New Super Mario Bros. U is an amazing jump start for Mario's 2D platforming career. It incorporates the best elements from the classics and mixes them into the New Super Mario Bros. formula, revamping the subseries' reputation for bland level design and menial difficulty.
As a whole, Story mode is a blend of joyful speed-run-friendly courses and precision-based platforming puzzles. It's the same balance of freedom and challenge that defined legendary entries like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, and it's the backbone of New Super Mario Bros. U's success. Also here are branching paths, a sprawling world map, and the overall sense of wonder that comes from exploring every last corner of the modern Mushroom Kingdom for secrets and alternate exits.
The first half of the game is a relative playground; troublesome enemies are at a minimum, power-ups are plentiful, and the environments are generally forgiving. Even at their easiest, the earlier stages are still enjoyable because their compositions lend themselves to acrobatic displays of triple-jumps and power-up-fueled maneuvers.
Sprinting through the first few worlds is carefree and instills confidence. Eventually, however, such hubris must give way to patience and awareness lest you squander all your remaining lives. The game's rise in difficulty is easy to miss, seamlessly transitioning from a light romp to a challenging test of perseverance.
Should you continue to fail multiple times in a given stage, the Super Guide box appears granting you a demonstration of Luigi completing the level, or allowing you to bypass the stage completely, though you may choose to forge ahead on your own. When failure persists despite your best efforts, the addition of a second player on the GamePad becomes a very attractive option. By using the touch screen, a second player can place up to four platforms at a time within a level, and can also stun enemies and interact with elements in the environment.
Where New Super Mario Bros. Wii's co-op was often frustrating and useful only on occasion, the touch screen method employed here affords an experience that rewards teamwork. There are still ways that the "ghost" player on the tablet controller can interrupt Mario's flow and ruin the experience, and this opens up delightful opportunities for the tablet holder to make a little mischief. Deviously obstructing a player's progress can be as amusing as virtuously helping them to victory, and every player should be sure to take a turn with the tablet. Up to five people may participate at a time when four Wii Remotes are used, and roles can be switched from the world map without having to exit to the main menu.