Finally, a month before it comes out, the biggest game of the Wii for the fall makes sense and we know its component parts:
New Super Mario Bros. has a campaign and a pair of multiplayer challenges. The campaign is spread across eight worlds, each laid out as a landscape of levels networked by forking paths. As with New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, the world maps include mushroom huts that offer bonuses. A mid-map fortress and a world-ending castle stand in the way of players on each world.
I played a few levels with four representatives from Nintendo. While it's hard to recount the flow of a full level, I can list some attractions:
-A desert level had an elevator wide enough to let four players stand in it. But the ride was made dangerous by the attack of eight or 10 Koopa turtles. We barely survived the ride to the top of the screen as they crept in from both sides.
-A level that let us all ride Yoshis showed that we could both use Yoshis to eat and spit out other players but also eat the hammers thrown by Hammer Bros. and shoot them back.
-An underwater cave level put four of us on a raft. The raft floated from left to right on a flow of some toxic purple liquid. Numbers appeared on the raft apparently indicating how much weight was on it. If too many of us—and too many enemies—got on it at the same time, we'd sink.
-An eighth-world lava level put the four of us on a roller-coaster seemingly made of bones. Hard as it was to ride the roller-coaster and still avoid enemies and jets of flame, not one of us was prepared for the roller-coaster to plunge into the lava. I guess we should have jumped. Or used Super Guide.
The game is played with the Wii Remote held sideways, as if it is a Nintendo Entertainment System controller. As we've noted in previews before, the main control innovation that is added to the classic Mario running, jumping and fireball-throwing is the ability to pick up and throw friends and bombs with a press of the 1 button and a shake of the Wii remote. You can use the throw both to help your fellow players out, or, as was often the case during my session today with Nintendo's folks, to mess with them. That was my Blue Toad their Mario tossed into a spinning propeller of fire. Thanks.
Playing a Mario side-scroller with other gamers presents a mixture of benefits and calamity. Each player starts with five lives, but the level will be terminated if all four players have been defeated at the same time. If at least one is alive, though, the game can go on. The player-characters who have fallen into a bottomless pit or been temporarily killed by a Goomba will reappear floating in bubbles, wailing for help through the Wii Remote speaker. Shaking the remote or having the bubble popped by another player returns that player's character to the action. Bear in mind that other players might be the ones who threw you into the bottomless pits in the first place.
The tossing of fireballs and iceballs—earned via classic-syle power-ups—don't hurt other players. In one level, I found a barrel that did. Of course I picked it up and hurled it at my "friends" from Nintendo.
Bosses in the campaign include the cast of Koopalings from earlier Mario games. Bowser and Bowser Jr. are nemeses as well. In the one fortress level that we played, the first Koopaling was not any tougher due to four of us fighting him. In fact, even though the platform on which we fought him was crowded with our quartet, he took his beating more quickly. The game does not appear to adjust for the presence of multiple players, perhaps because the added players make the game harder in some spots, easier in others.
Levels appeared to be filled with hidden passageways that lead to extra coins. In the 20 minutes or so that we played the game I also saw numbered red coins and invisible coins that appear when you jump through their floating outlines (and that can be collected if you jump through them again).
A Nintendo rep told me that the game's campaign will include the added twist of special Toad-rescuing missions. In these quests, players will have to return to cleared levels to find a kidnapped Toad and then carry him out of the level. Enemies will also patrol the game's overworld, prompting extra challenges.
The gaame's other half is its collection of multiplayer challenge stages. It appears that most of the stages available for this are taken from the game's campaign, but there also seem to be some levels tailored made for this method of playing. The mode offers two ways to play: Free For All and Coin Battle. In Free For All, players can proceed through a level together, working with or against each other in pursuit of a new high score. Coin Battle was more exciting, challenging players to see who could collect the most coins in a stage.
In one Coin Battle stage, set in a Mario-style ghost house, I learned the magic of using ghosts to take out other players. In single-player Mario games, turning your back on a ghost caused the ghost to creep up behind you and kill you. In multiplayer Mario, it's a good way to get the ghost to fly right into the Luigi standing between you and the ghost, killing Luigi (temporarily!)
Another Coin Battle stage that we tried was based on the original single-screen Mario Bros. game, though it transported us to a second board that was more of a Super Mario Bros. underground blue-brick sewer level.
The levels we played of the game were, universally, challenging. I didn't play any of them—Campaign or Coin Battle—by myself. I wonder if that would have made any of them easier. With four players, collision and death is constant, though seldom frustrating. During an earlier demo of the game I found the pause triggered when any player-character died to be distracting. That pause is gone. The gameplay was smooth and fun, full of moments of cooperation and competition that typified the best levels of the only game to compare to this recently, Little Big Planet.
A note about the graphics: Nintendo doesn't have new screenshots to show of the game yet, so I'm using an image from the E3 version of the game. The game looks polished if still as simple as you'd expect a side-scrolling Mario game to look. Characters animated in 3D and, most impressively, the TV screen was often full of characters. I've never seen dozens of Cheep-Cheeps swimming toward Mario all at once.
New Super Mario Bros. is set for release on the Wii on November 15.