The sidescroller is such a constant that for some players it’s akin to a drug addiction. The more they play, the tougher the next platformer has to be to hit the same high. Multiple downloadable and indie games have seriously ramped up the difficulty in 2D throwbacks to meet this demand, but the similarly backwards-looking New Super Mario Bros. series has kept the gameplay simple and approachable. That was certainly true for Wii U launch game New Super Mario Bros. U, but the game’s DLC update, New Super Luigi U, instead tests players with manic levels that will frustrate all but the most pro-Mario fans.
One of several games honoring Luigi’s 30th birthday, New Super Luigi U dumps Mario (he’s never seen in the game) to give the spotlight to his brother. The opening shows Princess Peach getting kidnapped, but Mario is conspicuously absent, leaving it to Luigi and his Toad buddies to save the day. The scenario is the same bland adventure as New Mario U, and the overworld map is equally untouched, but beneath the surface it’s an entirely new game.
Though the enemies and world themes are recycled from the original game, each level is completely new for New Super Luigi U. When compared to New Mario U, every fresh Luigi stage is impressively compact. Most are a little more than half the size of a standard 2D Mario stage, and the brevity in stage design lead to some of the game’s most creative moments. The newly introduced 100-second time limit immediately ramps up the pace, getting players running as soon as a stage begins. It leads to quick movements through a condensed world that packs as much as possible into each screen.
Early on, the difficulty-spiking tricks are as simple as placing an enemy in the player’s most natural landing spot, forcing you to adjust your movements at the last possible moment. Platform placement and moving obstacles also keenly predict the most clear path and force players out of their comfort zone. And some later areas depend on a deeper understanding of Mario controls, like holding the jump button after landing on an enemy to go higher, or temporarily freezing enemies into blocks of ice that double as much-needed landing zones. If you weren’t prepared for high-level Mario play before, you will be by the end of New Super Luigi U.
The quicker, smaller stages mesh well with the heightened difficulty, because there’s little to memorize and the stress of the core gameplay is felt in short bursts. You might be holding your breath while attempting Soda Jungle-4, but at least you won’t be holding your breath for long. Your greatest danger is actually seeing a Game Over screen and getting knocked back to your last save, something that was virtually unheard of in recent Mario titles. As a single-player game, New Super Luigi U will definitely shut up the self-identified hardcore fans that feel Nintendo forgot how to make a challenging game.
There’s lots of fun to be had in that challenge beyond the novelty of a Mario game being more taxing than usual, but the game loses much of its charm in multiplayer. The New Mario games have been defined on consoles by hectic four-player action, but Luigi’s DLC hardly needed it. The stages focus on single-player gameplay, making many areas feel too cramped when three friends join in.
Then there’s the unique case of Nabbit, a thieving rabbit that’s also a new (optional) player character. Nabbit takes no enemy damage and gains extra lives constantly, which annoyingly breaks the game’s balance, but he was clearly added to lighten the load on less-skilled players. If someone feels they can’t beat the game without Nabbit’s quirks, then more power to them, but in multiplayer he causes unexpected problems. New Mario games put you into the habit of following the leader to the next platform, but following Nabbit onto spikes that only he can stand on is a deadly mistake that happens too often in the many frenetic levels.
If you’re ready for the heightened difficulty of solo play in New Super Luigi U, then you’ll find it rewarding. Otherwise, it’s a taxing platformer that’s only made more rage-inducing in multiplayer. In the end, platforming junkies in need of a new hit will get a good deal of challenge for their money, but only if they’re prepared via the gateway drug of previous Mario games.