So it turns out that HD suits Mario. A sharper image doesn’t mean the Mushroom Kingdom has lost any of its cuddliness – indeed, some of its inhabitants are looking decidedly chubby – but a crisp lick of paint has done a lot for the place. The focus in 2D Mario games has always been on what lies ahead; in New Super Mario Bros U, you might well be tempted to stop and take in Mario’s surroundings for perhaps the first time. The plumber bounds through caramel-swirled deserts, riding pixellated geysers of sand, and swims through gelatinous sky bubbles in what seems like a nod to EAD Tokyo’s undervalued Donkey Kong: Jungle Beat. Rock formations resemble chunks of nougat, while clouds are fluffy meringue-like concoctions: sweet and delicate. It’s bright and sharp on the big screen, a little softer and warmer on the GamePad’s display, but everything’s roomier whichever one your eye is drawn to. It’s easier for Mario to build up momentum in other words, and the game accordingly matches him stride for stride. The plumber looked a little jaded on 3DS a few months ago in New Super Mario Bros 2; here, he’s positively rejuvenated.
NSMB2’s stages ended up mimicking the techniques of their forerunners more than competently, but failed to find their own voice. By comparison, New Super Mario Bros U has a little more of the playfulness that’s commonly associated with Mario games. That isn’t to say it’s afraid of referencing past glories – the world map represents a clear tilt of that famous red cap to Super Mario World, even before you see the pixellated transition between areas. It’s less intricate, perhaps, but contains a few surprises. Blue and red switches open new routes, while bumping into patrolling enemies triggers a minigame with a Starman reward for defeating them all. Occasionally, a kleptomaniac newcomer named Nabbit – Bowser Jr in an ill-fitting bunny suit, it seems – will pop up in a previously completed level to be chased and caught for a power-up reward.
Mario’s world has rarely looked more inviting, but later levels are far from welcoming, teeming as they are with both hazards and enemies. The level of challenge is well judged, being pitched somewhere close to New Super Mario Bros Wii’s difficulty, albeit with fewer nasty spikes
Worlds are populated by a range of new enemy types alongside the series’ stalwarts. A dragon/fish chimera tails Mario for an entire stage, for instance, while luminescent jellyfish illuminate the inky gloom of one underwater section, and ghosts with boxing gloves comically flail their arms when toppled. Flying squirrels are an enjoyable nuisance, gliding then waddling, and occasionally carry an acorn that will afford Mario the power of temporary flight.
Elsewhere, Yoshi appears in both his adult and infant forms, with the latter carried instead of ridden and coming in three flavours. Both the inflatable pink variety and bubble-spitting blues offer a little more air time, but the glow-in-the-dark yellows are the alpha dinos. A brisk shake of their tail will shoo away nearby Boos and scatter scores of tubby little rodents until they’re nothing more than a pair of red dots against a pitch-black background. There’s a return of Mario’s spin jump, too, a tug of either trigger giving an extra kick of distance to his leaps, or a touch more lift when descending in his squirrel suit. Squeeze it when grounded and he’ll twist metal screws and wooden cogs, turning platforms that rise, fall, and crush enemies against nearby walls.