What better way to christen your brand spanking-new dual-screen Nintendo console than with a classic slice of dual-faced Nintendo magic? New Super Mario Bros U's riotous multiplayer sees Ninty at their duplicitous, treacherous, hilarious best.
But Mario's HD debut is, as football pundits might say, a game of two halves. At one end of the scale, it's a genteel, family-friendly co-op game which epitomises Ninty's recent 'No-one left behind' mantra. At the other, it's a brutal gauntlet of single-player dexterity tests that will push even the most hardened of Mario veterans to the brink of their endurance. No one left behind? No one left alive, more like.
Somewhere between those two extremes you'll find the tipping point where Mario Bros U will click for you. Despite its relative brevity and lack of new ideas, Mario U is a diverse and puckish platformer which goes to great lengths to ensure that this, truly, is a Mario for all seasons.
Four players commandeer a Wii remote, while a fifth plays Grand Overseer...
News of New Super Mario Bros U's hardcore appeal will come as a surprise to those who have only loosely been following its promotional trail. Early footage proudly focused on the game's asymmetrical multiplayer, which appears to relegate the experienced player to the role of protector of the lame and inept. The concept is simple and (on paper, at least) not necessarily a palatable one for the Gamepad user: while up to four other players commandeer a Wii remote and hop, skip and wa-hoo their way across the Mushroom Kingdom in time-honoured fashion, the player left cradling the Gamepad has to abandon their dreams of controlling a little virtual plumber/Mii/Toad thing of their own and instead assume the role of Grand Overseer.
The Gamepad user's main input is to place up to four temporary platforms for the other players to use anywhere on the screen, by tapping on it with the stylus/finger/your enlongated object of choice. A second tap removes the platform but this is rarely necessary, since after a few seconds of hanging in the air, the platform will slowly retract and then disappear of its own accord.
We were worried we'd feel like something of a third wheel when using the Gamepad - like a wallflower hovering passively on the periphery of the dance floor while everyone else links hands and does the goomba-stompin' dance. But as ever with Wii U, the proof is in the prodding. While being The Holy Platform God can feel a little pedestrian in two-player, sync up a few extra remotes and your living room will suddenly catch ablaze with laughter, mischief and perhaps even a few swears - and you'll be right at the centre of it all.
As with New Super Mario Bros Wii before it, the simultaneous multiplayer mode contrives to make muppets of even the most accomplished players. Since the characters are physical entities capable of bumping and colliding with one another, gameplans which serve you well in single-player suddenly begin to malfunction, with uproarious results.
It's a simple matter of mathematics. More specifically, of subtraction by addition. With four times as many plumbers, you've got four times the butt-stomping power, but only a quarter of the platforming space to play with. With crushing blocks and grinding cogs a common theme, players invariably end up tripping over themselves in an attempt to slot themselves into the one square inch of land that isn't about to be pummelled by the underbelly of a Thwomp. Things aren't any less slapstick in the skies, with mid-air collisions being a particularly common cause of death.