REVIEW: New Super Mario Bros U (in a hammock)

Marketing Mario as “New” feels somewhat insincere. There is almost nothing in the moustachioed icon’s Wii U adventure that you haven’t seen or done before. You’ll stomp Goombas, hoard coins, run through familiar worlds of grass, desert, ice and lava, and collect more 1-Ups than you could ever possibly need.

But there is one key difference: All this can be experienced from the comfort of a hammock. Not enough games these days consider “hammockable” (adjective: Capable of being enjoyed in a hammock) an important back-of-the-box check point. The Wii U GamePad provides New Super Mario Bros U with a high degree of hammockability (often officially referred to as “Off-TV Play”), and I can’t wait for future games on the console to try to out-hammock it.

Arguably, this isn’t the first Mario game to experiment with hammockability. New Super Mario Bros 2, released for the 3DS last August, was compatible with the hammock peripheral, but it was secondary. As much as any 3DS or handheld game is technically hammockable, I prefer to play them on public transport. The timing of the game’s release didn’t do its hammockability any justice either: personally, I wasn’t willing to brave the tail end of a Melbourne, Australia winter to play New SMB2 outdoors.

The hammockability of each game aside, New SMB U is quite similar to its 3DS predecessor, and the DS and Wii entries before that. The 2D platforming is reminiscent of the classic NES/SNES Mario games, particularly Bros. 3 and World. The physics are tight, which makes running and jumping pleasingly responsive. You’ll develop an unspoken understanding of the weight and timing as you play, and soon realize that any mistakes are your own fault.

And mistakes will be made, as the difficulty curves upwards at a perfect pace. Veterans will breeze through the first two worlds or so with nary a life lost (communicated beautifully through the breeze that gently rocks your hammock as you play – nice use of the peripheral, Nintendo), but the middle few worlds will steal some back. Not that you’ll really care, as lives are common enough to be virtually worthless. Even in the incredibly unlikely event that you get a Game Over, all it means is a slightly longer delay until you can try again. It’s a long enough wait to sit back in your hammock, sip your drink, stretch and get back to it.

However, the last couple of worlds may break you, with only the comfort of your hammock to keep frustration at bay. It becomes almost NES-level challenging: in the last few levels, I lost upwards of 50 lives. It’s a pleasurable pain though, highlighting Nintendo’s mission to win back the hardcore crowd.

Challenge isn’t the only thing to entice long-time Mario fans back to the franchise. A healthy dose of nostalgia is also thrown in, as it follows the trend for the new 2D platformers to be spiritual successors to specific classic games. While this adventure borrows elements from everywhere, the clearest inspiration is Super Mario World.

Gone are the modular maps for individual worlds, replaced with a continuous map similar to what made Super Mario World feel so big. The sweet-themed naming convention for areas is continued: where the 1990 game had Donut Plains, Vanilla Dome and Chocolate Island, the 2012 outing features Layer-Cake Desert, Soda Jungle and Rock Candy Mines. New SMBU also marks the return of certain enemies unique to World, like Monty Moles and those smaller spiky Dry Bones.

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Everything is wrapped in the Mushroom Kingdom’s regular bright and colourful package, presented for the first time in full HD. Raw graphical power has never been Nintendo’s focus, but here we finally see Mario leap into the resolution that his rivals have been basking in for years. And it looks fantastic, both on the TV and the GamePad screen. It’s a series of little touches that bring it to life: The puffs of dust underfoot, the rounded depth of the iconic mushrooms, the orange glow on Mario’s face when he nears lava.

The only visual issue is the glare on the screen that can arise while playing in a hammock. Sometimes I had to roll onto my side or sit up, which was a hassle. I’m certain that the developers intended a hammock to be the ideal way to experience the game, but there are a few problems with the device, which I hope will be addressed in the inevitable sequel, New Super Mario Bros U2 (once they get past the probable copyright issues).

The hammock peripheral only really supports one player, or maybe two if you get cosy. The fact that the game can host up to five players is silly. No hammock can support that many players! It is still possible to use the accessory for multiplayer, but it means moving the TV up to the window, sitting outside while everyone else is indoors, or buying a hammock for each player. None of those options are ideal, but the game was still enjoyable during those few times I played it inside, with the couch and TV. On those rare occasions where I was using the TV, the option to turn off the GamePad screen would have been appreciated.

Some players might be put off by the fact that the hammock peripheral is sold separately, but I would highly recommend investing in one. It’s very comfortable to use for long periods of time, supporting my backside quite well. Pillows are also sold separately, and I had trouble sourcing a Nintendo-branded one. Thankfully, the system supports non-proprietary pillows, so you can use any brand without any noticeable performance issues.

Other times, I would go to play the game and find it was raining, or too hot or cold. Nintendo has provided no way for players to control the external weather conditions, which seems like an oversight. As often as it works for us southerners currently enjoying summer, those in the northern hemisphere will likely find it much too cold for any hammock use right now.

Luckily, New Super Mario Bros U also allows general Off-TV Play, meaning that when it’s too cold to sit outside in a hammock, playing the game in bed or another comfy spot indoors is still practical.

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Mario’s latest adventure brings to mind many of his previous ones, but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Each iteration is well polished, well designed and most importantly, a lot of fun. And New Super Mario Bros U is perhaps the most polished, best designed and most fun Mario game in years.

So I don’t care if Nintendo doesn’t mess with the formula too much. If the studio can keep digging gold out of them hills, I’ll continue to buy that gold. No need to change the formula and call it New Gold: Just wrap the Gold Classic in a nice package each time and I’ll be happy.

Especially when that nice package is hammockable.

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