Up-scaled Wii engine, or genuine leap in graphical detail?
Now that the dust has settled on Wii U's launch, a number of people have spent extensive time with New Super Mario Bros. U and seen the first ever HD appearance of Mario outside of the Dolphin emulator on Wii. For those that do put a certain stock in visual fidelity as well as simple enjoyment of their games, some have wondered whether Nintendo customised its "New" Super Mario Bros. engine to make use of Wii U's greater horsepower, or whether it simply up-scaled existing assets and, therefore, did what an emulator had done years before.
As always, the Digital Foundry team has taken up the challenge to answer that very question. It directly compared New Super Mario Bros. Wii running at an equivalent emulated resolution with the new game and came up with a mixed set of results, with some assets clearly being recycled and others showing greater care and optimisation. Basic character models and animations appear to be re-used, yet significant visual enhancements can be seen in lighting effects, such as that from fire, as well as new effects for dust from Mario's running or the burst of flash when an enemy is stomped. It's similarly mixed with enemies and environments, with some examples being up-scaled existing assets but many others showing detailed improvements to influence the overall impact.
Examples of stand-out visual performance include the Painted Swampland stage, with its art-style arriving briefly but memorably, while there's little doubt that some stages have been produced to make greater use of the higher resolution and new technical options. Here's what the Digital Foundry team had to say in its summary.
With the release of New Super Mario Bros. 2 on Nintendo 3ds just a few months earlier, the concern was that Nintendo may be playing it too safe with its mascot's main-line appearances. Early demo footage of the game, first unveiled at E2 2011 as New Super Mario Bros. Mii, even showed background assets being used from the Wii version's desert stages, such as the pyramids and cacti. Fortunately, the final Wii U release steers clear of rehashing anything to quite that level - though there has been some duplication involved as far as the over-arching structure is concerned.
To summarise, we see Mario and most of his adversaries making the jump practically as-is from the Wii edition released three years ago, with no noticeable rejig in detail. Even so, an effort has clearly been made to push the series forward technically, with dynamic shadows, higher resolution alpha, and lighting making an appearance to subtle effect, and most level assets built completely from the ground upwards. We also appreciate the move towards stylising the backgrounds and some enemies with what appears to be an oil-painted finish, rather than blindly taking advantage of any technical tricks afforded by the stronger hardware for the sake of it.
It's perhaps also a frustration that the visual styles Nintendo are touching on here - such as the Vincent van Gogh-inspired stage - aren't getting more breathing room, and that other styles of that extreme aren't represented in later levels. Nevertheless, modest as it is, New Super Mario Bros. U marks a promising technical leap forward over its predecessor; not just for the resolution boost up to 720p but also for the range of subtle visual tweaks that accompany it.