Most importantly, the DS' disruptive values had opened the door for a whole new class of uniquely styled, radically divergent video games, and the old paradigm was finally being challenged in a meaningful way. And it was people like me who were blissfully enjoying the fruits of this revolution. The DS was providing me exactly what I had been looking for: a fresh new take on games. Before then, it had been my observation that the industry was stuck traveling a narrowing path whose destination welcomed only endless iteration and homogeneity. Now, suddenly, the medium's scope had significantly widened, and I couldn't have been happier with this outcome.
Still, I knew where a large part of my heart lied. While I was all for this shifting of the landscape, I certainly wasn't calling for the abandonment of the tried-and-true. By no means did I desire for the types of games I'd loved in the past to disappear or find themselves minimized. No--it was quite the opposite: I now hoped to see them appear in even greater number! Really, that was the true success of the DS: It had enraptured me with its collection of inventive, wonderfully new creations, yes, but moreover it had renewed my passion for video games on the whole. That's why I wanted for the DS to become home to both the distinctly new and the traditional at the same time. And that's exactly where its current course appeared to be leading us.
One game in particular spoke to that ambition. It was the game for which we'd been starving since the mid-90s. It was the game that was going to recover what should never have been lost. It was a new Super Mario Bros. title, and it was on its way to the DS.
Now, for those of us who had been around video games since virtually day one, the disappearance of 2D Mario games was a big loss. "Why has Nintendo ceased creating genuinely new 2D Super Mario Bros. games?" we wondered. "Is it really the case that all future Mario games will be rendered strictly in 3D?"
It was such a shame, since there was no convincing evidence that people had tired of 2D Mario. It was the consensus among players everywhere that Nintendo should never have stopped making them. We knew that there was still so much room to innovate in the 2D space. We were certain that were so many possibilities left unexplored.
I mean, even the Super Mario Advance games--mere remakes of the classic Mario titles--were pretty huge sellers (they averaged somewhere around five million units sold), which should have sent a loud and clear message: People want more of this, even if it's not original. Yet the fact remained that Nintendo appeared to have no further interest in producing side-scrolling Mario games; the company was apparently in agreement with the prevailing attitude that 2D platformers were a thing of the past.
Sadly, it seemed as though we'd seen the last of 2D Mario.
And then it happened: In a moment's space, Nintendo washed away our feelings of hopelessness. At E3 of 2004, Shigeru Miyamoto and friends revealed it to the world: a new Super Mario Bros. game that was so single-minded in its mission--so ostensibly rejecting of subtlety--that it was literally titled "New Super Mario Bros." What, exactly, was "new" about it, they didn't say, but I placed little importance on such details; what mattered most was that we were seeing the return of 2D Mario!
Strangely, though, New Super Mario Bros. was being exhibited to the audience in a rather understated manner. Nintendo was clearly putting a much greater focus on Super Mario 64 DS, which kind of made sense considering that it was slated to be a launch title. Still, I was surprised that the company didn't feel inclined to treat its unveiling as though it were a much bigger deal--as if it were promoting the grand return of a legendary series! Instead there was a largely uninformative 30-second trailer (about the only thing we learned from it was that Mario could now grow giant-sized and more effectively squish foes). Even the press coverage seemed a bit muted, reports on the game limited to brief interviews and a few unenthusiastic-reading trailer breakdowns.
But that didn't matter. We didn't need for there to be an elaborate ceremony to know what this announcement meant. This was what we'd long been waiting for. This was the Mario we all loved and missed. The only bad news was that we'd have to wait a year or two to get our hands on it.
We wouldn't see it in action until a year later at E3, 2005. And still it was weird: Despite its carrying a transformative-sounding prefix, there didn't appear to be anything particularly "new" about the way New Super Mario Bros. played; in fact, it looked to offer a pretty traditional Super Mario Bros. experience. The only real difference was its visual style; it boasted that 2.5D presentation (polygonal characters moving along a flat plane) that I always felt lacked character when compared to games that featured detail-rich sprite-based graphics. And since the DS wasn't really much of a technological powerhouse, it couldn't do much to render sharp-looking 2.5D visuals; in New Super Mario Bros.'s case, it was hard not to notice that its graphics were kinda warped and pixelated, which was especially obvious when the game's camera would zoom in close. "They should have gone with sprites," I said to myself as I watched gameplay videos.
But again--how it looked wasn't a make-or-break for me. It didn't really matter. All I cared about was getting a chance to play a new Super Mario Bros. game following an inexplicably long layoff. I was going to be there day one no matter what it was.
I made sure to nab myself a pre-order the moment Nintendo gave stores the go-ahead.
A few months later, there I was playing it--the first new 2D Mario in 14 long years. Mine was a memorable experience not due to a remembered chronology but because of how the game did so well to capture the spirit of the moment and fill me with positive energy. So I'm going to speak about its impact in more in general terms.
Upon first seeing it action in a more personal setting, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that New Super Mario Bros. featured pretty solid visuals; for certain it was a much more attractive-looking game than I'd originally assessed. I still would have preferred that its graphics were sprite-based, sure, yet I couldn't deny that there were clear benefits to the 2.5D presentation. For one, I appreciated how the use of 3D character models opened the door for the inclusion of Super Mario 64 enemies and allies as ripped directly from the game of origin! This was important to me because I had always been bothered by the aesthetic disconnect that existed between the 2D and 3D Mario games, whose discordant values I could never reconcile; simply seeing Swoopers, Scuttlebugs and Dorrie (the helpful Plesiosaur from Hazy Maze Cave) intermixed with more-classically-rendered, Super Mario Bros.-style characters and environments--merely observing how they functioned within a flat, side-scrolling space--went a long way toward bridging the gap.
And considering that the DS was most comparable to the N64 in terms of power, their inclusion seemed highly appropriate. It spoke to a deeper spiritual connection between two systems I adored.
New Super Mario Bros. incorporated plenty of Super Mario 64 elements (familiar characters, recognizable voice and sound samples, triple jumps, ground-pounding, wall-jumping, etc.), yes, but it also made sure to reference other classic Mario platformers. I could sense as much any time I was exploring a labyrinthine Ghost House, throwing a Bob-omb toward a destructible wall, sliding down a slope and wiping out strings of Goombas, balancing myself atop a snaking platform, getting eaten by a Cheep Chomp, or climbing a series of reversible fences. New Super Mario Bros. was one big love letter to the Super Mario series.
"So if that was all true," you skeptically inquire, "then what about the game was 'new'?"
Well, it was clear that New Super Mario Bros. was largely derivative, its dependence upon recycled elements and assets working to bely its contemporary-sounding title, but it did make a few unique contributions. For one, it introduced interesting new power-ups like the Mega Mushroom, using which the brothers would temporarily grow more than three-times their normal size and use their newly afforded girth to plow through enemies, blocks, warp pipes, Bullet Bill dispensers, flag poles, and just about anything else that stood in their way. Mini Mushrooms, which rendered them tiny enough to run across the surface of water, squeeze through the tiniest of gaps, and leap great distances. And the Blue Shell, whose donning allowed them to slide across surface in Koopa-shell form, bowl over strings of enemies, shatter breakable blocks from the side, and repel certain attacks (while crouching).
And it was fun to experiment with these new powers--keep them stored in my lower-screen inventory and bust them out in stages whose structuring either invited or visually discouraged their use. You know--just to see what would happen. My only disappointment was that there weren't more of them. That was me continuing to hold to the illusion that one day a Mario game would come along and meet Super Mario Bros. 3's standard in terms of number of power-ups and suits. 25 years later, I'm still waiting for that to happen.
Also, New Super Mario Bros. came to convey a distinctly formed personality via its visually interesting, sometimes-bonkers platforming scenarios. This game was having all kinds of fun with tilting, swaying and undulating platforms. Certain stages had me swinging across series of vines or ropes as attached to track-mounted devices; walking or riding atop giant-sized characters (like Wiggler and Dorrie); sidling along mountain ledges; or spinning through the air, tornado-style, over and around expansive, multi-level environments.
It featured a collection of uniquely scripted boss battles. It contained a large number of lengthy, specially themed stages. And it had an interesting take on world progression: In order to gain entrance to Worlds 4 and 7, both of which appeared to be completely inaccessible, you had to endure Worlds 2 and 5's castle stages and defeat their respective bosses as Mini Mario; this would allow you to escape these strongholds via the tiny apertures that led directly to the alternate worlds (I've since learned that you can access World 7 via a warp cannon, but still I'd always choose to take the former route). I liked this idea of having to go to perilous lengths to access hidden worlds; reaching a new world via the required method imbued me with a greater sense of accomplishment, as if I'd just endured a mighty struggle in a quest to earn access to mysterious sacred land.
What New Super Mario Bros. lacked in originality it made up for with variety. There was a lot to do here. In particular, I enjoyed finding all of the big coins and unlocking all of the Toad houses. I had a ton of fun scouring the stages in search of them.
Really, the whole game was fun--just a great entertainment experience all around. I liked playing it. I liked listening to it and soaking in its wonderfully inspiriting vibes. Most everything about it spoke of what was so special about that moment in video-game history. "What a time!" I'd think to myself as I was progressing through it.
The game's infectious personality was formed in large part by its delightful soundtrack, which was rife with whimsical spirit. I couldn't help but feel invigorated by its buoyancy, which always had me swaying side to side. Particularly, I loved how the music played into the action; I thought it was hilarious how the enemies would make sure to momentarily stop in place so that they could bop to the overworld tune's most emphasized recurring note ("BWAH-BWAH," as we'd spell it phonetically). Ordinarily, having characters bop to a game's music was the domain of wiseguy players like me, but now the games, themselves, were apparently looking to get in on the act--looking to steal out heat. And that was just fine by me; I was inviting of such silliness.
Well, except for when an enemy's sudden pause would result in my screwing up the timing on a stomping or bouncing attempt. Then I didn't like it one bit. Nope.
New Super Mario Bros. wasn't a grand production, no. I never felt as though I was playing a game that eclipsed either Super Mario Bros. 3 or Super Mario World or rendered them obsolete in any notable way. It couldn't. That's not what it was aiming to be. Rather, it was purely a back-to-basics affair--a fresh starting point for all--and that was OK. I didn't mind that it had such a narrow focus. It was what we needed at the time: the necessary reestablishing of Super Mario Bros.'s core values during a period of great change, when so many lapsed players were getting back into video games and so many new people were being introduced to them. And if ours was a true desire to see Mario ascend back to the top of the mountain, upon which he hadn't stood for almost a decade, then we'd need for them to help pad our ranks. We'd need for New Super Mario Bros.'s accessibility factor to be a welcoming force--to make believers out of them. And from there we could all move forward together.
All I knew was that I was happy to be playing it that particular moment in time. I'd labeled it "the ultimate feel-good spring/summer game"--the type you'd snap into your DS on a sunny, peaceful afternoon when all of the windows were popped open, the birds were chirping, and the atmosphere was reminiscent of those ol' summer-vacation days. I did that more than a few times.
But the best news was that 2D Mario was back, and New Super Mario Bros. was a game off of which the series had a great chance of successfully springboarding. I couldn't wait to see how Nintendo would follow it up--where Miyamoto and pals were planning to take us next. "Will the sequel be as wonderfully divergent as, say, Super Mario Bros. 2?" I wondered. "Or will it be something so amazingly innovative that my human brain is unable to comprehend such a product?!"
And, well, we all know how that story played out. Much to my dismay, it never advanced past the prologue. None of the three succeeding entries sought to meaningfully evolve the formula. Not a single one of them endeavored to take us to a new place. To examine them up close was to find no immediately perceivable deviation from New Super Mario Bros.'s established template.
I was expecting for the series to undergo a creative renaissance and gloriously reinvent itself, but instead it decided to run in place for the next six years.
Really, what Nintendo did to the Super Mario Bros. brand was inexcusable. For decades the company had done so well to nurture and protect it and avoid tarnishing its image by pumping out underwhelmingly iterative cookie-cutter sequels, but now its executives had made the inexplicably shortsighted decision to betray their own principles in pursuit of greedily wringing every last penny out of the fickle customers they knew were only buying these games because it was trendy; suddenly Iwata and his staff, who surely understood the medium's history and were well aware of why so many big-name franchises had died off, were determined to ignore all of the available data and heedlessly produce an endless string of creatively stagnant, aesthetically identical New Super Mario Bros. games. And they were doing this at the expense of the always-trusty Mario character, which was now no longer associated with top-tier 2D platformers.
What was at first unique quickly became generic. And that should never have happened; mainline Mario games should never be perceived as "generic." Yet now they were. There was no longer anything special about them. What Nintendo did was turn the Super Mario Bros. brand into a pure product, each new release feeling as though it was born not from the imaginations of enthusiastic, ambitious creators but instead from the cold, purely functional mechanisms that comprised the nearest assembly line.
"Why the hell are they doing this to such a beloved series?!" I continued to question, my frustration-level increasing each time Nintendo would announce another samey-looking New Super Mario Bros. game. "Don't they understand that their standardizing the series will likely come with serious repercussions?"
Now, I'm not saying that any of them were terrible games. No--they just weren't what they needed to be. New Super Mario Bros. Wii, while its multiplayer modes held the potential for great fun, was ultimately nothing special. New Super Mario Bros. 2--a pure impulse purchase--was supremely forgettable; were it not for its coin-collecting gimmick, I wouldn't remember a damn thing about it. And I didn't even buy New Super Mario Bros. U. Nothing about it was compelling; in fact, there was a never mainline Mario game in which I was less interested. So I passed on it. And you know what? I felt no regret about doing so; not for a moment did I ever feel as though I was missing anything. That should tell you something.
And let me tell you: A cold chill ran down my spine when I read that Iwata told investors to expect even more New Super Mario Bros. titles. "God no," I said to myself, "We don't need any more of that."
So far, thankfully, nothing has become of that chatter.
Let's hope it stays that way. If we're lucky, Super Mario Run will be the last we see of that series and its tired aesthetic.
But regardless of the ill feelings I hold for the series as a whole, I remain quite fond of the first New Super Mario Bros. I'll continue to cherish the memories of the time I spent with it. It wasn't an incredible game, no, nor was it some huge advancement over the older 2D entries, but it did a lot of things right. I found it to be creative, inspiriting and fun to play--a winning combination in my book.
It arrived at the perfect time: The DS was riding a wave of momentum the likes of which we'd never seen. The gaming world was changing for the better. And people were again clamoring for the types of games that originally brought them to the dance--the types that were lost to the console arms race.
And there was Mario to answer to call. He was back. Super Mario Bros. was back. 2D wasn't dead, as hardcore gamers had proclaimed. It was alive and well on the DS. There was plenty of room for it on Nintendo's dual-screened wonder. There was plenty of room for everything. The future was looking bright.
That's what New Super Mario Bros. represented: good times during one of the best eras in gaming history. I'm glad that I savored both it and the (sadly unreplicated) generation it helped to define.
Whenever I think about New Super Mario Bros., I'm always reminded why I loved that era. The enduring mental images never fail to evoke memories of everything I considered great about it.
That, to me, is the measure of a truly impactful Super Mario Bros. game.
And I'm happy to say that New Super Mario Bros. is indeed worthy of carrying such a label.