If any video game character has become like a bad house guest, it’s Mario. He’s long overstayed his welcome, keeps showing up when no one asked, always tells the exact same story, abuses your pets, and spends all day either doing mushrooms or digging up your potted plants because he suspects you planted pot (a.k.a. “Fire flowers”). But even though he gets fiercely competitive every time your old pal, Sonic, comes over, and none of the Smash Brothers really want to play with him, we all give him a pass and humor him every time he shouts, “Hey, watch me jump on this turtle,” and the turtle dies, and he finishes up with his catch phrase, “It’s a-me, Mario!” like we’re all supposed to look up with sparkling eyes as though we’re not tired of his shit and still want to be seen in public with him. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all forget the mess he’s become, all his tiresome celebrity cameos, and the fact that he totally sold out and is practically the only non-Minecraft video game with his own line of merchandise? (*Outside of Japan, of course) Thankfully, about ten years back (Holy piranha plants; am I old!) Nintendo released a nostalgic game that brings Mario back to his glory days, giving him the chance to relive his teenage heartthrob days all over again.
New Super Mario Bros for the DS strips Mario of all that dead weight he’s picked up over the years: gimmicky play mechanics, 3-dimensional controls, and any attempts at developing a plot around the original scenario that clearly failed to learn from the Super Mario Bros. movie. Gameplay resembles the original 1985 NES game with updated 2.5-D graphics and borrows lightly enough from Mario 3 and Super Mario World that, with any luck, the other games won’t notice their stuff missing and NSMB won’t have to return any of it. Mario runs and jump and ya-hoos his way through mostly horizontal side-scrolling levels, wandering into every fortress, castle and ghost house along the way, hoping to find Peach like Rick Grimes hoping to find Carl, or like a Jehovah’s Witness hoping that they’ll finally convince someone to convert. Standard power-ups join you along the way, like the traditional mushroom Mario takes to get high–sorry, I meant “tall”–and the flower that leaves him with a curious burning sensation. There’s also a mini-mushroom that shrinks Mario down to the size of his Italian cultural respect, which mostly allows him to access hidden areas, but also gives him the ability to walk on water as if he didn’t have enough of a Jesus complex to begin with.
The story is simple; Bowser Jr. kidnaps Peach, and Mario has to get her back. Done. No need to present King Koopa’s tragic back story, develop a psychological analysis of Mario, or to reveal any shocking, Darth Vader-style twists. As much as I play games for the stories, Mario, much like black jack and prostitution, was created solely for fun and profit. These characters are as psychologically real as Veggie Tales fan fiction. They’re two-dimensional, and the best way to show that is to, well…make them two-dimensional.
Level exploration takes center stage in New Super Mario Bros. While some have criticized the game for being too easy, I actually appreciate the fact that they’ve shifted the emphasis back away from precariously hopping from platform to platform over an endless series of bottomless pits as though the only way to Bowser’s castle was over a convention of plate-spinners. Levels aren’t too difficult, so the adventure feels like a merry romp through the Magical Mushroom Kingdom rather than a test of skill and endurance of spirit that would break most U.S. Marine Corps members. Power-ups add an additional level of exploration. The mini-mushroom, as mentioned, allows access to tighter areas (insert your own Princess Peach joke here), while the mega-mushroom gives Mario the ability to enact his monster truck fantasies of smashing everything in his path–bricks, enemies, pipes that lead to vital areas in the level–into tiny bits. By far, though, my favorite power-up has to be the blue turtle shell, which gives him stylish new duds, allows him to hide from most attacks, and to spin along the ground bouncing off objects like a rogue bumper car fueled with Red Bull and Mountain Dew.
And….that’s it. The game is nostalgic, but not exactly a good subject for a dissertation. It’s fun. It’s easy. And it’s the perfect game to play to kill time while backstage at a play or when listening to your father-in-law read “A Christmas Carol” for the gazillionth year in a row. But beyond that, it’s not exactly as interesting as, say, a retro-style Final Fantasy game, or a pangolin that fires lasers.