New Super Mario Bros. approaches the DS with old-style controls. Everything concerning Mario happens under my thumbs, through the cross-shaped D-Pad and two buttons. Those few pieces of plastic give me access to a compendium of Mario's greatest attacks. With more than two decades of videogame experience, he has learned to do more than bonk blocks from below. Now he slams into them from above or the side, making the game's trademark floating platforms more strategic than ever. Mario has even learned a few tricks from his Nintendo colleague Samus, bouncing off walls like a Metroid star.
Mario looks like a tiny remote-control marionette: rosy and round with excessively animated movements. When he swings from ropes across chasms, his belly bobbles back and forth. When he's poised on a ledge, a minute twitch from my thumb makes him move his arms and sway his hips like a tubby Tomb Raider. Graphics this lavish make small maneuvers easy to direct, which is useful in such a perilous game. The environments in New Super Mario Bros. are much more ingenious and active than in previous Mario titles. Mushrooms bob and teeter while I'm running across them, or suddenly morph into different sizes. In addition to slipping on ice in the winter levels, I'm also dodging clumps of falling snow and slogging my way through deep drifts.
This rigorous activity is excellent training for Mario vs. Luigi, the multiplayer game attached to New Super Mario Bros. Two players -- it's Mario against Luigi -- compete wirelessly against each other in small, wrap-around Mario environments. With two private screens, the DS becomes an ideal arena for side-scrolling combat. All of the attacks that damage enemies of the Mushroom Kingdom also hurt my opponent, resulting in a friendly family brawl worthy of the brothers Mario. It also fully realizes the potential of the side-scrolling platform game, and brings it riotously into the multiplayer era.
THE GOOD: The multiplayer game may prove to be the most compelling feature of New Super Mario Bros. The active and combative Mario vs. Luigi is an innovative title at a time when small cellular and wireless systems need a model for a new type of multiplayer videogame. If Nintendo develops this idea further, it could change hand-held gaming.
THE BAD: The fact that New Super Mario Bros. barely makes use of the DS's touch screen makes me think that a major part of the machine is turning out to be a gimmick. Unless something magical happens under the hood of Nintendo's next videogame system -- the motion-sensing Wii -- we'll probably end up playing most games on it the old-fashioned way.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Despite the simple controls, this is Mario designed for heroic action in the most sumptuous side-scrolling videogame I've ever played.