Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 91, New Super Mario Bros. U

You can thank the bounty of The Year of Luigi for a New Super Mario Bros. game cracking the top 101.

I’m ranking the top-101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Do you remember when the New Super Mario Bros. series first launched, back in 2006? It’s kind of wild to think about now. The first in this new line of 2D Mario platformers is one of the best-selling games of all-time — the 15th-best, if Wikipedia’s count is correct — and helped propel the Nintendo DS to its place as the second-best selling video game system in history behind Sony’s Playstation 2. And most importantly, from a completely objective point of view, I don’t really think much of it.

It wasn’t just that it was too easy. That sort of thing doesn’t necessarily bother me, and my proof is that I’m the guy who has a copy of every Kirby game in existence. It’s that it just sort of… was. It was competent enough, and with some nifty additions to the franchise that allowed Mario to get very, very big, or be very, very small, and then you could play a different way than usual while in those forms. But it failed to grab me in the way Mario’s forays into the 3D space had, or even how the previous 2D Mario adventures from the decades before that did. It was good to see Mario return to his roots, even if the… lifeless? soul-less? dull? …art style he did it in left and continues to leave something to be desired.* When I finished, it was on to the next DS game for this guy, of which there are many, many, [exaggerated delivery] many that I remember both more fondly and more readily than the original New Super Mario Bros. game.

*Give me another 2D sprite Mario game, or even better, one with hand-drawn animation a la Wario Land: Shake It, or the Shantae games that go that route, and I will send you my $60 at the moment you announce it. Please no more 2.5D games where every character has dead eyes that stare at me as if they want Mario to jump on them just to release them from their hybrid-dimensional suffering.

Now, the followup that released on the Wii three years later? That one had much more of its own personality, in no small part due to the introduction of four-player multiplayer. It served, to me, as something of a greatest hits for Mario’s 2D exploits, while introducing new, enjoyable elements that easily slid into the canon. It was also absolute chaos with four players, and a blast to play in that setting, even if you couldn’t necessarily, or at least easily, play a smooth, mistake-free version of Mario that way.

I’m not a New Super Mario Bros. hater by any means, you see: I just didn’t dig the initial entry. In fact, I like New Super Mario Bros. 2 on the 3DS better than… just about anyone, if Metacritic is to be believed. Having Mario borrow a little from Wario’s ethos worked well, as the focus shifted to collecting as many coins as possible, just for the sake of it. There was a rolling counter on your main menu of your total coins collected across your playthroughs, and each level would display your record for coins collected. There were many more coins than is usual for a Mario game, since this was the point, and items introduced for the sole purpose of further increasing your coin count, and multipliers you could find your way into as well.

Nintendo developed this New Super Mario Bros. game differently because of this vastly different mechanic, and, like with designing levels to be full of so much more to do and see and find as they did for the introduction of simultaneous four-player play on the Wii, it paid off in the enjoyment of the levels. None of these New Super Mario Bros. games made these rankings, though, because as much as I enjoy them — and I do! — they’re games that are pretty good. As I’ve said before, games I love didn’t make the top 101: pretty good ain’t good enough in this case.

I haven’t mentioned one of the New Super Mario Bros. games yet, though. New Super Mario Bros. U is the release in this series that stands out the most, and that’s why you’re reading about it right now. NSMB U, or U Deluxe, should you find the re-released version on the Switch, has essentially everything enjoyable about NSMB Wii, but adds some additional wrinkles to the mix, like a Challenge Mode, and having to chase down someone in a rabbit (?) suit named Nabbit whenever they steal an item from an item house Toad, before they can get away from your in a level you’ve already completed. It’s a fast-paced, semi-reckless addition to a platformer that, despite my enjoyment, still plays a little slow and a little too safe a little too often.

And that’s kind of the thing about this whole series. They’re pretty good games, but they could be better ones, if Nintendo wasn’t developing this series with the idea of “hey, remember 2D Mario?” in mind. The 3D Mario games always seem to explore new territory, and their ambition is obvious and impressive even in the moments where they falter. They want to be different, to explore new territory and ways to play video games, but also still be Mario: in that, they succeed, and since the release of Super Mario Galaxy, succeed in awe-inspiring ways. The New Super Mario Bros. games, on the other hand, feel like a safe space for Nintendo to just release A 2D Mario That Makes People Remember 2D Mario once per new system. And that’s fine! But there’s a reason the 3D Land/World series works so much better, and why Super Mario Maker is the 2D-only Mario series of the modern video game era. They are both far fresher experiences, and more memorable and enjoyable because of it.

And yet… Nintendo did try something fascinating and fresher with New Super Mario Bros. U. Something that broke this series from its “pretty good” status and gave us one that is exceptional enough for me to place it on this list. They created an entire second version of the game, initially available as downloadable content for the Wii U release, but it’s now just part of the base package on the Switch. And that’s New Super Luigi U.

This DLC was one of the many ways that Nintendo honored Luigi during The Year of Luigi, back in 2013. It was Luigi’s 30th birthday, if you counted from the release of the Mario Bros. arcade game, as Nintendo did, and the company celebrated all year long with releases like Dr. Luigi — a modified Dr. Mario game with its own exclusive mode — and a sequel to Luigi’s Mansion, more than a decade after the original. We also got New Super Luigi U, which (save the art style) met every issue I had with the New Super Mario Bros. series head on.

Luigi plays differently in this mode than he does in the standard version of the game. He has his higher, longer jump back, as well as the inertia from movement that you might remember from either version of Super Mario Bros. 2. Controlling Luigi is a completely different experience than controlling Mario is, and so, Nintendo put him in a game that only sort of resembles the one it’s based on.

You have 100 seconds in each of the 82 levels, rather than the more traditional four times or so that amount. That’s it! You do not get more time, unless you’re in a castle or airship stage and managed to reach the level’s boss: then that’s just so you have some more time to defeat said boss. The levels have been redesigned to resemble the basic theme of their original form, but so that they better adhere to this new game’s two core concepts: that you have just 100 seconds to complete the stage, and that Luigi can jump higher and does not stop nearly as easily once he gets going as his brother does.

That New Super Luigi U. expects, from the jump, that you will play with the kind of speed and efficiency it takes time to build up over replay after replay in previous 2D iterations of Mario makes it intriguing and vital to not just NSMB, but to Mario games as a whole. This is the closest, in the 2D Mario space, that Nintendo has come to capturing the energy that makes Super Mario Bros. 3 so special, with its varied, hurried, discarding-of-ideas style. Luigi U doesn’t play like 3 does, exactly, but whereas Super Mario World was a slow game that time and the platformer renaissance has only made feel slower, and the New Super Mario Bros. games can occasionally feel like time has stopped when you play solo, Luigi U is nothing but speed.

Oh, but even with just 100 seconds, and all kinds of new platforming challenges to meet and master as Luigi — there are so many more enemies crammed into this smaller stages than in the originals, and platforming that requires you take time even though you don’t have it — you also still have three large gold coins to collect. And yes, they’re still often hidden from sight and need to be searched for.

Running to the end of a level before 100 seconds ticks off the clock can be simple enough, once you get used to the way Luigi plays. Getting there with all three coins accounted for, though, and when the checkpoints that littered the original version of the game have been removed? That’s a different story. Meeting this challenge head on has been a far more convincing argument to me to replay levels to find all of the coins than the usual reward, which is to unlock more difficult bonus levels in an optional post-game world. Unlockable bonus content is only tempting if you want more of the game when you’re done, but Luigi U implying, simply by existing, that I’m not good enough to both beat the level and find the coins? Now that’s motivation.

If you were on the fence about another New Super Mario Bros. game, you should get this one if only for Luigi U. It’s unlike anything else Nintendo has done in this series, and if more of New Super Mario Bros. would follow the philosophy that brought us Luigi U, then there would be more reasons to meet these with the anticipation reserved for Mario’s various other series. Or hey, just keep making New Super Luigi games, he deserves more than the one solo franchise if this is the result of a one-off experiment.

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