In The Middle With U
Platform Reviewed: Wii U/ RRP: £17.99 / Time Played: Ten hours or so
I like Luigi.
He’s not the star, but that makes him immediately more believable and easier to relate to than Mario. A lifetime in his brothers shadow has drummed Luigi down, made him altogether a more humble, easier to like character. Mario can do without a personality; he turns up and gets things done. That’s his way of dealing with a challenge. Luigi has to make do with charm, and thankfully, he’s got buckets of it. Mario may have got the courage, but Luigi got everything else that mattered in a person.
So this year, Nintendo wanted to celebrate Luigi. With a pretty much ground-up remake of New Super Mario Bros. U – enter New Super Luigi U. A game, if any proof were needed, that gimmicks without context are somewhat misleading.
This is unfair because there’s certainly a lot to admire in this game; the level design is exquisite, almost magical. There are some incredible set-pieces and Nabbit is a stroke of genius. The 80-ish levels are all very well crafted with a serious eye towards providing a serious timed challenge to those who have mastered the intricacies of the original game. And this is a great idea… in theory.
The problem is that challenge requires precision, which is exactly where Luigi falls over. Almost literally falls over. He runs too fast, he slides too much, he jumps too high. The pinpoint precision required for a challenge mode, to make it seem fair and just, is lost in a hazy muddle of charming but ultimately deadly character flaws. And when you fail, a good challenge mode would dump you quickly back at a sensible checkpoint system. Not so here, back to the overworld map, then wait to get back in, taking precious time and doing more to infuriate the player than encourage them to master the controls.
Indeed, it is Luigi’s quirks and “improvements” on Mario that actually somewhat detract from the design, which at time feels like stages that ended up on the cutting room floor originally because they were too hard. Luigi doesn’t quite fit into them – I suspect, in reality, Mario would be a more natural choice for this sort of thing. Luigi just complicates the matter, not stopping well enough and with a general lack of control over where things finish that doesn’t quite chime with how precision some of these stages play out. You curse the game, not yourself, for it’s obvious failings; the biggest crime for any kind of “challenge mode”, to be sure, and impatience and annoyance sets in far too often than it should.
It ends up with some stages being nothing but a war of attrition; doing your best to get it over with as quickly as possible, and then never returning to those spots. There’s no compulsion to master the courses, no overarching sense of reward for learning. Just get them done, and move on. Nabbit at least provides something that feels fresh and interesting; a character on the side that need not fear death, instead he can be used largely to fix the issues with Luigi as a character. But then, you go too far the other way, and the whole thing becomes a bit pointless. Plus Nabbit is very awesome and if he doesn’t get his own game in the future I will be very, VERY upset.
It’s not as if the game doesn’t have its highlights; it does. Frozen fuzzles and a giant Bullet Bill chase sequence linger long in the memory for their sheer manic sensation. But when the game asks and indeed demands a complex series of required movements, the deliberate enemy and platform placement married to the fiddly Luigi just end up being something of a shotgun wedding, one you know can only really end in a messy divorce and someone walking away with half the trailer. When the game is so well crafted otherwise, these regular lapses of judgement just become all the more evident as you continue deeper and deeper into the game. And you will. There’s certainly enough charm here to compel even the most cold gamer onwards.
It even continues with the brutal challenge in spots to have a lives system. Not that this is much of a problem; 1-Ups are common and frequent. But it similarly highlights the painful reality of the situation; that if you’re going to have a game in which Luigi will die – and he will, a LOT – a lives system and the old overworld map come across as… somewhat alien, as if part of another game.
It’s depressing because the Mario series is known for having challenge modes that are mostly quite well done; I believe Lost Levels was one of these interesting anomalies. And with the likes of Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV demonstrating that a seemingly impossible challenge can be fun when it’s matched by a fair and just mechanic, it further makes Super Luigi U look dramatically out of date and remarkably old-fashioned to boot, that the world has moved on and the attitude of Nintendo hasn’t – this isn’t true, of course, as Nintendo proved with various challenge packs with New Super Mario Bros. 2 that it knows how to add content that improves the experience and doesn’t detract anything from the original title. But still, this does seem to be a very old-fashioned expansion pack, a nice idea and a wink and a nod and off it goes.
I’d even go as far as to say the whole concept is ridiculous. Luigi doesn’t work at his best when he’s being made to perform the same tasks as his brother – Mario is king in that sphere and Luigi will always look like an also-ran in comparison. But put Luigi in a different position; in an RPG, in a horror adventure, in a puzzle game, and he shines brighter. Mario is himself a character stuck in a rut of his own making; Luigi has mastered many other genres and many other approaches, and really Nintendo should know by now that this is where the magic of Luigi lies. In the fact he is very different to his brother, and excels when placed in new and interesting places.
Indeed, this could have been fixed by taking the forthcoming physical release and making it very much its own game, not a side-attraction. Many of the flaws and faults seem to stem largely from trying to relate to New Super Mario Bros. U, by trying to stand too close, but it doesn’t quite add up. A few tweaks here and there, a more realistic checkpointing concept and Nintendo could have had free reign to go completely bonkers beyond all belief. It’s almost as if the old game is keeping the concept safe and sensible, when it really deserves to have been kicked up a few notches and made much more its own little beast. There’s a tingle of excitement almost the whole way through; the kind of sensation that they couldn’t quite believe what they were being allowed to do. But the reality is that it is nothing more than a tingle of excitement, than a gushing spurt of pure genius.
New Super Luigi U is far from terrible – don’t misunderstand. It’s very enjoyable, even, and for £18, there is plenty of content there to justify the price. But there’s just too much compromise here, and it only serves to pull Luigi back to doing what Mario does, but faster and without any of the polish. To walk in the shadow of his famous brother, by proving that he is nothing but a second-rate platform hero. There is no nice way to point this out. It’s a harsh and brutal lesson, and one that sadly is emphasised in a harsh and oft brutal reality. Luigi is not Mario. Every time they try to make him an equal to Mario, Luigi looks more and more out of his depth. And every time Luigi has a chance to run with an idea, to break away and make more of himself, Mario is the one who pulls him back.
It’s tragic. Luigi deserves better. And Nintendo knows it.
- Plenty of content, reasonably priced.
- Luigi is still very much likeable.
- Some intelligent level design, almost a masterclass in how to do it.
- Some memorable moments.
- Nabbit. He’s awesome.
- Luigi handles like a pig on roller skates at times.
- Not snappy or quick enough for a challenge mode.
- No real drive to want to master things; just go through the motions.
- Feels in large chunks like something originally designed for Mario.
- And that really is damning.
OVERALL CONCLUSION – It’s-a Luigi! And you’ll wish I was-a Mario! (6 out of 10 – almost awesome!)
As DLC packs go, this is an impressive reworking of a pretty good game, but there’s a lot of compromise here and it never quite squares up in the end. Luigi never really quite works when he’s being made to perform like Mario, and rather than play to his strengths, this challenges mode seems to use his weaknesses as part of the challenge. Purists will lap this up and nothing else will do. But I still think Luigi deserves better than this. It’s when you begin to miss Mario that you know that something isn’t quite working…