Even before it refined family fun with the Wii, Nintendo was dedicated to creating satisfying multiplayer experiences. Games like "Mario Kart," "Super Smash Bros." and "GoldenEye 007" encouraged everyone to join in, and you missed the real action if you played them alone.
But Nintendo's flagship franchise, "Super Mario Bros.," has always consisted of solo journeys. Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to change that, so "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" (Nintendo, for the Wii, $49.99) has been designed so up to four people can play it at once.
Does it work? That probably depends on whom you get to join you on the couch.
The look is a throwback to the two-dimensional "Super Mario Bros." games of the 1980s and early '90s. For the most part, the characters move from left to right, jumping on platforms, dodging obstacles and stomping on enemies. Question-mark blocks contain coins and power-ups, while pipes provide access to hidden areas.
The new game incorporates just about every good idea the "SMB" team has had over the years, including the ability to ride the inflatable dinosaur Yoshi. Among the new powers are an ice flower, which lets you freeze enemies; a propeller suit, which lets you soar into the sky; and a penguin suit, which lets you slide on ice and swim faster.
Each player can pick one of four characters: Mario, Luigi or one of two "toads" (a sort of humanoid mushroom). There's no real difference between the characters, and each can use any of the power-ups.
In cooperative play, the goal is to get everyone to the flag at the end of each level. This may create some frustration for "Mario Bros." vets, who will get impatient while waiting for Grandpa to drag his toad across the finish line. But it's ideal for showing your kids how much fun those old 2D games were.
Friends can also compete to collect the most coins, but that feels like a halfhearted addition. Nintendo's heart is clearly in getting players to work together _ and in the same space. Disappointingly, there's no option for online action, which really is essential to multiplayer games these days.
And anyone who played the 2D Mario games, including 2006's "New Super Mario Bros." for the DS, may feel that an awful lot of the new game looks familiar. Beyond the multiplayer hook, "New SMB Wii" doesn't deliver the kind of innovation we fans expect from the franchise.
Still, it's a formula that Nintendo has nailed, over and over again, through the years. It will hold most of us over until "Super Mario Galaxy 2" arrives next year, and will probably deliver plenty of newcomers to the cult of Mario. Three stars out of four.
On the Net:
_"New Super Mario Bros. Wii": http://mariobroswii.com/