Friday, March 21, 2008

Rock Band

Being a long-time fan of music games, to say I was hungrily awaiting the arrival of the Harmonix follow-up to Guitar Hero II would be a serious understatement. And while I'd been anxious about the release of some highly-anticipated games in the past, this wasn't quite the same thing. I wasn't just hungry for more, I was emaciated... my interest grew to the point that I was checking the Rock Band Wikipedia entry on a daily basis, hoping for a revelation about a new track or an as-yet-unrevealed feature. Even after Activision's Guitar Hero III arrived a month prior to the competition, presumably to sweep me off my feet and cause me to forget all about the impending release, my appetite remained. And, though I didn't go so far as to reserve a copy, (the steep price tag left me leery) I did finally sprint out to Circuit City on launch day, corner a warehouse associate as he unloaded the boxes and hurriedly snag the first copy to hit their shelves. I've never looked back.

While Guitar Hero III served as an evolution of the guitar-based music game, introducing attacks to multiplayer battles, adding a boss fight at the end of each level and significantly upping the ante in terms of difficulty, Harmonix stuck to what they knew. Rock Band isn't the action game that Guitar Hero wants to be, and it doesn't make any bones about that. It's a music game, not an arcade game, and so it's only natural that the melody itself should be the primary focus of the experience. Sure, you'll spend some time customizing your on-stage persona or soaking in the adoration of the fans after a good set, but those aren't the focus of the experience so much as the actual act of playing through these songs. What you do between tunes is your own business, but once you plug in your amp and step out on the stage, it's all about the music. For fans more interested in a glitzy, genre-bending adventure, that may not be a welcome change of pace... yet I found it a great return to form after being a little let down by what had been done with GHIII.

Having played with a small number of bands myself, I had very little problem suspending my disbelief and really getting into the moment of jamming out... but what surprised me wasn't how easily I got into it, but rather how quickly and willingly my friends and family did the same. The adrenaline rush of being on stage in front of a crowd is nearly impossible to replicate, but Rock Band gets the mood pretty damn close, especially as you share the experience with more and more buddies. It's good fun on your own, (I've broken my share of living room furniture, flailing about while on the solo tour) but it's a freaking riot with one, two or even three of your best buddies. Once you've worked together to pound out a song or two, most everybody's misgivings and self-concerns seem to fade away, replaced by an innate (and often awkward) showmanship and a deep desire to rock the fuck out. I've yet to find anyone immune to this sickness, it's a sensation that seems to cross all social boundaries. After a brief tutorial and a quick feeling-out process, even my parents were swaying around the living room in their own private galaxy. It's a wholly unique experience, and a big part of what I find so endearing about this game.

On that same page, the act of sharing these tunes with your friends is a much more collaborative, friendly experience than I've found anywhere else in gaming. Where most titles encourage or flat-out endorse a fiercely competitive environment in multiplayer gaming, the vibe put forward by a session with Rock Band is exclusively positive. That's something I've never seen... even a seemingly harmless co-op game of Halo 3 can turn ugly at the drop of a hat, given the all-too-likely possibility of friendly fire or an accidental grenade drop. With Rock Band, it's a social experiment much more than it is a perilous battle. If one member of the band is struggling, one of his mates is usually there, more than happy to revive him for the big finale. If he blows it for the rest of his buddies, he's met with a pat on the back and perhaps a quick shuffling of the instruments, not a kick while he's down. And while some of that can naturally be attested to the quality of the people you play with, (some of the more competitive rockers online don't fool around) on the whole I've found that the air surrounding a game of Rock Band is much lighter, friendlier and more inviting than most of its peers. It breeds camaraderie, not competition, and even if you do fail a song, you've only "lost" at most five minutes' effort, not upwards of an hour as seems to be more and more common in recent multiplayer titles. You're all on the same team working toward a common goal, and you're only as strong as the sum of your parts.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the game's incredible ongoing support for downloadable content, which has been going strong for months at this point and shows no sign of slowing down. I've never been a big believer in paid DLC in the past, especially in its current incarnation, (I think a lot of developers are intentionally leaving finished levels out of their releases to reap the financial rewards of a premium download down the road) but Harmonix has made a believer out of me. In the scant four months since its release, the game's potential track listing has more than doubled, from fifty-eight tracks to over 130... and new releases are unveiled so frequently, even that number will be outdated by the time I actually publish this review! Where I was checking the game's Wikipedia entry regularly before its release for details about the gameplay, I've been returning to that same page every Friday for an update on the next week's DLC. With the pricing moderate (between one and three dollars a track, with the majority carrying a $1.99 price tag) and the track selection outstanding, this setup really is a win-win. While I balked at the concept of paying thirty bucks for an add-on to Oblivion, I've gladly spent at least another fifty on Rock Band since its release. This is what Harmonix had promised when they brought Guitar Hero II to the 360... and then some. In 2008 alone, the developer hopes to add another two hundred tracks to the game. Not only is it a great way to lengthen RB's lifespan and add to its variety, but it's a relatively risk-free revenue generator for Harmonix... take note, gamers, this may be an early peek at where the industry is headed. I guess I'd better start saving my pennies.

The game does pay a price for its accessibility, which specifically manifests itself in the complexity of its note charts. What that means is Rock Band isn't nearly as difficult as Guitar Hero III , although its last set is just about as tough as anything reasonably needs to be. If you're acing your way through Through the Fire and Flames, you won't bat an eyelash at the new game's big guns, but if you counted yourself lucky to finish Freebird on expert, you'll be alternately challenged and humbled by Green Grass and High Tides. It's much more in keeping with the model developed and perfected by Guitar Hero II , of the challenging-yet-achievable song, than with the lightning fast chord changes and insanely intricate solos of GH3: Legends of Rock.

Difficulty isn't the only place where the two games differ, either. Apart from the obvious, (the addition of drums and vocals) several minor variations in the actual gameplay experience add up to create a much more user-friendly, informative environment. Gone is the combo-meter from the corner of the screen, replaced by a much more useful star-meter on the opposite side of your television. Speaking personally, I'd much rather keep an eye on how close I am to five-starring a song than how long I've gone without missing a note. Rock Band also adds on-screen indications of where a solo begins and ends, an accumulative band life-meter, (unlike the co-op in Guitar Hero, you don't immediately lose if your partner fails out... you can actually bring them back from the dead twice in a song) a "unison bonus" that doubles your star power, and a "big rock ending," (read: button mashing) which gives the band a rare opportunity to play whatever they want at the end of a tune, provided they can all hit the last few notes at the same time.

But it's not all wine and roses. The game's greatest downfall is its start-up time, especially right out of the box. If you don't already have four user profiles set up on your 360, you'll need to do so before you can proceed with a four-piece ensemble... and if you're hoping to dive right into the Band World Tour, you'll also need to create unique characters, one at a time, for each member of the band. What's particularly maddening about this process is that your characters are strictly confined to a single instrument. You can't move your drummer over to play guitar or your bassist to a vocal career, and that flat out sucks. The addition of DLC to the equation had only served to further lengthen the initial loading process, but that issue has recently been addressed by a major patch.

Naturally, the biggest additions to the puzzle are the new Fender Strat replica guitar and drum pads that accompany the deluxe edition of the game. These new peripherals generally do their job without getting in the way, although their durability has become an issue since the game's release. I'm already on to my second guitar, and reports abound regarding snapped drum pedals, unresponsive strum bars and malfunctioning fret buttons. Fortunately, EA has really stepped up to the plate here. They've owned up to the problem and provided gamers with free replacements beyond their manufacturer's warranties, even sending out free games to customers who've had repeated problems or long waits. I found the replacement process to be quick and easy, and was rocking with a fresh guitar less than a week after my original strum bar went to the great gig in the sky. While there's really no excuse for a game of this magnitude to have such widespread problems, at least the issue is being rectified. My biggest gripe, the Rock Band Stratocaster's incompatibility with Guitar Hero II and III, however, remains unaddressed. There's a lot of finger pointing going on behind the scenes regarding this issue right now, but it's been four months and the problem still remains. Do I really need to own three different guitars to enjoy multiplayer on these games?

Even when they're playing nice, the instruments are a bit different than what you might expect. The guitar has been subtly modified, and the alterations may be just enough to throw seasoned veterans for a loop. The strum bar in particular is a point of contention among enthusiasts - the new model has a lot more give than the old, and is notably lacking the distinct metronome-like tick and snap that signified a strum on my old X-plorer. Harmonix has also added a second set of frets to the neck of the new guitar, which gives gamers an opportunity to put on their best Eddie Van Halen impression and finger tap the notes without's a nice gesture but hasn't really entered into the equation for me. I use the new frets to amplify my point total on a "big rock ending," but it's too much of a hassle to use them during a solo, which is what they were actually intended for. Physically, the Stratocaster is a bit larger than its forefather and looks / feels twice as impressive - it's still not quite the size or weight of a real guitar, but it's close enough to make my old GH axe feel like a toy.

It took me a while, but I've actually come to prefer the Strat to the old unit, although I seem to be in the minority on that front. I find that while the new strum bar is quite different, it actually gives me greater freedom to cut loose during a song without losing my rhythm. And when I'm playing bass, the strum bar modifications create an experience that's about as close to the real thing as a simulation will likely ever get. The curved tip of the new strum bar feels uncannily like a thick bass string, and recoils after plucks in a way that's startlingly lifelike.

The drums, likewise, are going to take some getting used to, especially for musicians familiar with the real thing. The physical setup of these pads, which was my greatest concern going in, is very quick and easy, but the learning process is more troubling than it really should be. The main offender seems to be the game's pad assignments, which change by the song. In Ballroom Blitz, for example, the red drum (furthest left on the set) is the snare, while the neighboring yellow pad is your high hat. In Run to the Hills, though, they swap places without giving the player any notice. Granted, there are bound to be some limitations when you're tied to a simple four-pad layout, but I have to imagine a little more consistency was possible. Since day one I've also had serious problems with hit detection, with the system randomly insisting I've missed notes no matter how deliberately, precisely and powerfully I strike the pads or kick the bass pedal. Either something's wrong with the hardware or I'm a much shittier drummer than I ever imagined, and I'm not willing to accept the latter. As a result, I found the drums to be the least enjoyable instrument of the lot - it's terribly frustrating to be at such constant odds with the game about which notes you're actually hitting in time and which you aren't.

These games have never been known for their visuals... really, they're little more than window dressing. Still, some serious consideration has been given to this aspect of Rock Band, with new lighting effects, character animations and camera filters serving to spice up the experience as much as possible. This looks and acts much more like a live music video than ever before, and although the character animations sometimes feel jerky and choreographed, the powerful visual effects that accompany a song make Guitar Hero's setup look like an animatronic Chuck E Cheese stage show. All in all, the visuals are fine, if perhaps just a few steps down from the norm for a current-gen game. Most players won't be willing or able to remove their eyes from the note charts long to enjoy it anyway, so that's really something of a moot point. Besides, the real point of emphasis seems to be on the menus that eat up your time between songs. They feature beautiful art direction and careful attention to detail, which is something that gives them a certifiable leg up on the competition. This is a complete package, with no screen deemed too miniscule for the watchful eye of a talented artist, and that's something that really enhances the experience. Where Guitar Hero often feels like it's geared toward pre-teens with its gimmicky comic book / magazine vibe, Rock Band comes off as much more mature and adult-oriented without losing its edge... it's like comparing Metallica to the Aquabats.

Obviously, the final judgment of these games lies in the quality of their soundtracks, and Rock Band is without question the king of the hill on that front. It's a cliché to say this game has something for everyone, but it really does - tracks are scattered across dozens of genres, with music from the '60s all the way up to today. Perhaps most importantly, the vast majority of the tracks are original studio recordings, not a crowd of second rate musicians who sound nothing like the bands who made these songs famous. That's something Guitar Hero has been criticized for over the years, deservedly so, and it's nice to see they're making such a strong commitment here to remedy the situation. Although the disc isn't without its earaches, (the singer they brought in to mimic Geddy Lee on Tom Sawyer is terrible) they're much, much more scarce than ever before. While there are probably a dozen songs on Guitar Hero III that I can guarantee I'll never play again, I can really only name two or three that I'd put into the same category in Rock Band. Whether the selection process is that much more meticulous at Harmonix or their taste in music is just in tune with my own... either way, the end product is a happy gamer. I feel confident in saying this is the single greatest soundtrack ever compiled for a game.

I also feel confident in naming this one of the all-time best entries the music game genre has ever enjoyed. Even if it isn't the toughest game in my collection, even if the packed-in instruments have proven to be unreliable, even if the graphics didn't blow me away, it's not about all that. It's about how it transcends gaming to become a collaborative experience for everyone involved. It's about how it's simple enough for anyone to understand, but challenging enough to envelope the most war-hardened gamer. It's about the music, and the strikingly close replication of its creation. After about two months of regular sessions on the guitar with my wife providing vocals, spiced up by a near-weekly ongoing party with my coworkers, it struck me. Rock Band could become to this generation what a piano, sheet music and lyrics were to my grandparents. It provides that same kind of atmosphere, suitable for two participants or twenty. It's a community centerpiece, something that can be shared by all, whether they're actually handling the instruments or just observing. Sure, the critics will always be around to point out that you aren't "really" playing the instruments in question, but does that really matter? Rock Band isn't focused on creating your own music, or on even remotely matching the complexity of an actual guitar or drum set, it concerns itself instead with the very basics and, ultimately, more closely matching the excitement of a live show. And, at the very least, this game is opening the mechanics of music composition and basic rhythm up to audiences that never would've even begun to seriously investigate it in the past.

This represents a polar shift in the musical landscape, an open invitation to both the musically inclined and the tone deaf to step inside and see what all the fuss is about. It's a new way for listeners to enjoy music, for them to get even closer to songs they thought they already knew through and through. It's everything I'd hoped it could be and more. And, though it does still have its hang-ups, it's a game I'll still be playing literally years from now. I can't even remember the last game I could say something like that about. It's almost completely replaced Guitar Hero in my house, improving upon its every facet of its premise in every conceivable fashion. It's not perfect, but it is incredibly close. If you've got friends with even a passing interest in rock, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.4

Friday, May 25, 2007

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories

Initially, Rockstar hinted that unlike its predecessor, Liberty City Stories, this Vice City Story would remain a PSP exclusive and never make the short jump over to the greener pastures of the big PlayStation 2. I guess its life as a portable-exclusive didn't quite reach their expectations, however, since it was just four months before the developers went back on their word and released a value-priced port for indoor play. The original theory I'd heard tossed around was that all hands were needed on deck for development of the upcoming GTA IV, which makes sense... but if the decision came down to hurry this translation through to the PS2, I have to wonder about the quality of the team assigned. Still, so much of this game feels like an afterthought, I can't imagine that the port team alone is to blame.

In this latest chapter, the franchise is once again bound firmly in the land of yuppies, new wave music, Reaganomics and androgyny. The magnificent decade that was the eighties continues to provide fertile grounds for parody, and as a resident of south Florida myself, a lot of the regional barbs and comments showcased in VCS landed dead-on. There's no shortage of material for mockery here, and Rockstar has never shied from that kind of an opportunity. But despite such an abundance of cannon fodder, the Vice City Story didn't connect with me in the same way as the first few PS2 chapters of the series. I found it lacking in personality, which is certainly nothing I'd accuse of previous GTAs... or maybe it was just a distinct personality it was missing. After all, you can only tell the same kind of joke so many times before your audience starts yearning for something different.

As the proverbial tip of the iceberg, Grand Theft Auto's cast has always leaned toward the cartoonish, and it's worked thus far because the games themselves function so well as a parody of whatever culture happens to cross in front of their sarcastic crosshairs. Yet the names and faces behind the tale of Vice City Stories take this whole concept notably further than their ancestors. I'm not sure when or where, but at some point, these characters cross over from sharply witty to uncomfortably campy. Their dialog largely exists not to advance the story or inspire you to pursue the next mission, but because it's raunchy and / or funny to reminisce about. And, in so doing, the individuals who drive the story lose much of their charm and intelligence.

To be frank, I didn't really care about these characters. Vic, the player-controlled lead, is probably the most straight-laced hero in the series thus far, but he's so easily manipulated it's astonishing. He pines about how drugs ruin families and how he doesn't want to be involved with that kind of a business, but then immediately turns around and accepts a job rescuing floating bags of coke from the bay. He gives his idiot brother more chances to destroy everything that he holds dear than could ever be understood. His love interest, Louise, comes and goes from the storyline at her own convenience. If they need bait for a kidnapping mission, she'll mysteriously appear during the short cutscene leading up to the gameplay, but when there's no call for a damsel in distress, she straight-up disappears. The supporting characters are as good as ever, (I especially liked Reni, the trans-gender commercial director with a heart of gold) but without a good lead cast they really don't get the chance to shine that they did in the earlier games.

That's not to say it's all bad. Much of the storyline serves to flesh out the environment we were dropped into as Tommy Versetti, upon the original release of GTA: Vice City. It's nice to get a little perspective on the drug lords who were already installed in the city before Tommy's arrival. That fleshing-out process makes the original stand tall as a much more epic, thought out series of events, and any time a prequel can enhance and improve upon the original, it's good news on all fronts. There's also a lengthy series of missions and interactions with a certain 80's pop culture icon with a receding hairline and a penchant for singing from behind a drum set, which at the very least should be enough to bring a smile to your face. It's still an enjoyable, entertaining rampage... but it doesn't measure up to its daunting legacy.

Unfortunately, the game's limitations aren't just restricted to a storytelling capacity. I found the missions to be repetitive, especially if you've played the other games in the series, with very few entirely original inclusions. This is veiled fairly well, with new car types, voice-overs and packages thrown in to add a little variety, but at the end of the day a "capture and retrieve" mission is still a "capture and retrieve" mission. Gameplay is also terribly glitchy, almost to the point that I'd call it unfinished. When you near a car's top speed, it goes into a bizarre shaky sort of convulsion, which affects both the look and the feel of the experience, and the slow rendering of solid objects (such as a telephone pole or a palm tree) remains a major problem, especially at high speeds.

Police are EVERYWHERE in this release, too. They must make up around 40-50% of the city's population, and spawn mercilessly from the most unlikely places when you're being chased. Trying to escape your star rating by driving into the back of an abandoned movie studio? Nah, there just so happened to be a cop car or three parked back there... or so VCS would lead you to believe. Enormous initial load times are still a fact of life here, which is disappointing. I'd hoped that they could apply the technology that brought us the obscenely large land mass of San Andreas, doing away with those aggravating load screens as you cross the bridge that separates the two halves of Vice City - not so. Really, this feels like it's running on a PSP emulator within the PS2's technical framework. It plods along in areas that this hardware should be able to handle with ease, and pales visually in comparison to the aforementioned GTA:SA.

This is in no means an easy game. It follows the GTA trend of presenting its most difficult missions about three quarters of the way through the story, then lightening up a bit in time for the final showdown. Where other titles in the series would achieve this spike in difficulty through genuinely challenging missions and high-risk scenarios, this return to Vice City chooses to instead amp up on the cheap hits, surprise attacks and, ultimately, the aggravation. After adding it all up, I've determined that at this late stage in its life cycle, the current iteration of the Grand Theft Auto legacy just isn't really all that much fun to actually sit down and play any more.

As far as the in-game controls go, some subtle modifications have been made to the gun-wielding configuration, but this system is still in need of a major overhaul. Vic really enjoys turning his back on his enemies, then firing over his left shoulder, for some ungodly reason, which naturally decreases your accuracy substantially. It's also become much more difficult to cycle through a series of targets than ever before, which is bizarre because that's one thing the previously existing setup seemed to accomplish fairly easily. Cars have also become much more difficult to handle, and tires are twice as likely to pop. If there's gunfire and it would suck for your tire to blow out, rest assured that that you'll be on the market for a new vehicle shortly.

Likewise, this graphics engine has seen much better days. Not to harp on that same, singular point, but these visuals really haven't aged all that well. Characters are beginning to look cheap and underdeveloped, and the little touches that always set this series apart are becoming fewer and further in between. For instance, I caught sight of a character whose lips kept moving long after he'd finished talking during an important cutscene. While that's a relatively minor thing, and likely something I'd have overlooked in another title, it's something that never would've seen the light of day in an earlier Grand Theft Auto. Sure, it's never going to compare to the kind of visuals a Saint's Row or Gears of War can deliver on the newest generation of hardware... that doesn't mean it can't hold its own all the same. I was adequately impressed by what was delivered with the original Vice City, or even San Andreas, and VCS doesn't even hold a torch to even those elder statesmen. Rockstar's attention was clearly elsewhere, which is a real shame.

Fortunately, where the rest of the game underachieves, the in-game music, radio and commentaries don't follow suit. After lagging notably in the audio department with Liberty City Stories, this return to Vice City also represents a return to outstanding radio content. Long a cornerstone of the GTA series, the gamut of genres, personalities and social commentaries present on each vehicle's in-dash stereo system provides much of the game's wry sense of humor and overall personality. The original GTA:VC delivered huge in this department, and remains my favorite soundtrack of the series, but VCS gives it a serious run for its money. The tone remains decidedly new wave, but there's also a strong catalog of hair metal, old school hip hop and jazz, not to mention a couple channels' worth of insane talk radio chatter. Occasionally the programming can get to be a bit repetitive, especially later in the game when you've presumably heard everything twice over, but it's nowhere near as big a problem as you'd imagine. There's a TON of material here, and almost all of it is top notch stuff.

Aural excellence notwithstanding, it's a good thing that this will probably be the series' last appearance on this generation of hardware, because it's badly, badly in need of a refurb. Most of the time, I found myself wondering if I was actually playing a legitimate Grand Theft Auto or one of the multitude of crappy knock-offs that have emerged to take a ride on its coattails over the last few years. Maybe as a portable-only release this would've cut it, but as a stand-alone home console title, it feels cheaply made and subpar, which isn't something I'm used to receiving from a box with that classic logo emblazened across its midsection.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 4.8

Sunday, May 13, 2007

New Super Mario Bros.

If I were asked to name one title in particular that's responsible for my life-spanning interest in console gaming, like so many others of my generation, I'd have to name the original Super Mario Brothers. I can still vividly remember the day I walked into the house of a friend of a friend and saw it shining there on that mildly-sized living room television set. I couldn't tell you whose house it was, who had led me there, how old I was, nor how long I stuck around to absorb the experience, but that one moment remains burnt into the depths of my memory and my imagination. In the twenty-plus years following that meeting, I've enjoyed some ups and some downs with the industry - even walking away from the scene for several years during my adolescence. And, while I've experienced many hundreds of games of comparable stature, magnitude and excellence since that original NES blockbuster, none have really recaptured the sense of ingenuity, imagination and innocence that poured from that first title.

Many Mario titles have come and gone since that original side-scroller took the nation by storm, some better than others, and the ultimate goal of reclaiming those old senses has always been paramount. For nearly a decade, the realm of the 2D platformer was owned by the mushroom kingdom. Every argument regarding the series would start and end with Nintendo's front man. But then the series took the leap to three dimensions, and things weren't quite the same. Mario 64 was an enjoyable game with a few control and camera hangups, neither of which were problems with previous games. Super Mario Sunshine addressed those concerns, but the game itself felt almost like self-parody with its over-the-top atmosphere and childlike characters and motivations. The series seemed to have lost its way, parallel to the corporation that had produced it since day one.

This New Super Mario Brothers carries with it a lofty goal; to marry the white knuckle, high quality 2D platforming of the legendary first games in the series with the refined 3D sensibilities, graphical possibilities and processing power of the later chapters. It presents a two-dimensional world as rendered by a decidedly three-dimensional engine. It grants players a single, uncontrolled camera angle, complete with the traditional limitations. If Mario falls off the edge of the camera's display, whether it be over the side of a cliff or pressed between a line of bricks and the left edge of a self-scrolling level, he sacrifices a life. Simple as that. Once again, you're presented with a short list of limitations and the rest is up to you. No more cheap, surprise deathtraps hiding beyond the camera's unpredictable eye.

In the tradition of those which had come before, the basic storyline is kept extremely simple and underexplained. The Princess has been kidnapped, Mario has a hunch about who's responsible, and the best way to make everything right again is to dash through eight worlds' worth of debatably cognizant mushrooms, beetles and turtles. After recent games had lost sight of this simple formula, introducing bundles of new concepts, characters and tools, (what the hell was the deal with that stupid water-cannon-backpack, anyway?) it really is a breath of fresh air to return to such familiar confines. We've reached a day and age where the average gamer must set aside several hours' worth of time just to begin a new title, what with the limitless supply of cutscenes, on-screen text, explanations of in-game mechanics and so on. It's really eye opening to boot up NSMB, see that the princess has been kidnapped and begin your game immediately.

That first level, an almost-direct replication of the first stage of that original Super Mario Brothers, immediately sets the tone for what's to come. It's warmly familiar, something that I'll confess brought a genuine smile to my face, an instantly recognizable trip down retro avenue. But just as soon as you reach the point where you're wondering aloud if this is just a hand-held Super Mario All-Stars with perks, it gently reminds you of its own fresh identity.

All of the original power-ups are there, from the traditional power-up mushroom to the much-missed fire flower, (complete with the classic white-overall, red-shirt Mario wardrobe!) but they're accompanied by a trio of all-new powers. Two new varieties of mushroom are introduced to the psychedelic fun, allowing Mario or Luigi to grow to an astronomical size (roughly three-quarters the size of the entire screen) or shrink to a miniscule proportion. Additionally, the blue turtle shell that's been heretofore associated with the Mario Kart line is introduced to the main series for the first time. While wearing the shell, Mario can climb inside while stationary to become temporarily invulnerable, or do so while running to smash blocks, ricochet around the screen and unleash all sorts of chaos upon the world before invariably falling into a bottomless pit.

These new powers are initially mesmerizing, but ultimately prove to lack the purpose and functionality of their brethren in previous chapters. I found the Mega Mario power-up to be all flash and no substance, since its use is forbidden against later bosses and most levels beyond the first handful of worlds rely more heavily on maze navigation. It's nice to stomp around the overworld, breaking off pipes and blocks and whatnot for the fifteen seconds or so you're granted before the power fades away, but it loses its appeal fairly quickly and there's never a time when you absolutely must have it. Likewise for each of the other powers. Unless you're a completist in search of every last golden coin and each hidden world, there's little reason to bother with the underpowered Mini Mario, and the turtle suit is frustratingly useless. It's nice when you need to smash a few well-placed blocks, but after the first dozen times Mario automatically climbs into the shell at full speed just before making a precise jump, you'll develop an aversion to the power-up as a whole. Each of these new powers is visually very appealing and a great concept, but they just aren't integrated into the progression of the game itself. They're never vital, and for that reason they never really make the leap from cool concept to enjoyable new feature.

There's also no flight in this game, which is a significant departure from every title in the series since Super Mario 3, and serves to make things significantly more difficult. Sure, that's not the only thing that makes NSMB every bit as spirit-crushingly difficult as its predecessors, but it's a factor. Make no bones about it, this is a tough game - doubly so if you want to go back and collect all of the hidden extras, as I did. I was still reeling from my recent play-through of SMB3, and how incredibly tough that game really was, when I sat down to play around with this one. It's every bit as difficult, perhaps even more so. If you're looking to complain about a game that's gone soft and lost sight of what a challenge it once was, you're going to have to keep looking.

The amount of replay value provided in this tiny package is astronomical, even if the payoff for finally reaching 100% is less than striking. The main game offers two entirely optional worlds. Not stages, entire worlds - the only way to reach boards three and six is to defeat the preceding bosses as Mini Mario, which is no small feat in and of itself. Add to that the ongoing hunt for the golden star coins scattered around the land, (three coins are hidden in each level, amounting to a total of well into the hundreds) the dual multiplayer modes and the multitude of touch screen-centric mini games, and you'll begin to see what I'm talking about. This is an amazingly deep game, but the only thing you're rewarded with upon completion is a set of three stars next to your save game on the "load" screen and perhaps a wealth of personal satisfaction. I'd expected something more, but I can't really fault the overall package for that. It just seems like a cheap shortcut for a game that is otherwise overflowing with attention to detail.

For all of its new bells and whistles, this is still the game that the original, two-buttoned NES control pad was developed for. That means it had already vaulted over many of the hurdles that usually stand in the way of a simple, effective control scheme, and the developers rightly chose to merely build upon that rock-solid foundation, not reconstruct it from the ground up. The D-Pad moves you around, the A button jumps, B shoots fireballs, sprints and picks stuff up... end of story. Simple, easy to learn, effective, never gets in the way. The touch pad is used sparingly, but not infrequently, and primarily serves as your quick access point for stored power-ups (you're only afforded one slot). That bottom screen also serves as a storage point for information and statistics that would have otherwise bogged down the in-game screen. Inconsequential stuff like your current point total, number of lives and location are displayed down there, easily visible when you're curious, but never intrusive when you don't need them.

Visually, this is every bit a 3D homage to the heyday of the 2D platformer. Nearly everything appears to have been rendered in polygons and textured, but that's not the focus - honestly, the modern technology is merely used to add simple touches to the style that would have been impossible with simple sprites. The subtle zoom in for a close-up as Mario celebrates after finishing a level would've been hideous if they'd done it in pixels, for example. The sheer size and number of moving objects on the screen when Mega Mario is present, or when one of the few enormous enemies are on the screen would have unquestionably resulted in some major slowdown if the DS's tiny engine were trying to punch out that many squares. Even something as simple as the fluidity of every creature's motion would have been a major hurdle, were it animated frame-by-frame rather than vectorized and set into motion. This is a game that looks like the best 2D game ever created, and never overtly portrays itself as anything else. An utterly brilliant artistic direction that works beautifully here.

Again, true to what had come before, everything you'll see on the screen is overflowing with personality, life and attention to detail. Whether it's something as everyday as the appearance of a hill in the background or the look and feel of a goomba, koopa or squid, it's all handled masterfully and fully realized as it was intended to be. Different creatures walk with a unique bounce in their step. One can gather the personality of a fish from the way it moves. Although he only makes a few strategic appearances, (for the most part, the villainy is conducted by his son) Bowser himself has never looked as menacing and dangerous as he does here. It's a gorgeous game.

The in-game audio provides a wonderful combination of old and new, in regards to both the soundtrack and the incidental sound effects that go along with almost any action. The old school SMB power-up noises, from the classic 1-Up ditty to the sound of a spit fireball to the famed Mario jump are all there, classic in their execution but mildly refined in their performance. It's like remastering an old LP in 5.1 surround - it's the same stuff, it just sounds crisper than before. Likewise, these retouched, remastered old songs sound fresh and exciting without losing any of their charm or appeal, which is something that's much easier said than done.

This is positively a must-have for Nintendo's current hand held treasure, and goes a long way toward proving the company's dedication to the system. Neither the original Game Boy Advance nor the SP had an original SMB like this onboard, and what the New Super Mario Brothers delivers was worth the wait. It's just long enough, just difficult enough, and while I wish the new powers would have been expanded just a bit further, they are what they are. It's a great game to pick up and play for anywhere from five minutes to five hours, which makes it a perfect candidate for a portable. Add this thing to your library if you haven't already, because they don't make them like this very often.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 9.6