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'New Super Mario Bros. Wii' review: Saving the princess is somehow still fun

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Despite its ungainly title, there really isn’t anything all that “new” to New Super Mario Bros. Wii, the umpteenth entry in Nintendo’s vast Mario empire. If anything, it’s a deliberately nostalgic, graphically updated throwback to the mustachioed plumber’s old 2-D, side-scrolling adventures. Yet again, Princess Peach is kidnapped by the big bad Bowser and his odd little coterie of mini-Bowser minions. (Are these horn-shelled doofuses his offspring? Brothers? Nephews? Water-induced clones a la the gremlins in Gremlins?) Yet again, Mario and his brother Luigi must save the helpless maiden by flattening toadstools and dodging slow-moving giant bullets through multiple levels on eight distinctive themed worlds (i.e. the desert world, the jungle world, the Mount Doom world). And yet again, the brothers Mario are aided by special mushrooms, flowers, and animalized suits that embiggen and/or imbue them with the power to throw balls of flame or zip through the air.

Yes, some of these items are, technically, “new”: A blue flower gives you the power to throw ice balls, as does a penguin suit that also keeps you firmly planted on those insidiously slippery ice sheets. The Wii’s motion-sensitive controls — used here for spinning your character, lifting objects, or moving certain platforms — lend another wrinkle to the franchise’s addictive challenges to your hand-eye coordination. And the entire enterprise has been graphically updated with a semi-three-dimensional sheen — which is really just a spit-and-polish on the first New Super Mario Bros., released for Nintendo’s hand-held DS in 2006. But really, the only true innovation is the ability to have four people play at once, as allies aiding each other through the treacherous terrain, or outright foes able to toss you out of the game with an expert flick of an empty turtle shell.

The four-players-at-the-same-time feature is also the game’s most prominent selling point, and it is certainly chaotic fun. But strangely, your ability to enjoy it has very little to do with the game itself, and much more to do with the people playing it with you. In the cooperative play, a low-skilled straggler can drag everybody down, and in the “free-for-all” play, if your friends aren’t as, er, cutthroat as you are, you may find yourself in a pitched argument over the morality of deliberately accidentally nudging your buddy’s Luigi off a cliff while racing to grab a power mushroom. Trust me, moral arguments over a Mario game does not a fun Saturday afternoon make, especially when it’s with a significant other who’s already thrown down a controller in an outraged huff.

But even playing NSMBW solo, it’s remarkable just how much you’ll still enjoy hopping on Yoshi for a quick ride, or running at breakneck speed to evade the ginormous metal spikes rushing to crush you into a bloody pulp. (Well, okay, blood never, ever features in Mario games, and given the Mario game designers’ fetish for festooning you with an ample supply of 1-Up mushrooms, death is never much more than a fleeting annoyance. But I digress.) It’s a testimony to the Mario formula’s sturdy construction that after Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 2, Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, Super Mario Land, Super Mario Land 2, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario 64 DS, New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Galaxy, and now New Super Mario Bros. Wii, saving the princess and breaking bricks with your fist still hasn’t lost its charm. B+

Before I turn the comments over to you, dear readers, one quick question: If you were to re-imagine the Mario formula, what spin would you take on it? Me, I’ve been fantasizing about just what an ultra-realistic, opened-ended version of a Mario game would look like — would it be a Grand Theft Auto-style gritty masterpiece? Or would it kinda look like this?