell powerup that works like that statue form of the tanooki suit from Super Mario Bros. 3. There's the aforementioned giant mushroom, and by the same token there is a miniaturizing mushroom that shrinks Mario down to a few pixels in height. Items can be saved and selected from the touch screen. But New Super Mario Bros. doesn't just add new items; Mario is outfitted with some new moves drawing from his 3D adventures. For example, when in the air, he can slam straight down with a butt stomp. He can also perform a Prince of Persia-like wall jump allowing him to reach particularly high areas.

The game looks great in the visual deparment. I have no doubt some purists will cry foul over the switch from sprite-based characters to polygonal characters. Good pixel artwork is near and dear to my heart, having grown up on PC graphic adventure classics, but it's hard to imagine sprites working for this particular game. The reality is that polygons scale better, and when you have a character that has to change seamlessly from a few pixels tall to almost the height of the screen and various sizes in between, this seems like the best solution. Plus, it allows for some very subtle animations as well as the ability for Mario to actually turn around when he turns around. Various other objects in the world are 3D as well; essentially, anything that must move in any way is rendered polygonally. The backgrounds are of course 2D, and with the increased color count and thematic variety, they look better than those of any 2D Mario game to date (the arguable exception would be the gorgeous Yoshi's Island on SNES, but whether you count that as a "Mario game" is another matter). In the final build, the one I recently played, the polygon/2D interaction looks a lot better than it did at last year's E3, but unfortunately there don't seem to be many recent official screenshots reflecting that.

New Super Mario Bros. features an overworld map, such as the one introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3, but this one is rendered in 3D. It features various unlockable rooms in which you can gamble for extra items and the like, and the development team has promised a multitude of secrets and shortcuts throughout the game, a hallmark of the series. I played through most of the first world, and I think I've figured out what Nintendo is going for with this game. To those that played it, the original Super Mario Bros. was something entirely new and surprising. Further games in the series built on that original formula, adding new features and gameplay elements (with the exception of the black sheep of the franchise, the much-debated Super Mario Bros. 2). Though it may be almost impossible, I get the impression that, for people who have played 2D Mario games in the past, Nintendo is trying to recreate the feeling of playing that original Super Mario Bros.; that is, constant surprises and memorable moments throughout. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto and New Super Mario Bros. designer Takashi Tezuka (Miyamoto's assistant director back on the original Super Mario Bros.) must have been working overtime on crazy crap to cram into this game, because practically every level had completely unexpected moments during which I couldn't help but smile, or in some cases even laugh aloud. It's not worth trying to explain any of these; they would be worthless in text, and the surprises would be ruined. Suffice to say, this game feels a lot fresher than it has any right to feel, being based on a twenty year old design.

For good measure, the game includes the minigames from Super Mario 64 DS, some of which have been enhanced for local multiplayer. There's also a brand new Versus mode, pitting Mario against Luigi in a race to collect the most stars. This is actually surprisingly fun. There are a variety of levels from which to choose, each of which goes on infinitely (either by having the end of the level looping back to the beginning, or by having the two ends connected by pipes) with stars materializing at apparently random points. The two players race to grab stars while picking up items and powerups, and of course jumping on each others' heads. It wouldn't be worth a purchase on its own, but it's a fun diversion if you've got a DS-equipped buddy around. Since there were multiple DSes with New Super Mario Bros. inserted, it didn't occur to me to check if the versus mode supports single cart download play, but I would be very surprised if it did not.

Really, it's hard to imagine New Super Mario Bros. not turning out well. It's classic 2D Mario platforming, but it's new. That's essentially all you really need to know. If you have any love for those games, this is a no brainer. If they've never done anything for you, well you might have some gaming deficiencies, but you probably won't get much out of this one either. It looks like Miyamoto and co. pulled out all the stops for this installment. The best parts of the earlier games are here, and a lot of the new additions are absolutely off the walls. I really can't wait.

New Super Mario Bros. will be released for Nintendo DS on May 15.