New Super Mario Bros. Wii May Cause Flashbacks

It's been nearly a quarter century since the first attack, but I still hear the plaintive bleeps of the dying in my sleep.

Our plumber-avatars didn't have the modern amenities that this generation takes for granted. Unlimited continues? Quick saves? Helpful dinosaur friends? Forget about it. Uncle Shigeru gave us our three-life ration and a "one size fits all" pair of regulation overalls. If we wanted anything else, we had to carve it ourselves from the living brick.

It made maladjusted, twitch-gaming warriors of a generation of us, our memories jacked up to the tune of koopa paratroopa flight patterns and on-the-fly, fireball-arc calculations. In the field we were unstoppable, but back home, every loud noise or sudden movement became a Chelonian death's head bent on sending us back to the big title screen in the sky.

No point in glamorizing it—the 8-bit era was hell, the kind of hell that spastic guys in sci-fi horror flicks talked about when things got really out of hand. Game over, man. Game over.

Given all the pixilated torment rattling around in our heads, it's no surprise that when uncle Shiggy came calling with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, those of us who saw combat—real side-scrolling one-hit-and-it's-over combat, not this 3D baby-sitting service you kids have grown fat and complacent on—well, we were a little nonplussed.

A soldier who doesn't want any more missions is about as useful as a plow horse that won't take the bit in its mouth, so Uncle Shiggy went after the new bloods, the ones that didn't remember. Our girlfriends, our kids. Our mothers. Anyone with a wallet, a Wii, and a passing interest in retro gaming.

The bastard. How would they know what they were getting into? How could they? All they see is a cartoonish cultural icon and a tag line about "getting back to his roots" and they think they're about to ride another wave of Wii-based hipness down Easy Street, where they'll get together with all their friends and talk about how hey, weren't the '80s just radical?

Guess I should have seen it coming. New Super Mario Bros. was a hit on the DS, after all. In a perfect world, NSMB would be a one-off, a nice little respectful documentary meant to chronicle an era without resurrecting it.

But not here, and not now. Here, Nintendo knows how to milk every last drop of life from an upswing in consumer interest. Now, a few million newcomers (550,000 first-day sales in the Americas alone) get to experience firsthand a slice of the original, a war game not between humans and anthropomorphic turtles, but between unwitting players and the Wonka-esque developers intent on either honing their skills to razor sharpness or crushing their spirits in the attempt. God help us if they're not ready for it.

At least it's not completely without mercy. NSMB Wii's gameplay falls somewhere between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World, which gives it Yoshi (but not for long), storable bonus items (but not as much variety as SMB3), and saves and continues (with certain save-based limitations).

For better or worse, it's a mostly faithful translation of the side-scrolling Marios of old. The physics are a little floaty, the enemies are a little more cheerful (dancing to the background music as if to mock me), and the level designs are a bit more outlandish, but that's more a question of what Nintendo would have done 20 years ago if they could rather than what they thought they should do to "improve" things.

But don't think for a minute that Uncle Shiggy's gone soft. Even the meager boon of playability is a bait and switch when you realize that the son of a bitch built NSMB Wii into a co-op game. Not just any co-op, but four-player simultaneous co-op with full intercharacter collision detection.

Is Luigi in the way of a critical jump? Push him into a pit. Did a Toad just grab your power-up? Pick him up and toss him into the hungry maw of a piranha plant. Or onto a Spiny's back. Or scroll him off the screen altogether in a fit of malicious alacrity. Let his death be a message to the rest of them.

And he will die. They'll all die. Don't delude yourself into thinking otherwise—when two or more players occupy the same space, NSMB Wii is no longer about saving a princess. It's about severing ties, breaking relationships. It's about teamwork and cooperation falling victim to ineptitude and betrayal.

We weren't ready for that kind of challenge the first time around, and we were actually prepared for it. This meta-generation—some old, some young, all linked by a casual mindset and the mistaken belief that games are supposed to be "fun"—will be lucky if it gets out of NSMB Wii alive.