In honor of Mar10 day, and to put a final pin in the Super Mario 35th Anniversary, I decided to play all four games in the New Super Mario Bros. series. If you’ve owned a Nintendo console during the last 15 years, you’ve likely played at least one of these games. What began as a retro throwback on the DS became one of Nintendo’s most iconic yet least interesting series.
I myself dismissed the series as Nintendo making safe, uncreative, sterile games just to grab some easy money. In a company that usually prides itself on its creativity, New Super Mario Bros. appeared so corporate and soulless. After playing all four of them, I still feel like this statement is mostly true. Mostly. Nintendo obviously cut costs by reusing the same art style and the same assets for most of these games. The story is always Bowser and the 8 Koopalings offering Peach a ride in their luxury airships and a permanent stay at their castle spa. Mario always jumps through deserts, mountains, and jungles in order to crash their party. The games appear like clones manufactured in an assembly line rather than playgrounds crafted for you to explore. Mario has never felt more like a brand, to me, than in these games.
Did Mario deserve better? Yes, he certainly did. And yet… why can’t I bring myself to actively dislike these games?
Don’t get me wrong, I lament their lost potential. New Super Mario Bros. 2, for example, gives us a peek at what these games could’ve been. New Super Mario Bros. 2 had a coin gimmick where gold coins were everywhere, and almost every power-up was changed to spew coins instead of your typical fireballs. The only thing is, the game never explains why coins suddenly appear everywhere, or if Bowser would ever try to use the coins to his advantage as well. The coins are just… there.
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, as much as it appears like the other games, also offers a glimpse of what the series could’ve been. Every once in a while, the game throws a level at you that’s so different than anything Nintendo has ever done before. Everyone praises the Van Gogh Starry Night level, but there’s also a charming level where you jump among stars, or a level where you have to keep enemies off a floating lava boat. I cannot, for the life of me, criticize the level designers. Not every level is a knockout, but I can’t find any that are unsatisfying to play. I can’t find an unfun level.
New Super Luigi U adds even more contrast to the series’ strengths and weaknesses. Luigi U is literally a retelling of New Super Mario Bros. U, dismissing all that story potential of having Luigi as the platforming star. They could’ve found some way to flip the Mario script on its head, but instead the game might as well be about a jumping green rectangle. I’m not expecting some thesis statement or RPG plot development, but I expect them to at least do something with the game’s premise.
And yet, each and every level in New Super Luigi U was thrilling. For example, the base game would give you a level using a crank to move blocks, but Luigi U would make a labyrinth out of those crank blocks, and you’d navigate them all at once. The simple Moai platforms of the original game became these fast-moving obstacles for Luigi to dodge. It’s as if once the level designers fulfilled the basic Mario level quotas, they finally cut loose and show you what they were capable of. The Luigi U levels are short, and yet they’re dense with challenge after challenge. They were easily the highlight of the entire series.
By the end, playing New Super Mario Bros. became an unexpected inner journey. I allowed myself to be disappointed that Nintendo never pushed themselves to make good stories. At the same time, I allowed myself to enjoy the levels and the colorful simplicity of the games. New Super Mario Bros. is the series that a tired adult can play at the end of a hard day’s work. The series is a warm, familiar place where you don’t have to worry about metaphors or unreliable narrators; you just run and jump and beat the bad guys.
In a way, the New Super Mario Bros. series encapsulates both my criticisms and praises of Nintendo as a whole. I wish they’d get over their allergy to stories, but they still know how to deliver on fun. I can accept that.