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What's wrong with New Super Mario Bros.?

Bongo

excused from moderation duty
(he/him)
Staff member
Well, really nothing's wrong with them per se. I've long been a defender of this sub-series. NSMB Wii is a superbly designed platformer, and since it's about 60% the same game as NSMB U, so is that one. NSMB2's quirky score attack gimmick goes a long way to shoring up its more perfunctory levels. And NSMB DS... well, three out of four ain't bad. These games are critically praised. They sell like twenty million copies guaranteed. People buy a console to play New Super Mario Bros. games.

But still. Even though there's nothing wrong, there's something wrong here. It's been evident since 2006. There is a certain je ne sais quoi that they lack. They don't dazzle the way other 2D platformers can and do. To an extent, some gameplay properties contribute to this. Mario's ponderous acceleration makes these into games about gaining and keeping momentum as you move through the level, which is great when you're doing well, but it means that stopping feels worse than it could; dying feels even more discouraging, because the UI ensures it could be over a dozen seconds before you're back in the saddle. But other games have overcome worse setbacks to attain better results.

I think it's a matter of aesthetics. Playing the Super Mario Maker games is really what drove this home to me. The NSMB theme is nobody's favorite - you use it because you want wall kicks or something, not because you have a particular look in mind. And when you put it next to the superficially similar 3D World them, it's night and day.

The visuals are hard to critique, however. For the house that Miyamoto built, form always follows function, and the functionality of these graphics is top-notch. They're readable to a fault. Edges are crisp where they matter (and in Mario, they do matter - this ain't Donkey Kong Country). With very few exceptions, every bounding box has a corresponding pixel. The way enemies are shaped tells you what you need to do to them and the way they move tells you where you need to do it. If there were flaws I could point to and say Aha, this is where important information is conveyed poorly, this would be easy. But that's not the problem.

The music is easier, though. It's not so much laid-back as sedated. Part of it is that the synths have such an even volume. Other synthesized Mario themes, like those from the contemporary 3D Land, have much more dynamic dynamics, and if you were to give it to live performers as with Galaxy, they'd spice things up as a necessity to keep themselves from zoning out. Worse, the percussion layer, in addition to sharing that lack of dynamics variation, is also mixed very quietly. Ever listen to just the drums for the theme from SMB1, played on the NES' "noise" channel? Even that very simple beat is powerfully jaunty, producing a rhythm that really drives forward - and it's all based on the fact that some notes are louder and some are softer. The songs' acoustic homogeneity deprives the game of an energetic rhythm. It's not the melody and it's not tempo: compare and contrast.

All these factors give NSMB a dull, heavy quality, when Mario games are best when they feel light. And it's especially noticeable in contrast to the 3D Mario games. Even the weakest and most vanilla of them, Super Mario 3D Land, which ought to suffer from the same problems, is much more pleasing. 3D Land is still a pretty slow-moving game. Its soundtrack is still synthesized, and its graphics are no less utilitarian. And yet...! Well, I know why the music is better, at least, but still.

And on top of that the 3D games have experimented with wonderfully elegant gameplay mechanics that never got backported to 2D, even though we know they'd totally work in 2D (because they've been in the 2D segments of 3D games). A developer with less virtuosity could make an entire franchise out of, say Red-Blue Panels or the Cloud Suit, just to pick two arbitrary examples, but they've never appeared in NSMB, nor, to my recollection, has anything else on a similar tier of game-changingness. They keep it very bread-and-butter instead: risky ways to increase altitude, cyclically moving hitboxes, and the occasional risk-reward scenario of getting to a checkpoint with the Mini Mushroom to unlock a secret exit.

2D Mario games occupy a special position, though. What other series is likely to be the first action game played by a literal baby? Maybe the idea is that players ease into the concept and then graduate to more stimulating fare, which the 3D half of the house provides alongside other stellar 2D platformers that don't have Mario in.

I dunno. I just don't know. But I wanted to write this down somewhere.
 
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Tiers in Rain

Gaming Replicant!
This is a pretty fair assessment of the NSMB games. I've always enjoyed them but not as much as other 2D Marios, and I agree that this is pretty much the reason why.
 

Phantoon

I cuss you bad
That's pretty much it. They aren't as adventurous as the old games and have a fairly uninspiring art style but they play among the best.
 
Vanilla ice cream is pretty great. But if I walk into an ice cream shop it is sitting next to rocky road and butter pecan and cookies & cream, that tub of vanilla is going to look pretty uninspiring.
 

WildcatJF

Red After Image
(he / his / him)
I think you've nailed how I feel about New SMB, Bongo. Perfectly fine but aesthetically flat in every way. I don't care much for the look or sound for these games in contrast to the much more dynamic and innovative 3D Mario's and the 2D games that came before them.
 
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Sprite

(He/Him/His)
I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun with a video game than with playing NSMB Wii and U with friends and family. They are master works.

And while I get finding Wii aesthetically dull, U is gorgeous.
 

Mogri

Round and round I go
(he)
Staff member
Moderator
Oh, for sure, the multiplayer set those games apart from the rest of the 2D franchise. But I never found myself wanting to replay the game by myself.
 

Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
(He/Him)
I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun with a video game than with playing NSMB Wii and U with friends and family. They are master works.

And while I get finding Wii aesthetically dull, U is gorgeous.

U is where all the artistic heart went into the series;

 

MCBanjoMike

Infamous third lava dolphin
(He/him)
This is a good thread, because I've been asking myself this question for years. I do think that the aesthetic is a big part of my distaste for the series, it has a certain generic feel that seems very designed for-and-by focus groups. But the mechanics are also plodding in a way that bugs me. Like Bongo said, it's entirely possible that this was designed to be a child's first Mario game, but something about the movement feels so safe and constrained. Mario 3 and SMW both allow you to really book it in ways that feel unsafe at times, which I think is a big part of the appeal. NSMB movement has an extremely predictable trajectory and I think that takes some of the fun out of the game for me.

I do agree that multiplayer in the console entries can be pretty fun, but at that point it's almost a different kind of game? It's more akin to a couch co-op party game like Overcooked where you're constantly getting in each others' way and hilarity occurs. I played through all of NSMB Wii with a group of four tyrants at PAX many years ago and had a blast, but I've never been able to recreate that feeling with the game. I also had a chance to try NSMB Wii U recently, and while it definitely looks better, I can't say it really moved the needle on my appreciation for the sub-series. I dunno, but even seeing NSMB-style levels in Mario Maker is offputting to me for reasons that I can't entirely explain.
 
I have a very specific annoyance with this series, related to the heaviness, movement and acceleration notes: his legs move WAY too much when he starts moving. It's disconcerting and has always bothered me.
 
The NSMB games were birthed into a world where the main attention and excitement in gaming at large had long left 2D platformers. Whether it has to do with aesthetics or not, the sense that the NSMB games are less energetic and less interesting feels like perhaps the developers were leaning into the modern context.
 

Rascally Badger

El Capitan de la outro espacio
(He/Him)
I guess I agree that the NSMB games are kind of aesthetically dull, with the portions of NSMBU where the game breaks out of the series style excepted. But playing them you have 3 genuinely great games and one that at this point seems underrated. I first played NSMB for DS a couple of years ago and it starts out feeling like the developers are relearning how to made 2D platformers as they go, but by the end it is doing some interesting stuff.
 

Issun

TT's Resident Ace of Base Superfan
I found Wii and U to be incredibly difficult, mainly because, in the old 2D games Mario will always end up where you're trying to put him, whereas I cannot say that with these games because the physics are just a little too slippery.
 

madhair60

Video games
It's difficult to explain, but for me, it's basically that Super Mario Bros, 2, 3, World etc are the Super Mario games, whereas the New Super Mario Bros. series are... Mario games. They're kind of games about Mario games, about compiling the existing tropes and hazards into a new kind of focus; the Star Coins changing the way you play as a single course clear is no longer really valuable, and the secret exits in later games meaning you're going to be replaying a lot of stages by design rather than necessarily because you want to.

The originals are so rich with ideas and every single one escalates, builds on and takes hard left turns from what came before. NSMB is like the "greatest hits", it's like Ultimate Marvel. I really like it a lot but it's not the OG.
 

Phantoon

I cuss you bad
Apparently it's not as slippery as people think, it's a placebo effect caused by the animation. As an example of this, Mario Maker uses NSMB physics for all of its styles, but it still feels more slippery than the others.

The most momentum heavy Mario game is actually SMB3.
 

narcodis

the titular game boy
(he/him)
For me, the problems surrounding NSMB extend far beyond the game itself. It represents a long period of stagnation for Nintendo. With the exception of the Galaxy games, I dont really think of anything Nintendo related all that noteworthy for the entire span of the NSMB series. I'm probably exaggerating a bit, but it feels that way for some reason.

The games themselves felt suffocated in safety. Even if they ported some mechanics over from 3D mario games and added a few power ups, it was all still a very derivative 2D mario experience, and the only truly novel thing it brought to the table was multiplayer (and even then it was competing with Rayman's arguably superior platforming and multiplayer).

I guess what it boils down to is I can think of very little that the NSMB series brought to the table that contributes to the Mario universe. To me it feels like Mario brand safety, unblemished and with very little risk taken, a return to form without the inspired vision that made Mario exciting. Sure they're fine games but they're just plain forgettable, especially considering there were, what, five of them?
 

Phantoon

I cuss you bad
The NSMB games came out during the height of the DS and Wii. If you could accuse Nintendo of anything during that period I don't think it would have been stagnation.

NSMB DS isn't hugely innovative because it had been 16 years since the last one. The Wii game added multiplayer, which is a huge innovation. 2 and U aren't particularly game changing, I'll accept.
 

Kishi

Little Waves
(They/Them)
Staff member
Moderator
I agree the aesthetics cast a pall over the games, along with a lingering impression of the dullness of the original NSMB on DS. It's a pity, because Wii and U are actually the best 2D Mario games but are rarely understood as such.
 

Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
(He/Him)
And even then, DS did have a number of levels that had some degree of cleverness and ingenuity.

All of which, granted, were greatly improved upon in subsequent games.
 

Daikaiju

Rated Ages 6+
(He, Him)
I will defend the Golden Fire Flower to the death.



I hadn't felt such a rush of power in a SMB game since the Hammer Bros. Suit.
 

Octopus Prime

Mysterious Contraption
(He/Him)
Hard Agree

The Coin Rush courses in NSMB2 were also my lead inspiration for most of my Mario Maker courses
 

DemoWeasel

Workin' real hard to make internet cash.
(He/Him)
All the NSMB games are fun, but the overall sound design really does kinda dampen my enjoyment of them.
 

Daikaiju

Rated Ages 6+
(He, Him)
Really? I thought that was one of their strengths. The G'DUNGE when that giant gold fireball hits... right up there with whacking a guardian bot with the Master Sword in BotW
 

Sarge

hardcore retro gamin'
The most momentum heavy Mario game is actually SMB3.
I've always held up SMB3's physics as my ideal for a Mario game, and the NSMB games feel much heavier with momentum than that game. I mean, maybe I'm wrong, but... I miss jumps all the time in the "New" series because I've built up far too much momentum to really adjust on the fly.
 

Lokii

It's always time for burgers
(He/Him)
Staff member
Moderator
The slow momentum is because it's NEW super mario bros 1. The DS game is intended to be a modern take on the classic mario feel — flag goals and a certain design sense but with all the variety of design in contemporary trends.

I really like NSMB2, its weird and a ton of fun to play. I think the coin goal gives a design interest you don't find a lot in Mario games and so you have these wonderful moments of coin flowers or coin storms that feel really good because you're getting a bunch added to your global total.
 

fanboymaster

(He/Him)
There's not per se much wrong with these games so much as the imagery of 2D Mario conjures to a certain audience, we the core gamer "this is one of my primary hobbies" set, the idea that it is for them and it has absolutely never been the primary audience. Certainly the nostalgic were a consideration in the conception but if Nintendo just wanted them they'd have called the game Super Mario Bros. 4 or somesuch, a specific marker that this was for returning players who wanted to pick up where they'd left off decades earlier. They didn't do that, they called it New Super Mario Bros, it is a game for people who wanted another Super Mario Bros game like the first. With each successive game they've avoided straying from that ethos, complexity creeps in on the edges of the game, but in a deeply controlled fashion. These games are designed to be approachable for a new player every time, whatever the most recent one is is the perfect first 2D Mario game to introduce someone to. This does mean they're designed in a way Mario games essentially never were before, they are designed to outmode their predecessors. Keep the power ups simple, emphasize one new one as a way to set the game apart, that's the tack they took and it's not an accident.

All that said, I do disagree with the claim that NSMB is "no one's favorite style" in Mario Maker, what little can be elucidated about the styles as a whole shows it might just be us that are out of step, attempts to pull down decent data samples imply that the NSMB stages typically get more likes and plays than the any other style (though this was circa MM1) followed by SMB, distantly followed by World with 3 style in dead last. For a large cross section this seems to be a fine aesthetic.

My real heresy, I think the soundtrack's fine, no amount of people explaining why they dislike it has ever elucidated to me what the problem actually was.
 

Sarge

hardcore retro gamin'
I suspect it's less "the soundtrack is bad", it's more the unpredictability that comes from enemies reacting to the "bah" bits. That part is... well, it's different. I don't think I like it, but I don't hate it, either.
 
Really i just dont like the wind sections. Other than that its a perfectly functional series of games that seems to be aiming for “more of what you love” rather than a new take.

and its funny how much some people around the net hate Nintendo for not making mario 64 again when nintendo is most loved when they do something off the stated path
 
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