The biggest issue with New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is that it didn’t release in a vacuum. In 2012, New Super Mario Bros. U was a fun, polished, but decidedly generic romp through the Mushroom Kingdom. The game did little to improve or advance the New Super series of games, and it certainly didn’t move the needle in relation to the Mario series as a totality. That said, in the early 2010’s, New Super Mario Bros. U easily fell in step with its contemporaries such as Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, fitting squarely in the era of casual, well-made 2D platformers. Because of this, I never took umbrage with the New Super series during the peak of its relevance the way many others did, simply because the games were solid. I played each and enjoyed them fully. That said, when you thought of Mario in 2012, the New Super games were the standard. But, it isn’t 2012 anymore.
In the seven years that followed the release of New Super Mario Bros. U, Nintendo’s 2D platformers began firing on all cylinders. Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze pushed level design and immersion further than any 2D platformer before it. Kirby: Triple Deluxe and Kirby: Planet Robobot played with perspective, offering interesting and robust handheld, platforming experiences. Yoshi’s Woolly World finally nailed true co-op in a 2D space, and perhaps most damningly for U Deluxe, Super Mario Maker busted open the 2D Mario formula and allowed fans to conjure up some of the most creative Mario challenges ever conceived. With all of that said, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is left in a difficult position, unable to assert itself as superior to these modern titles in any particular aspect.
That said, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe’s core isn’t is anything short of “good”. Mechanically, the game has a real fluidity and precision to it. While I had to readjust to the physics of New Super Mario Bros. U, I was soon leaping across the Mushroom Kingdom with ease. In many 2D platformers, I find myself unable to make jumps with confidence, nervous about slipping off platforms or not having full control in the air. Here, though, Mario and friends control effortlessly, and I never felt as though my deaths could be chocked up to anything other than my own carelessness. These mechanics are thankfully well utilized, as the veteran Mario team assembled some fantastic obstacle courses here with great central ideas. From fjording a poisonous river on the back of an oversized Wiggler to exploring the depths of a dark ghost house by light of a glowing baby Yoshi, there is always something interesting going on.
Those points are doubly true of New Super Luigi U. Released initially as a standalone piece of DLC in 2013, but wrapped into this Deluxe package, the conceit of Luigi U is that every stage from Mario U has been remixed with the difficulty cranked up and the timer shortened. Each stage is a bite-sized pocket of interesting ideas and platforming challenge, forcing you to careen ahead through modified versions of Mario stages. This concept was fun and interesting for a few worlds. The issue is, the novelty of Luigi U wears thin quickly.
My momentum came to a halt as I found myself less and less interested in retreading remixed levels that I just played at a more methodical pace in the main game. For as different as the two experiences are on a surface level, too much DNA is shared here for the games to feel distinct. You’re still playing New Super Mario Bros., just with a different flavor. Likewise, the quicker pace exaggerates the archaic design choices that marr both titles. Upon each death, you’ll be kicked back to the overworld, so if you die in a level, you’ll find yourself in ruts of downtime, waiting to load in the level select, waiting to reload the stage, and then getting on your way. In addition, getting a game over before conquering the next mid or end world castle stage results in having to redo every stage between the last completed castle and the one you’re trying to complete. This can lead to a lot of unnecessary frustration, and bogs down the otherwise jaunting pace of Luigi U, and is even more frustrating in the more methodical Mario U.
With all that in mind, even with its outdated design, the core of the experience is fundamentally sound. Past gameplay though, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is far less successful. Its controversial 2.5D art style, while many find grating, is rather pleasing in my opinion, on paper. I think the bright, colorful look of the Mushroom Kingdom serves the game well, and its bubbly music (accompanied by koopas that dance on the beat) lend the title a jovial feel. The issue, though, is the continual reuse of level themes, enemies, and music tracks with a complete disregard for overall cohesion. While the game is tied together with a beautifully designed and synthesized overworld map, the individual levels in the game feel automatically generated–at best.
At worst, the level design and block placement feels slipshod and arbitrary. There are floating platforms and pipes everywhere, the foreground and background don’t play off each other at all, and there is no visual progression through the world. I simply do not believe that anything or anyone actually lives in this representation of the Mushroom Kingdom, and this seriously dampens my connection to the game. In Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, for as outlandish as some of its level motifs are, every platform is anchored to an element in space, creatures bustle and live in the background, and the music reflects the setting. As you plunge deeper into that title, it becomes ever clearer that Donkey Kong isn’t in command of his journey; instead he’s exploring through the world and lives of others. This attention to detail propels Tropical Freeze to greater heights of adventure and awe, and this attention to detail simply does not exist in New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. There is more to making great platforming levels than just well placed platforms, and this title simply doesn’t go the extra mile from a presentation standpoint. For as good as its core level concepts are, I struggle to pick out anything other than its core motifs, as every level in every world seems to run together.
While this stripped back approach to level design hurts the main game’s sense of place and cohesion, it doesn’t detract from one of New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe’s best aspects: challenge mode. Full of unique and genuinely difficult scenarios, this mode molds and reshapes the New Super Mario Bros. experience in ways that even Super Mario Maker cannot. It is refreshing to play 2D Mario with a goal other than “reach the flagpole,” and that is precisely what this mode delivers. I only wished more challenges were added to the game to make up for the lack of Boost Mode stages–which were naturally cut due to the lack of Gamepad support on Switch.
That raises a fairly sizable issue though, as New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe interprets the idea of being “Deluxe” only in the loosest sense. The Switch release compiles both Mario and Luigi U in one cart and adds a new character. That first feature isn’t that deluxe though, as a combo disc of the two titles already exists on Wii U. So, unless UI and mild control changes entice you at all (which they won’t–considering how minute and unnoteworthy they are), the new character is the only true addition to the package.
Taking the place of Blue Toad, Toadette acts as an easy mode of sorts, adding more time to the clock, gaining more lives, and having access to the overpowered Super Crown ability. Now, this is a fine addition on paper, but in execution, Toadette leads to a game-breaking and completely avoidable issue in co-op, considering the suite of characters in the game. Playable in New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe are: Mario, Luigi, Yellow Toad, Toadette, and Nabbit. Bear in mind, the latter two are considered easy mode and are given various abilities to that effect. So, in a four player setting, the fourth player has no choice but to play with a handicap on, because the normal characters, Mario, Luigi, and Yellow Toad, will all be taken–leaving them with only Toadette or Nabbit to choose from.
There was absolutely no reason why this had to be an issue, and if Blue Toad hadn’t been cut, Toadette would’ve been a totally harmless addition. But, if the developers were absolutely hell-bent on removing Blue Toad, they could have at least replaced him with a non-handicapped and unique character, as Nabbit already acts as an easier-easy mode. Perhaps add Peach to harken back to Super Mario Bros. 2, or Rosalina if Peach wouldn’t have been feasible. Even Daisy would’ve been a better pick in place of Blue Toad. The handling of co-op here is entirely baffling and casts a shadow over what should’ve been an easy and successful transition from Wii U to Switch. On the positive side, though, this package removes the player one Mario restriction, meaning that you can complete the entire quest by yourself as Yellow Toad, for example, should your heart desire. This does nothing to assuage the obvious co-op shortcomings, but from the single-player perspective, this is a nice change.
All of this leaves New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe in a bizarre space-between-spaces. If you experienced these titles on Wii U, there is truly no reason to revisit them on the Switch considering how surprisingly non-Deluxe this package is. If you haven’t played this pair already, the game offers polished but entirely sterile platforming fun. To that group of people, though, I cannot even confidently recommend the game in light of all the better platformers on Switch. Looking just within Nintendo’s stable, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze offers a better single-player experience, and Kirby: Star Allies is deliberately and creatively designed around multiplayer. With all that said, if you’ve exhausted all your other options, I do believe you’ll have a good time with New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe.
With all of my issues pertaining to the overall package, there is still a simple fun that characterizes both games. Perhaps it is because I grew up on these titles, or because they’re incredibly polished, but I found the games to be nice comfort food. They never become overly difficult, the power-ups are well designed (in fact, the Super Acorn is one of my favorite Mario power-ups of all-time), and I still find a certain charm in the New Super series. They’re so emblematic of the Wii and DS era, and playing them is like going back in time ten years.
But, I can only look back so long before I remember where I am. Yes, the game plays well and offers a deluge of content. If you’re willing to sink your teeth into its more than 150 stages, you’ll be busy for a while to come. Yes, the core of the experience just works. But, Nintendo has shown a willingness and ability to do more with the 2D platformer than what the company was doing back in 2012. This is just a game which has been superannuated by those titles which have come after it, and it lacks a strong enough identity to merit revisiting, unlike Mario’s classic NES and SNES outings. Under different circumstances, New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe would’ve been an easier recommendation, but the package is just bogged down by too many asterisks to be competitive in 2019.
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe
New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe is a game that would have benefited from being released in a vacuum. As it stands, this package is one that can neither live up to Nintendo’s own suite of contemporary 2D platformers or the Deluxe moniker it is tagged with. Even beyond this point, the game is little more than a window into a bygone era of Nintendo. Offering simple, polished platforming action, this title is suited only for those who have exhausted the genre’s other options on Nintendo’s hybrid system.