Togetherness In Question
New Super Mario Bros. Wii is, in many ways, a classic platforming experience. It's also a sometimes alienating, maddening game. How you reconsile the two halves is up to you. Personally I found this modern, co-op enabled take on the 2D Mario template to be quite fun; it's a colourful, challenging, and nostalgic game, filled with lots of old tricks and a few new ones. Ultimately, though, the game's multiplayer is actually what put me off about it most.
The first thing that will feel familiar is the premise, of course. Suffice it to say that Princess Peach is kidnapped and Mario has to track her through a series of ever more dangerous worlds to get her back. This time, however, in what may be the first moment of sanity the Mushroom Kingdom has ever had, a few dudes actually follow Mario on his quest. I guess they've outgrown their usual one-man army strategy after all these years. The main bullet point Nintendo tried to drive home is the co-op, and jumping in and out of the game at any time is simple. The first player is always Mario, and the second, third and fourth players can choose from Luigi, a blue Toad, and a yellow Toad. They all move and control identically, though, so the choice is purely cosmetic and everyone is on equal footing when it comes to the game's levels.
It's a pretty challenging game by today's standards, although reports of it being as difficult as past Mario games or even Contra have been greatly exaggerated. This is definitely not as taxing a game as, say, Mario 3 or Super Mario World. For the most part, the levels are tightly constructed and have you running around, bopping enemies, climbing on chain-link fences, balancing on perilous moving and spinning platforms, and so on. Y'know, Mario stuff.
The new additions to the formula are generally quite gimmicky, but work great as temporary breaks from the core running and jumping. One level has you swimming through floating bubbles of water, using them to slow approaching Bullet Bills as you make your way across the sky. Some co-op touches have been added as well; certain platforms award the first player to touch them control of their angle. Tilt the Wii remote around and the platform will match that angle, letting other players grab hidden items (or fall to their deaths). There's even some new suits here - Propeller and Penguin - and they're great, probably the best additions to the game overall. One lets you shake your remote to spin way up into the air and gently float down; the other lets you swim more easily and have better control on ice. Both of these suits work very well and are put to great use in the game's levels. I hope to see them again some day.
The basic framework of Mario is definitely here, and it works well. I had a lot of fun progressing through the levels, even when I was yelling at them or quitting them after moments of immense frustration. I laughed, I cried, and I had the classic Mario experience. But outside of a few neat tricks, I found the co-op to mostly be a detriment to the game rather than an a boon. It starts out pretty light and fluffy, like you'd expect a family-friendly shared experience to be. Soon after, this bubbly curiosity will turn to tears.
The main problem with the co-op is that you do not clip through other players. I understand this was a deliberate choice on Nintendo's part, but I just couldn't get behind the idea at any point during my playtime. What this means is, if one player is jumping over a chasm - a regular occurrence in Mario - and another player jumps over him, you will most likely collide, bouncing off the first player's head and sending them to their death. There's some novelty to be had here, as you can mess around with players in other ways too, like picking them up (either to carry them through a tough section or toss them to their demise) or eating them with Yoshi. But ultimately it just gives players a laundry list of ways to mess up the flow of the game. That may make me sound like a buzzkill, but I didn't really enjoy the invitation to screw other players up.
A more universal complaint, though, is that the levels simply get too cramped later on for a full game to be much fun. Picture a classic Mario fortress or castle, which you'll encounter in every world in this game as well. Conjure up images of moving spiked walls, platforms laced with Dry Bones patrols, and other such hazards. Now think of what it'd be like to have four people in on it. Unless you spend every waking hour of the day perfecting your synchronicity (check out the 'Super Skills' videos you can buy with star coins and you'll see what I mean), challenges like this become an awful mess, awfully quick. Having someone gauge a jump the same way you did and land on your head, bouncing constantly and preventing you from moving, is especially taxing. For a game that is marketed to families and younger players, I found these laws of the game world to be pretty harsh.
There is a chance that I'm taking this game too seriously, but I really don't see the fun in the situations I described above. And those aren't rare occurrences, either; expect to have these problems in just about every level. Although co-op can be fun from time to time, don't expect to come anywhere close to finishing the game as a group. If you do, you are a God, and I submit to you. Two players is a lot more reasonable, and in fact is what I found to be the ideal set-up for co-op.
Even though the multiplayer was more or less a disappointment to me, this is still a Mario game that I enjoyed playing. After finishing up Bowser, me and another co-op buddy actually went back in to collect more coins and explore some of the extra content that crops up after finishing world eight. It's not a fantastic game, but it is a good one, and anybody looking for that old-style experience should definitely play it. It's just too bad the co-op weren't a little more forgiving and more realized.