At Nintendo's E3 2009 press event at the Nokia Theater, Cammie Dunaway announced in her usual hyperbolic way that Shigeru Miyamoto has spent the last fifteen years trying to bring everyone's favorite plumber into a fourth dimension of gameplay, never before possible. With that, she played a video of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and the fourth dimension is looking an awful lot like the second dimension we remember playing in the mid '80s. But maybe that's okay - while innovation might be Ninty's favorite buzzword, the company has built its legacy on refined games, familiar brands, and brilliant marketing more than any twist of technology or game design.
The fourth dimension is looking an awful lot like the second dimension we remember playing in the mid '80s.
Like a few of Nintendo's newly announced games, Mario's latest was playable on the show floor for parties of four at a time, and it was instantly recognizable. In visual style, New Super Mario Bros. Wii was disappointingly close to the DS game, which was itself a bit plastic with its pre-rendered sprites and backgrounds. The Wii game even seems to share many of the same assets, though the 3D models have been upgraded a bit. I miss the hand-drawn sprite work of Super Mario All-Stars and Yoshi's Island, but I was willing to accept the new look on the DS and I'm willing to accept it here.
The view has been zoomed out a bit to better accommodate four players, but everything else feels almost exactly like the game we played on the DS a few years ago (that, in turn, was awfully close to the 1985 NES original). Miyamoto's team at EAD Kyoto is not trying to reinvent the wheel, here. While there are some new tricks to the level design, like rotating land and hidden passages that fade away, the levels are still linear, one-way horizontally scrolling affairs focused on pure platforming action.
This leaves the multiplayer hook to differentiate it from earlier games in the series, and it's this aspect that worries me the most. Everyone in the game can collide with each other, meaning players can help each other if they're well-coordinated (for instance jumping off another player to reach a higher area) but most of the time, players will be unpredictable obstacles that just get in your way. Cooperative play makes sense in a slower, puzzle-oriented setting, or when players can simply pass through each other without interference, but in an arcade platformer like this, it just seems messy. Admittedly, I was playing with strangers, and I could see how the experience would be better with someone I could coordinate with, but as it was, it just wasn't fun.
To make matters worse, it seems like the game, while playable solo, has some areas that aren't reachable without team work (or, perhaps, the new propeller suit item, which didn't seem to be available nearby), so it isn't being made with a single-player experience in mind. The whole game has been rebalanced for parties. Power-up blocks tend to spit out four items, one for each player, and fallen comrades will respawn in bubbles that need to be popped, much like Baby Mario did in Yoshi's Island. I'm worried that New Super Mario Bros. Wii won't work entirely as a single player experience, and compounded with the (purported) lack of online support and generally poor four-player experience, this could be a real problem. My hope is that the game may be more manageable as a two-player game, which was not something we had an opportunity to test at the show.
With a few months more development to go, Nintendo has an opportunity to rethink a few of the mechanics, but my optimism for the title is guarded. Playing with a group of four simply wasn't fun, and to rescue this title there needs to be some attention put into the single-player experience, or a whole lot of tweaking. The series has yet to make a serious wrong turn, but the E3 demonstration did not present a strong hand, despite what seemed to be some quality level design and tried-and-true gameplay. Hopefully Nintendo has the right people on board to correct its ship's course before the game's launch this fall.