New Super Mario Bros. (2006) – Review

The logo over a yellow background: classic mid-2000s style. (YouTube/bdrumerdrums)

1. Too Late to the (Mario) Party?

Now granted, I got to play New SMB only now, in 2017, eleven years after its original release. I wonder what I would have thought of it back in 2006, during its original run. But then again, 2D entries in the Mario are pretty much guaranteed fun for me. I can pick up Super Mario World any day of the week and be content.

So when I got a hold of this one back in Japan, I didn’t think much of it. Another Mario game to just pop in and have fun! I never had an original Nintendo DS in the 2000s. Only now, with my trusty 3DS and its backward compatibility, do I have the lucky opportunity to revisit older classics from the DS era. Many of these games absolutely lived up to my expectations or even surpassed them, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia especially. New Super Mario Bros., however, did not — something that never ever happened with Mario games.

There it is: the ninth best-selling game ever. (Wikipedia)

Why is that, I wondered? The reviewers pretty much agreed that this is a must-have game. And by the way, New SMB still ranks as one of the most successful games of all time, having sold almost 31 million units worldwide. That’s Top Ten, ever (at least as of 2017).

2. What’s So Disappointing?

After feeling rather constricted by Super Mario Run’s controls (or their lack of), I was looking towards a classic Mario game to play on the go. I had already cleared Super Mario 3D Land (which was great) so New Super Mario Bros. seemed like an obvious choice.

I popped it in, played a few levels — but soon afterwards did not feel like continuing. I actually put the game down for long periods of time, which felt really weird. Cognitive dissonance arose: am I the only person not completely enjoying this game?

I had to force myself a couple of times to go back to NSMB and finally clear it. Not a good sign.

I think NSMB mainly didn’t catch me because a) there was nothing new in the way of gameplay and b) because it didn’t provide almost any challenge.

Nintendo might have played this one just a little too save after having gotten on the wrong track with Super Mario Sunshine. New Super Mario Bros. is exactly what the title suggests. An easy new version of an old game that takes various cues from franchise entries that came in between. Everything is familiar here: the various worlds and their structure, Mario’s moveset, enemies, the musical style and so on.

3. Let’s Dig a Little Deeper

Cynical question: Could it be that Nintendo’s leaders, who were probably busy preparing the Wii in the mid 2000s, handed this one over to less experienced staff? Asking them to produce a throwback Mario game that would sell no matter what?

Indeed, the credits to New Super Mario Bros. don’t list any Mario veterans or heavyweights. No Tezuka, no Kondo, and certainly no Miyamoto. The late Satoru Iwata serves as Executive Producer but I don’t think he was much involved in the game’s design. Instead, a certain Shigeyuki Asuke is credited as director. His first Nintendo game dates back to only 2001 (Debug Support for Luigi’s Mansion).

Let us take a look at four core features these fresh (and certainly talented) developers created exclusively for New Super Mario Bros. This shows why my theory isn’t entirely unlikely.

  • Enemies
Hey, that’s not Big Bertha! (Nintendo)

Some never before seen enemies make their debut here in New SMB (and are mostly never seen again, by the way). Examples would be the Broozers, punching ghosts (?), spiked angry fish called Spike Bass, or Snailicorns, big snails with a horn. These designs are all right, I guess, but not even remotely on par with “real” Mario enemies. This really felt cheap, to be honest. To me personally, the sometimes poor enemy design might be the biggest pain point in NSMB.

  • Secrets

Mario games have to have secret power-ups or passages, that’s a given. Of course, New Super Mario Bros. delivers these, too. But I’m missing the grace and seamlessness with which earlier entries wove secrets into the overall flow of the game.

Here though, everything’s so convoluted and generally inconvenient. For example, in order to reach many hidden passageways, New SMB demands that I have a certain power-up equipped. But oftentimes, the required item isn’t in my possession and I also don’t know where to get it. Such clumsy ways of traversing the worlds feel just weird and out of place in Mario games, which are usually super polished.

  • Pacing and difficulty level

Speaking of polish: Mario games are also known for the ingenious pacing. In the first few worlds, they teach the player everything he has to know, almost always purely through gameplay. Then, in order to test him and make him a better player in the process, levels get very gradually harder. In the end, the player feels competent and really accomplished when overcoming tough levels or bosses.

New Super Mario Bros., however, sidesteps this cornerstone of Mario game mechanics quite a bit. It’s an easy game, with bosses that not only repeat themselves but that are also lazily designed (regular enemies blown up) — and usually dead in three hits. Sometimes, a stage gets suddenly more challenging, just to be followed by a super easy one. There’s just a general lack of progression, of building up skills and feeling innately competent.

  • Power-ups

New Super Mario Bros. contains some new powers for Mario (or Luigi, of course), such as the Mega Mushroom that lets Mario become a sort of kaiju in his own world. He stomps on stuff and destroys everything in his path, just like good old Godzilla.

Funny, but not that useful: Mega Mario. (Nintendo)

Mega Mario is an interesting concept but almost entirely useless in the grander scope of the game. The novelty wore off faster than I had hoped. I simply never actually needed this power and found myself mostly discarding the Mega Mushroom.

What I did need, however, was the ability to fly or hover. After the elegance of the cape in Super Mario World (which, let’s not forget, was subtitled Super Mario Bros. 4 in Japan), having Mario always on the ground, forced down by gravity, felt like a big step backwards. At least Nintendo carried over the wall jump from Super Mario 64 (DS) into this one.

4. Clear After All

Luckily, the wall jump also isn’t the only ability that made its way from Mario 64 into New Super Mario Bros. — the triple jump did as well (and some musical cues, for that matter). And yes, at points, the resulting fluidity of the gameplay that is so typical of Mario games shines through here. And that is just plain fun.

Of course, New SMB is not a bad game by any means. In the end, I cleared not only the main game but also all the optional worlds. The designers carried over enough of the core mechanics a Mario game needs. Their new ideas just didn’t mesh to well with what came before.

Still, I can’t help to feel let down by the game somewhat. It might actually be one of the more mediocre games in the main Mario line. New Super Mario Bros. just doesn’t live up to its name and its reputation as a must-have. But life will go on, I’m sure.

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