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New Super Mario Bros U review: New ideas layered on a familiar blueprint

Something borrowed, something U...

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So far so New Super Mario Bros Wii then, but here's where the Gamepad storms onto the scene to shake things up further. As The Platform God, your job description is to bring order to the chaos by using your platform-creating skills to protect the players from harm. But when the game is in full swing, this proves to be the ultimate in Sisyphean tasks.

With a calm wind, everything is plain sailing - a cheeky platform here and Grandma can collect that Star Coin, an even cheekier platform across the top of that pipe and you've prevented Grandpa from being swallowed by the World's Biggest Piranha Plant.

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But then snake blocks start snaking and see-saw bridges start tilting, and before you can get a grip on what's happening there's a deluge of tumbling plumbers raining down your screen. Attempting to save them all feels like trying to catch the Niagara Falls in a tea cup.

Assuming the responsibility of the Platform God is a huge cross to bear then, and much of the time despite your good intentions you end up doing more harm than good. (Causing players to plummet into a pit because you've placed a platform slightly too high for them to reach, so they smash facefirst into it instead, is a common ailment.) But that's okay, because the entire set up is geared towards comic mayhem rather than precision play.

It's a mode where, you sense, you have to be content to progress not through skill but by muddling through it together. But in the right company (that is to say, with a couple of useless boobs chucked into the equation), it delivers one of the funniest gaming moments you'll experience all year. And as a social Boxing Day activity it's got 'staring dead-eyed at Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa while pretending you don't have a hangover' beat, gloved hands down.

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Besides, experienced players looking for a challenge will find it elsewhere on the disc - although, curiously enough, not in the main game itself. Although NSMBU tries hard to reach out to the hardcore Mario fan with several nods to the past - such as a world map similar to the one in Super Mario World, and the return of classic baddies such as Monty Moles and Munchers (those black bitey plant things from Mario Bros 3) - it is destined to leave them disappointed. It simply doesn't put up enough of a fight to satisfy Mario vets.

Any competent player can expect to complete this in a weekend

Ghost Houses aside (they're a complete nightmare in this; an impenetrable tangle of multiple doors and circuitous paths), Mario Bros U doesn't begin asking any meaningful questions of the player until they're seven worlds in. By then, it's almost too late. Despite a late flurry where the designers awaken from their slumber and begin pulling their most innovative tricks, Mario Bros U's difficulty level falls well below the standard set by New Super Mario Bros Wii, which was cement-hard in places. Any reasonably competent player can expect to complete Mario Bros U in a single weekend.

But there's completing a Mario Bros game, and then there's completing it. As with the other titles in the New Super Mario Bros series, each stage is garnished with three Star Coins each, and collecting them all is the key to unlocking the usual extracurricular fun that lurks beyond the remnants of Bowser's last stand.

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Pleasingly, Mario Bros U takes its cue from the 3DS' New Super Mario Bros 2, by making a really good fist of hiding the Star Coins out of sight. Many require you to get to grips with the squirrel suit, Mario U's sole new power-up - which, as it happens, is the best new power-up to appear in a 2D Mario game since Mario World's cape. It's nowhere near as good as the cape, of course (they're never going to better it, are they?), but the it's streets ahead NSMBWii's rubbish propellerhead thing.

Once you're all squirrelled up, the suit allows you to glide across the screen in a downwards trajectory, with one additional jump being granted per glide. In capable hands this allows for some daring feats of acrobatics, such as swooping down to collect Star Coin floating precariously above a lava pit, and then using your jump to pull up at the last possible moment. There's more: when Squirrel-Mario reaches a vertical wall, he'll cling to it like a horrible bat-thing, rather than just bouncing off. This gives you the opportunity to bide your time, waiting for a platform or an ambling para-koopa to move into the perfect position - before pouncing.

The remaining power-ups are the usual suspects - Fire Flowers, Ice Flowers and Mini-Mushrooms, and certain levels are garnished with Yoshis. Again mirroring NSMBWii, Adult Yoshis are locked to the levels you find them in, but every so often you'll encounter a Baby Yoshi. These gluttonous dinos are yours to keep for as long as you can keep them in your mitts. (Although they can't be bothered to help you out in Ghost Houses or Castles, we notice. Kids today, huh?)

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