With 2013 marking the 30th anniversary of the not-so portly plumber, Luigi, it'd almost be rude of Nintendo to let it go by without so much as an honorary game - but the slightly less famous brother's been granted a lot more than that. Dubbed the "Year of Luigi", there hasn't exactly been much in the way of celebration or parties so far - but there have been several new games that place Luigi firmly in the drivers seat. From the excellent ghost hunting of Luigi's Mansion 2, to the upcoming comedy role-player Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros, and the now delayed Mario Golf: World Tour, it's safe to say Luigi's had a pretty packed year - but one of the more interesting titles in the Year of Luigi was that of New Super Luigi U. A full blown expansion pack for multiplayer platformer, New Super Mario U, the Luigi themed expansion is available as either a download (which requires New Super Mario Bros U) or on a disc (which doesn't), and brings with it over 80 brand new courses, along with a new playable character in the form of the novice friendly Nabbit. The only problem is, it's got just about everything else wrong.
It's hard to imagine how the brainstorming went for this one. "What's the best part of the New Super Mario Bros series, that powered it to over 26m sales on the Wii?" they'd ask, and "Multiplayer" would be the emphatic response. Letting four people play through the levels together, with all the comedic chaos that ensues as people accidentally crash into each other, or bounce on their heads to get an extra boost, it was the multiplayer that arguably made the series as popular as it was. "So how shall we design New Super Luigi U to be played?" As it turns out, the answer certainly wasn't "in multiplayer."
New Super Luigi U seems to take almost everything we loved about the Mario games, and turns it on its head to create a game that's aimed almost exclusively at the hardcore - and it's fairly likely that was their intention. When the game was first announced, almost everything the company did suggested that this would be a single-player only game. The first screens and videos only showed a single player, playing as Luigi bounding through the levels, and even the company president, Satoru Iwata, went to great lengths to explain they'd removed the word "Bros" from the title, as Mario wouldn't be featuring in the game. For all intents and purposes, it seems New Super Luigi U was intended to be a single player only add-on for hardcore platform fans - but at some point along the way, there was a complete change of heart, with the result being a tacked on multiplayer mode that actually makes things harder when you play along with your friends.
With over 80 levels on offer, the general idea here is pretty much the same as in the previous games. Playing as Luigi, it's up to you to get from one end of the course to the other, dodging the enemies, collecting the coins - and, if you're particularly talented, hunting down the three rare star coins hidden in each level - before grabbing onto the goal pole at the end. The problem is, almost everything that's been changed here has been changed with the explicit intent and purpose of making it a harder, more frustrating game. Luigi controls rather differently to his brother, with the ability to wiggle his legs for a few seconds at the end of each jump to hover momentarily being a minor advantage, which is completely countered by the fact Luigi seems to have been dipped in Vaseline before being released into the levels. In a platform game, you quite often have to run, jump, and then come to a pretty quick stop to save either falling off the edge of the platform, or crashing into an enemy - but Luigi simply can't do it. If you try to stop, Luigi will just skid for an impossible distance, making speedy turn-arounds, or even sharp stops nigh on impossible - and that makes the game a heck of a lot harder.
"But it's OK", we can imagine Nintendo will say "we've included Nabbit as a playable character for novices. He's invincible, doesn't skid as much, and can simply run past enemies and objects without getting harmed" To which we'd answer yes - Nabbit is a great addition. In theory. But seeing as you can't easily play as Nabbit in single player (your only option is Luigi, unless you use a cheat, which isn't shown anywhere in the game), and the multiplayer seems to have been exclusively designed with a single player in mind, to the point where it's actually made harder when you have a second, third, or fourth person playing along with you, Nabbit isn't actually all that much help.
And that's perhaps one of the most frustrating things. The levels in the game have obviously been designed for one player only, as they're littered with sections that are made harder, if not impossible when playing in multiplayer. From a massive row of icicles that drop from the ceiling as soon as the first player passes them - effectively killing everyone that follows - to platforms that either collapse in a similar way, or are only large enough for a single player to stand on in the first place, there are dozens of times where whoever's in first place effectively ends up killing the rest of their team, because they have nowhere to go, or get squished by a trap they've triggered. While Nabbit may well survive - assuming they can fit themselves onto a platform that has room for more than one player - you're then left relying on their platforming skills for the rest of the level, and navigating the treacherous ledges and platforms is hard enough on its own, even without having enemies to worry about.
And then you come to the time limits. Everyone's least favourite part of a Mario game is the somewhat oppressive timer in the top right hand corner, which usually ticks down from 300, giving you five minutes to make your way through the level. Take too much time (or in other words, let the timer drop below 100 seconds), and the music in the levels changes pace, to encourage you to up yours - and if it drops to 0 before you reach the end, you'll die. For New Super Luigi U, not only do you have to contend with a character that skids all over the place, and levels that'll challenge you more than Mario's ever pushed you before, but you also have a timer that starts its countdown at 100. Giving you next to no time to admire anything in the level, or even really seek out secrets, you have to blaze a trail through each level to be in with a chance of even reaching the end before the timer runs out - and where's the fun in that?
Combining a character that's been made deliberately frustrating with a tacked on multiplayer mode, a character for beginners that you can't play as without cheating (hold down B when choosing a level), and a time limit that starts breathing down your neck from the second you start playing, New Super Luigi U is a disappointment. And it's all such a shame. The first two or three worlds work really well. They're challenging, but not excessively so, and even work reasonably well in multiplayer. But once you've completed those levels, you'll quickly find yourself coming up against a virtual brick wall. While you'll probably be able to conquer it with (a lot) of practice, gritted teeth, and broken controllers, it's never fun knowing the game's actively working against you - and the effective inability to bring your friends and family along for the ride strips the game of a lot of its appeal. And it could so easily have been so much better. New Super Mario Bros U got a lot right, and all we really needed was that again - another load of multiplayer friendly levels that anyone can join in with, not a hardcore expansion that no-one asked for.
As if to rub salt into a wound, when you've just died on a level for the fifteenth or so time, a pop up will appear asking if you want to post to Miiverse to give any advice to other players on this level. This, after we'd died seconds into a level over a dozen times. Our advice? If you're into Mario games for the multiplayer fun, rather than the hardcore challenge, it's possibly best to steer clear of New Super Luigi U. This is one for the platform veterans only.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U