The marvellous thing about New Super Mario Bros. Wii (Publisher/Developer: Nintendo/ESRB: E), the game that will serve as Nintendo's primary hardware seller this holiday, is that it's about as familiar as a game can be without a player actually having played it before.
An unapologetic homage to the nearly quarter-century-old Super Mario Bros. games that helped make Nintendo the behemoth gaming company it is today, it's a decidedly old-school two-dimensional side-scrolling platformer - what my school chums used to call a "run-to-the-right" game back in the day - that features music, graphics, and play mechanics that almost anyone who has ever wielded a game controller will instantly recognize.
We all know the drill: The d-pad makes Mario move, the "1" button makes him run, and the "2" button makes him jump. That's pretty much all you need to know to get going and start breaking bricks, flattening goombas, and leaping to the tops of flag poles as you chase after the perpetually kidnapped Princess Peach.
And, to Nintendo's credit, it never gets much more complex than that. We learn to shake the Wii remote to make Mario fly or pick up an item in appropriate circumstances, but by and large the game is simply about running and jumping. When things do become more difficult - and trust me, they will; even seasoned SMB veterans can expect to start losing lives more quickly than they collect them around World 6 - it's not because the controls have become any more complex, but rather because the game demands a greater level of precision and a better sense of timing.
Of course, there are some fresh elements as well. Players will get to don propeller beanies and fly high into the clouds as well as a penguin suit that lets them slide along icy terrain. They'll also need to learn how to deal with new platforming challenges - such as staying atop moving, rotating squares as they follow guide-wires into the sky - and how to contend with bizarre new foes, like a strange fellow with a ball-shaped body that has two long legs protruding from its sides and walks rather like a Slinky.
Plus, navigating between courses in each of the game's eight worlds is more engaging than it has been in the past. Players move around a Mario Party-esque game board, choosing whether to stop in little mini-game huts that could reward them with bonus lives or items (such as fire flowers and super mushrooms), or perhaps running into, say, a piranha plant, which will begin a short challenge which, if completed, will earn the player a trio of super mushrooms.
There's also a new multiplayer element that allows up to four players to play together at the same time. It's not co-operative or competitive so much as it is simultaneous pseudo-chaos. Players simply leap around trying to collect coins and find power-ups while they move as a group toward the end of each course. Playing as a group doesn't really make the game any easier - with the possible exception of the boss fights at the end of each world's castle - but weaker players can be carried along through harder levels. If they run out of lives, their role in a given course comes to an end, but should a better player make it through to the end the one(s) who didn't can choose to continue - which earns them five bonus lives - before moving onto the next course.
There's also a couple of multiplayer modes dubbed Free-For-All and Coin Battle that let players pick a single level and have at it, but these are quick, somewhat pointless distractions that most players will use only as a means to introduce friends and family to the game to see if they might be interested in investing themselves in the much lengthier story mode.
On the subject of length, you can expect to eke out a good 15 hours from the story mode on your first play, but there's plenty of reason to come back. Like past Super Mario Bros. games, there's loads of hidden items and areas to be found, and that little jolt of excitement and satisfaction that comes from finding one is as potent as ever (I find few things in the world of games as gratifying as jumping up in a Mario game and making contact with an invisible brick containing a green 1-up mushroom).
And, whereas such bonuses could be devilishly difficult to hunt down in the past, New Super Mario Bros. Wii gives players a bit of help in the form of unlockable tutorial videos that can be purchased with hard-to-find giant coins scattered throughout each level. These demos show players how to access hidden items and areas as well as how to expeditiously zip through tricky courses. It's like having YouTube how-to videos built right into the game.
I'm always wary and a bit annoyed at how much my generation loves rehashing the past. From Transformers to G.I. Joe, Star Wars to V, it seems our kids our subjected to endless reworkings of the pop culture that we grew up on, and it makes me feel guilty.
I was worried that I'd feel the same way about Super Mario Bros. Wii, but I don't. A good video game is a good video game, and the Super Mario Bros. games are among the best ever made. I'm happy that my kid will get to experience her own generation's version of this iconic franchise. That I'll have just as much playing it as she does is just the cherry on top.