New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe review: a modern Mario masterpiece

This game’s signature Super Acorn power-up, which turns you into a sugar glider, is emblematic of NSMBU‘s approach in general: there’s enough technical nuance and depth there for dedicated players to really dig their teeth in, but it’s also just plain fun. The controls are intuitive and the levels are filled with interesting toys, so anyone can jump in and have fun running through. But optional extras like collecting the star coins in each course or taking on the sadistic Superstar Road levels present a serious level of challenge.

They're not bubbles, but levitating spheres of water. Don't think about it too much.

They’re not bubbles, but levitating spheres of water. Don’t think about it too much.

Though the game’s great solo, it’s also a fantastically-tuned multiplayer game. Playing as a pair provides a lot of opportunity to work together as you can jump off each other’s heads to reach high places, retreat into a floating bubble if you’re in danger, or even pick up and throw your partner in an emergency.

But, with three or four players, all these elements make for a completely anarchic experience that can be as torturous as it is hilarious. Even if you begin with the best intentions, one player will inadvertently scoop up all four power-ups when the rest of the team is in desperate need, or someone will get stomped on mid-jump and end up in the lava, and all bets will be off.

The game has a totally different feel depending on how many people are playing.

The game has a totally different feel depending on how many people are playing.

The multiplayer balance is a little different this time around, however. The Wii U Gamepad was used in the original game, giving one player the ability to place blocks that the team could use to get to hard-to-reach areas, which is totally gone on Switch. But in return, having two controllers attached to the system at all times makes it so much easier to have your player two drop in and out.

The character roster has also seen a shake-up. There’s still Mario, Luigi and Yellow Toad — who play identically and can use all the power-ups — but replacing Blue Toad is Toadette. Instead of getting the Super Acorn she gets the Super Crown, which turns her into Peach lookalike Peachette. The bizarre implications of this transformation are best ignored, but the upshot is that Peachette’s glide is slower and safer than the other characters, making it easier to get out of tough spots.

While Peach is busy being held hostage by Bowser, maybe Peachette could rule Mushroom Kingdom.

While Peach is busy being held hostage by Bowser, maybe Peachette could rule Mushroom Kingdom.

Total beginners might prefer to play as Nabbit, the rabbit thief who appears as a villain in the game. He can’t use power-ups, but he’s also invulnerable to harm from any bad guys. It’s not a thrilling way to play, but it at least lets a very inexperienced player keep up with their friends or older siblings.

One side effect of the new setup is that if you want to play with the full four players, at least one person will be taking on the non-standard abilities of Toadette or Nabbit. In some respects this is a good thing, since four-player is absolutely hectic and it’s useful to have that one ‘less-likely-to-die’ player to keep the whole team in the game, but it will disappoint some nonetheless. Why not just give players the ability to turn off the Super Crown?

Outside of the main game, my favourite part of NSMBU is the Challenges mode, featuring dozens of quick little levels that require you to race, collect coins, harvest extra lives or fulfil oddball objectives that run totally counter to how you usually play the game. Even the easy challenges can be tricky to complete with a gold medal rating, but later levels are absolutely dastardly. There’s also the Boost Rush mode, which challenges you to zoom through packs of levels quickly, and the competitive Coin Battle where you fight your friends to grab as much cash as you can.

In terms of differences between the Wii U original and Deluxe, many of the changes are small but add up to a cleaner and more friendly game overall. The UI has seen an attractive overhaul, while an entire library of spoiler-filled streamable hint videos has been added that show you exactly where to find star coins or how to get a gold medal in the challenges. There’s also a new feature in Coin Battle that lets you edit where the coins will appear, using an interface that looks suspiciously like Super Mario Maker.

You can play Coin Battle on the standard levels, but the dedicated battle stages are best.

You can play Coin Battle on the standard levels, but the dedicated battle stages are best.

There have been sensible tweaks to the controls as well which mean you don’t have to shake the controller or mash the trigger button quite as much to pull off advanced maneuvers, and player one is no longer forced to be Mario. Anyone can choose any character, or even switch between them mid-game.

Most important, as masochists will be happy to hear, is that the Deluxe package also includes the full Super Luigi U campaign, which was originally released as its own standalone game. Luigi U is a challenging second helping that remixes every single level into a new tighter, shorter, more devious form, and expects you to complete each one under a strict time limit. The controls have also been tweaked to resemble Luigi’s abilities from Super Mario Bros. 2, meaning you can jump higher but have a much harder time changing direction once you’ve built up some momentum, and the precision requirements of the later stages make this particularly mean.

There's a hidden Luigi in every stage. You don't get anything for finding them, they're their own reward.

There’s a hidden Luigi in every stage. You don’t get anything for finding them, they’re their own reward.

The changes make it a bit more frustrating than the main game overall, especially if playing with friends, but it is a smart reworking of the game with some surprising twists and nods, and the short stages make it perfect for playing in bite size chunks on your commute.

In fact I found a lot of the ancillary content more engaging this time around, owing to the fact that I could play it in handheld mode wherever I wanted. For example I spent hours on Wii U playing the challenge mode in bed or on the couch when someone else was using the TV, but now I never need to stop chasing those elusive golds. Similarly, the Switch’s ability to capture video with the press of a button seems made for this game. Expect to see a lot of epic gold medal runs on Twitter.

Overall what elevates this game above its contemporaries is the level of care and detail in both its gameplay and presentation, from the mid-air spin delay you can use to control or extend your jumps, to the chorus of Yoshi voices that add to the music whenever you’re joined by a dino pal, to the fact that every level is made distinct with its own name and gimmick. There are straightforward dashes, puzzly ghost houses, deadly airships and even the kind of creative one-off mechanics you usually associate more with 3D Mario affairs like Galaxy or Odyssey.

With a total of 164 secret-filled courses, plus all the extra modes, this is an incredible amount of platforming goodness in a single package. It’s both the deepest and most accessible 2D Mario action you can get, as well as an endlessly enjoyable party game you can bust out with friends, and Switch is the perfect place for it.

New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is out on Friday January 11 for Switch.

Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.

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