A more apt title: New Super Mario World.
More so than any previous New Super Mario Bros. game, New Super Mario Bros. U feels bigger and more important, even if it doesn’t start that way. At the outset, Bowser takes over Peach’s castle, and Mario and company have to fight through common level tropes. Fortunately, following that slow start, the game opens up to a high degree with an interconnected overworld, clever level designs, and oodles of secrets, all of which place New Super Mario Bros. U light years beyond previous entries in the NSMB series.
The overworld is gorgeous, especially in HD, and the nooks and crannies hide numerous surprises. Each world and level has its own name, which, aside from making them stand out from the series’ typical naming scheme, makes the Miiverse integration richer; you’ll remember the Prickly Goomba level more fondly than Level 4-3. New Super Mario Bros. U’s Miiverse support is simple, but effective in fostering a fun communal aspect. Players can post to Miiverse at any time, but the game frequently leaves the player prompts to write about. The posts you make note which level you’re on, and remain there for friends and random people to read. The Miiverse integration is only a small piece of the game, but after playing with it, I can’t imagine the game without it. It is a great realization of playground-like discussions of games and their secrets, and its inclusion makes New Super Mario Bros. U a richer experience.
The lengthy story mode, which spans eight worlds and tons of levels, starts off sluggish but ramps into into a creative insanity not seen in 2D Mario games since Super Mario World. Worlds grow longer and less guided, and levels and fortresses increase in difficulty. Fortunately, multiplayer helps to defuse some of the game’s mounting challenge. Featuring the same frenetic four-player gameplay of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, New Super Mario Bros. U also adds Boost Mode, which lets the GamePad user place blocks on the screen and interact with enemies. It’s similar in concept to Super Mario Galaxy’s Co-Star Mode, but with a more tangible effect on helping the lead player.
The Flying Squirrel outfit, the game’s biggest addition to the power-up treasury, is reminiscent of Super Mario World’s cape, but doesn’t allow you to take flight in the same manner. The Squirrel lends more of a hovering ability than true flight. Regardless, it’s a joy to control Mario when he dons the new suit. Similarly, it’s a ton of fun to experiment with the new Baby Yoshis, which eat almost any enemy and perform a variety of other abilities as well, such as inflating and blowing bubbles.
Outside the main game, New Super Mario Bros. U features three other modes. Coin Battle, returns from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, but now the GamePad player can place coins. Boost Rush is a cooperative, time-focused mode where a GamePad player helps other players by placing blocks throughout the level, which speeds up as you collect more coins. Challenge Mode is the most notable addition, letting players compete with themselves and others by completing difficult, predefined objectives including time trials, bouncing off Koopa Troopas, and collecting 1-ups. It features a mix of new and repurposed levels, and gets devilishly hard quickly.
New Super Mario Bros. U is also the poster child for Off-TV Play, showing off wonderful graphical fidelity when played on just the GamePad. However, the smaller screen doesn’t quite do justice to the game’s HD pop. In high definition, New Super Mario Bros. U looks absolutely gorgeous. Levels look incredible, and even little things, like the light from fire reflecting on characters, are stunning. Out of the Wii U launch lineup, this is arguably the best-looking game. The same can't really be said about the music, which, with the exception of some nice late-game tracks, is basically the same soundtrack we've heard in other Mario games. It is really awesome when the Baby Yoshis sing along, though.
New Super Mario Bros. U is close to the ideal 2D Mario game hinted at by the debut of New Super Mario Bros. seven years ago. It’s a more sincere follow-up to Super Mario World than any previous game, and even if its innovations are muted and on the periphery, this is the evolution the series needed. It’s a simple question, really: Do you like 2D Mario? If so, play this game. It is that damn good.