I’m on the edge of my seat, my eyes fixed open. Sweat drips from my forehead, and my palms are soaked. Alas, my grip is firm and steadfast, clutching the control while excitement and fear are held in equilibrium. I’m nervous, shaking. Whatever spawn of hell awaits me on the other side will no doubt test every muscle, every vertebrae, every hit point of my gaming finesse. Dare I deem myself ready?
As the door yawns open, the tension is palpable, exhilaration and trepidation unrelenting in their poise. That last stage… that one life remaining, I… I don’t know if I’m going to-
A black screen. A peak of anticipation.
The release of New Super Mario Bros. U was no shooting star, I’ve come to realise. And it being the fourth iteration of new 2D Mario, I find myself asking, will my wish ever come true? This wish, let it be known, was that the bosses in New Super Mario Bros. U would be more challenging than those of Marios past. Oh, have I jinxed it now?
Don’t go confusing this shooting star with an actual star. You and I both know that Mario is far more than a star. I mean, he collects stars, and then feeds them to his starship, in space! But star-quality level design touched with star-bursting resolution aren’t enough to bear the weight of those red double-doors, which all but signify a ten-second boss fight. Those doors, they’re a symbol: a symbol of fear, of danger, of impending doom. The gradual open-and-close, the eerie moan on rusty hinges, and that sinuous red: they’re all part of the same build up.
But the build up… to what, exactly?
Kamek doesn’t help, what with her cackling and zooming across the arena, sprinkling magical dust over Boom Boom, the same dust that turned Baby Bowser into a monster half the size of Yoshi’s island yet now does next to nothing.
And then there’s the introduction, with the Koopalings having this time taken the helms of ships whose bows are giant faces of their very selves! As they perpetually circle their castles, they too cackle and giggle, as if they’re sure they can squash Mario the same way he squashed them in all confrontations past. They’re bound to prove troublesome this time around.
The castles are teeming with pitfalls and traps, and they’re crawling with enemies. But at the summit of all this is a hyperactive Koopaling who takes exactly three hits to overcome. Having the top of one’s scalp as his primary weakness is well enough. But three hits? Blimey, each boss is a mini-game that takes more effort to retry than it does to move on. (I kid you not, I often find myself not stomping on my adversary just to witness what havoc his attacks can actually wreak. Not much, it would seem.) With their very own castle and airship, Bowser’s henchmen must have at least considered an armor upgrade, right?
In other words, it’s all build up and no finale. At least, no proper finale. This tradition of making everything in the game challenging except the bosses is eating away at me. Every time, I tell you, suspense gets left hanging, anticipation stripped bare, the excitement, the thrill, withering in the darkness.
Perhaps I should reiterate: I love Mario. In fact, my Koopaling clobbering wouldn’t be so if each boss was a nuisance, a menace, an incessant blow fly begging to be splat. But they’re not. They’re fun! Fun like the magic-imbued bosses in Yoshi’s Island; fun like every boss in Donkey Kong Countries 1, 2 and 3, each of whose looming presence made me cower in fear, too panicked to jump on queue.
Hyperbole aside, I’m older and wiser, and over the last fifteen years, these emotions have waned significantly. But the joy and the fun haven’t; and for the bosses of platformers past, much of this fun came from knowing that I very well could die. It’s a fine balance, to be sure, but I long for this fun, and if anyone can craft it, it’s Nintendo.
When I think back, I’m not surprised that New Super Mario bosses aren’t very challenging. Be it in Super Mario World or any Super Mario Bros. game, almost all bosses were downed in three hits, and none of them were particularly hard. All the while, however, they imposed a special kind of intensity. While three hits seemed an easy task for me, it was just as likely that I’d foil and die. Perhaps it was the unfair odds: one hit, and Mario would be stripped of fire flower and mushroom all at once. Now, the playing fields are even; you too can stack up to as many as three hits.
In any case, the three-hit tradition is what it is: tradition. New Super Mario Bros. 1, 2, Wii and U all adhere to it. They’re new, but they’re still Super Mario Bros., and three hearts to a boss is part of that Super Mario brand.
Fair enough; I like tradition, too. I love the side-scrolling levels and the power ups; I love the cheep cheeps and the goombas; and I love the classic sounds and the age-old flag pole. But the bosses? You might as well replace them with flag poles! After all, they’re over almost as fast as that end-level hurrah.
To be fair, bosses don’t get their own stages. Nay, each boss resides at the end of a level, and this could very well dampen the bosses’ difficulties Nintendo may have otherwise imposed. But why strip a boss of its powers when you could add a second checkpoint? It confounds me, this structure. They make each boss more of a treat than a challenge. I get it; the castle was hard. Yet it was not the castle but the boss that got hyped up with all his giggling and sneering and koopa-fied airshipping! Naturally, after all this build up, I expected a fun challenge at the end of the fortress. And it was fun, you know, until I moved.
With every release of a New Super Mario Bros. game, I’m both excited and disappointed. Excellent platforming and timeless nostalgia always abound, but so do the fish in barrels known as bosses. I long for those close calls and those near misses, those bosses where each hit to them is an accomplishment all in itself.
Perhaps it means breaking tradition, giving them six hits instead of three. I don’t mind. Each boss is as fun as the rest of them, but each boss, without fail, is overtly short and simple. New Super Mario Bros. U is the fourth new 2D Mario, yet convention remains unchallenged. My expectations for the bosses in future Marios are aptly low. Still, in all this kerfuffle, I cling to hope, for if there’s ever a time where a shooting star can grant a wish, it’s now… right Santa?
What are your thoughts on New Super Mario Bros. U’s bosses? What do you hope for in future 2D Mario instalments? Let us know in the comments and be sure to visit the New Super Mario Bros. U Forum!