Platform: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: May 15th, 2006
Prior to the release of this game, there was something of a drought in relation to Mario games. The last main entry in the franchise had landed four years earlier with Super Mario Sunshine. To top it off, this was the first 2D Mario entry in a staggering fourteen years after Super Mario Land 2, thanks largely in part to Nintendo switching the franchise to 3D and never looking back. Needless to say there were high expectations.
I couldn't help thinking as I played the game, however, that it was something of a step back for the 2D Mario titles, much less the franchise itself.
As usual, the story is the same as any other Mario title; Princess Peach is kidnapped once again and it's up to our favorite plump plumber to save her. The only difference is that this time, gasp, it's not Bowser, but Bowser Jr.! Oh yeah, with all the sarcasm I can possibly muster, I can say Nintendo really went for broke on the story this go around.
The look of the game is something that surprised me right off the bat. If you wanted to split hairs, this game is really a 2.5D game, or 3D models in a side scrolling fashion. Usually 3D in a sidescroller has a nasty habit of looking downright awful, especially if the game uses a combination of traditional 2D sprites and 3D models in any fashion. Thankfully this game is not one of those. The graphics are one of the most impressive displays of 3D sidescrollers this side of Bionic Commando: Rearmed; lush and colorful with little to no clashing. If nothing else, the game certainly looks better than just about anything that came before it.
The sound doesn't suffer either here. The sound effects and music all sound great for a portable title, much less a Nintendo DS game. It's rare for portable titles to sound this good; all too often the sound comes off as muted and tiny due in large part to the systems small speakers. Mario leap frogs the competitions standards yet again.
The gameplay is something that really doesn't even need explanation. You run, jump, wall kick, eat mushrooms to grow big and throw fireballs to get through the levels. There's a new wrinkle or two, however, in Mario's new ability to swing on ropes and shimmy across narrow ledges. There are also three collectible coins per level, which is more or less the games currency, but they're not used to buy anything interesting like unlockables; just powerups. Just about all of this plays as well as you'd expect, bringing back the classic core 2D platforming goodness that made Mario a household name in the first place.
Unfortunately, many of the entertaining powers brought forth in previous 2D games have vanished, as is par the course for modern Mario games which have all but dropped most of the old powers. The only one retained is the classic fire flower. There is a new power, however, in the blue shell suit, which allows you to duck into the shell and bowl over your enemies like your typical thrown koopa shell. There are also two new flavors of mushroom; giant and tiny. As you can guess, they both affect your size, making you either a screen encompassing Mario that destroys aything in his path for a limited time or a teeny tiny Mario that can be felled in one hit but can fit through special places.
The game is, unfortunately, not without it's flaws. Some like to call this a second coming of Super Mario 3 thanks to the return of several different elements lost since then. Truth be told, it's more like the original Super Mario but with a new coat of paint and borrowed features from 3. Arguably a bit too much like the original.
While the graphics and sound are excellent, there's way too much "sameness" to them. Levels will look generally like one another far more than I would have liked. If you've seen one water level, you've literally seen them all sans layout; this is one of those instances where it's a bit too much like the original. Also, there aren't enough different themes in levels; all too often will you hear a music theme you heard not two levels ago and what songs are different blend in with one another way too much, lacking a distinctive pop you usually get in these sort of games.
Another relatively large problem is that the game is simply way too simplistic. For all the people who want to compare this favorably to the mother of all Mario games, Super Mario 3, there is surprisingly little complexity to the levels; a complete shift from the short but layered levels of Super Mario 3 and the even better structure of Super Mario World. You move along your designated path, only to occasionally drop down a pipe into a small area before quickly being pumped back into the main track. At times this leaves some levels feeling bland and rather boring because of it; while the throwback to the general structure of the original is nice, it doesn't quite work in modern day Mario games, which are much easier than the original and Lost Levels and thusly harder to really grab you.
The world maps share in this simplicity, lacking much of the branching paths that populated the previous 2D outings. It's a straight shot through the main levels with a seperate path once in a blue moon and signs you can spend star coins to knock over to reach the mushroom house they usually block the path to. There are also only two instances where you have a choice which world you can go to, on the path, but taking the alternate world through often requires you defeat a boss in the castle with a tiny mushroom, something you rarely realize until it's way too late. Not exactly inspired.
Then there's the new powerup, the blue shell. This thing is a complete nightmare of a powerup. Whenever you reach running speed Mario automatically ducks into the shell, going off at a steady pace in that direction. Not only is it way too easy to do this when you really don't want to, thanks to the automatic activation, but it's not horribly easy to go off in a pit and have it cost you a life. Even after you learn that letting go of the run button will make it stop, it still won't help you. The shell moves at a quick pace, which means you'll either go off into a pit or, if you're unlucky enough to have it for a fortress level, bounce off the walls and right back into a hazard before you can even think to let go. This leaves the powerup as quite literally worthless as it's a hindrance nine times out of ten; it'll get to the point where you'll actively avoid it or if you do pick it up immediately leap into an enemy to get rid of it.
Then there's the save system, which is a very large annoyance. You will only be given the option to save after either defeating a fortress or spending five star coins to gain access to a mushroom house; you're not allowed to save at will until you've beaten the game. For a game that is perfect for the pick up, play a bit and put it down style of portable titles, this is an odd choice. You can't just pop it in, play a quick level and be done; you either need a plethora of star coins and a post you haven't knocked over yet, be forced to sit there and get through the three some odd levels it takes to get to a fortress and then beat that or simply turn off the game and waste any progress you made.
The add on stuff isn't much better. Multiplayer in portable Mario's has never really been all that engrossing. Don't expect that to have changed here or you'll be disappointed. Also, the minigames are nothing more than a dozen or so cherry picked games from previous DS Mario's. Nothing new here. They didn't even have the courtesy to just pack in all of them.
This is a very enjoyable game, but there are far too many little things that add up.
The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up
Some people say this game is like Super Mario 3; I'm here to tell you that ain't the case. In fact, I suspect far too many people were too starstruck by new 2D Mario to really look at it for what it really is. Unfairly compared to the pinnacle of the franchise, this game looks like a chump. The truth is that it's not. There are several niggling flaws to this game and a good deal of curious choices were made, but the gameplay is very solid and it's a worthwhile purchase for the DS. It's not going to be hailed as the best Mario game ever, but you simply cannot go wrong with it. It comes with my recommendation no matter how you manage to get a hold of it, from a cartridge to a download from the DSi's store.