Maybe Nintendo auteur Shigeru Miyamoto finally got tired of making Mario games. His schoolboy enthusiasm is mostly absent from New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which instead bears the weariness of a kid in detention. You can almost see Miyamoto sitting at his desk, sneaking furtive glances out the window as he goes through the motions of the formula one more time: Bowser kidnaps Princess Peach, Mario puts on some silly outfits, coins are gathered, many turtles are slaughtered, the end.
The game introduces a few fresh design twists and rehashes a slew of old ones. One of the few bright ideas is a mode in which you rescue Toad—the princess’ mushroom-hatted retainer—from already-completed levels, providing enticement to play through stages a second time. Elsewhere, the execution is lacking. Dinosaur sidekick Yoshi shows up early but mostly disappears, the Chuck Cunningham of New SMB Wii. The fire flower has an inferior new brother, the ice flower, which freezes enemies in ice blocks—one of the mustiest tropes in platformers. (You can pick up the blocks with a button-plus-waggle control so obtuse and fidgety that the game displays frequent reminders of how it works.)
Those are small disappointments; the deeper problem with New SMB Wii is its muddled construction. Previous Mario games set the standard for 2-D game design because their worlds had wit. Miyamoto would introduce a simple new device, like a switch that turned blocks into coins, and as subsequent levels played out, he would explore that device with a Charlie Chaplin-esque sense of charm and surprise. New SMB Wii doesn’t inspire delight; its worlds are disjointed and strangely lifeless. Where are all the Koopas and Goombas? The vibe sometimes resembles Myst more than Mario.
The culprit may be the much-touted multiplayer feature. You can now have up to four characters (Mario, Luigi, and two Toads) playing through a level at the same time, which is chaotic fun. Chaos only sustains itself for so long, though—few will have the patience to play the entire game this way—and true cooperative multiplayer is practically impossible, since the characters are always stumbling over each other in the tight confines of the screen. And since all of the game’s worlds need to accommodate four characters, they often feel too spacious and empty for a single lonely Mario. The trade-off, given the thin novelty of multiplayer, isn’t worth it.
The Mario series has always offered such brilliant big ideas—the rich, non-sequential structure of Super Mario World, the groundbreaking use of 3-D space in Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Galaxy—that it was easy to ignore the repetitious nature of their underlying format. The lack of a strong concept in this game brings that decades-old sameness to the fore and makes New SMB Wii the least essential Mario title to date.