It’s not often that a big franchise to which you have a huge emotional attachment releases a game that feels mostly like what you wanted it to be, without it just being a rehash of what you already loved. But, gee willikers, Nintendo has absolutely pulled it off with Super Mario Bros. Wonder.
Mario, as a character, has done so, so much. He’s a knight, tennis star, multi-discipline Olympian, supernatural MMA fighter, brother, and participant in what I can only assume is the world’s most complicated polycule with extremely intensive roleplaying scenarios (it’s the only way the Bowser and Peach kidnap thing makes sense). I honestly don’t know how he has time to keep up with his plumbing business.
I had just assumed that Nintendo had run out of 2D ideas for him and, like most 42-year-olds, he was going to move on to completely different passions just to feel something again. Instead, Nintendo has brought him back to a new 2D(ish) side-scrolling adventure with new costumes, yet still managed to keep the game feeling fresh, reinventing Mario as an elephant who likes Peach to have some junk in her trunk.
What is Super Mario Bros. Wonder?
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the latest side-scrolling Mario title, and I’m pleased to report that drugs were almost certainly a factor in the making of this game.
A lot of what you know and love about Mario games is there: the story doesn’t make sense, the gang’s all there, Bowser seems to be a terrible father, and yet his children still seem willing to die for him, and Mario spends most of his time running to the right jumping on enemies and collecting coins.
What’s different is that there’s a new elephant suit, he wears a drill-bit suit quite a bit, there are smaller puzzle levels to break up the platforming action, and every now and then, the world gets super weird.
See, there is a new item called the Wonder Flower. When you activate the Wonder Flower, everything will change in an unexpected way. Maybe you’ll turn into a blob, perhaps the lights will turn off, maybe you’ll become a boulder, perhaps a massive killer boulder will appear, or any number of other things that turn the level upside down. The only thing you can be sure about is that it will be delightfully stressful.
What makes Super Mario Bros. Wonder so good?
It’s hard to say. I think the main thing that makes it good is that I love 2D Mario games and never really got into the 3D ones, and perhaps there is an overwhelming sense of relief that Nintendo hasn’t forgotten his roots.
Wonder feels just fresh enough that I’m excited about the new-ish ideas it brings and that kids who are getting this as their first game will be able to remember distinct elements about what made the game memorable for them.
2D Mario Bros. games have always been important to me. Watching my cousins play a SNES Mario Bros. game is one of my earliest memories, if not my earliest memory. The first game that made me fall in love with playing games was Super Mario Land on the Gameboy Pocket. The game that got my wife and me through lockdown 2 with some amount of sanity was New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. If you’re a gamer of a certain age, then loving 2D Mario is just baked into you. So, it’s really hard for me to say whether I would love Wonder as much if I wasn’t bringing all this baggage to it. I am not ashamed to admit how much I love the comforting familiarity that comes with this new game.
Outside of my own nostalgia, one of the things that makes Wonder special is that it rewards you for exploring and trying things. Finding secrets is always a part of every Mario game, and Wonder continues the tradition, but I find that the gameplay is a bit more varied than other 2D Mario games. Not a lot, let’s not allow this to get out of hand, but there’s a lot of creativity in the puzzles, and if you get sick of just running to the right and bopping villains you can jump into a search quest or other level type.
I also really love how much effort Nintendo puts into making Nintendo games playable for all skill levels (as long as they’re determined to try, try again). Having Nabbit and Yoshi means it’s something you can play with a first-time gamer or someone who just kinda sucks at games. That’s important in a mixed-skill household.
Another thing that makes the game stick out is its badge system, which lets you choose which abilities you want to bring in the game, and some levels require you to try a few and mix it up to access all the areas. Of course, there is one badge that’s massively overpowered, but I don’t want to spoil you. I’ll just say that it’s one of the first silver-level badges you get. Lifesaver. So good.
What’s not so great about Super Mario Bros. Wonder?
All of that said, the game is not perfect. All throughout the game, there are these little talking flowers. At first, they seem delightful and charming. But, as the game goes on, they become extremely annoying, particularly when you’re going through one of the more difficult levels and have to repeatedly hear some little flower say “wooooooow” or “that was tough!” with a voice that can only be described as “what if Clippy was a youth pastor who thought he could skateboard?”
I also found navigating the world map to be quite tedious. Sure, there is artistic talent on display, allowing us to marvel at the wonder (get it) of a large, sprawling map. But, if I wanted to navigate a map that makes it difficult to see where I’m going next and takes slightly too long to traverse, I would be playing an open-world game. There is a fine line between “large map with lots of content and delightful secrets to discover” and “this is getting a bit ridiculous now, and I just want to play the next level”, and Super Mario Bros. Wonder is slightly on the wrong side of that line. Not enough to be a real problem, but enough that it takes a tenth of a point off my mental score for the game.
I also just hate Prince Florian. He is an annoying character, everything he says makes me want to stab, and I question how good of a ruler he is if he has so many castles when so many of his people seem to be suffering. There is nothing objectively wrong with him as a character, I just have an irrational hatred of him and everything he stands for.
Plus, there were some levels where it seemed like the developers just wanted to do something different to other Mario games, but without any deeper intention than that. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it felt like something that could have been fixed with a couple of extra drafts.
None of these complaints change how much I recommend the game, they just show that this game isn’t quite perfect, and that’s fine.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder Verdict
Wonder doesn’t have the same gravitas as New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, however it brings enough ideas, gameplay and fun that it’s a must-play for every current and future Mario fan. It doesn’t quite capture that same excitement as many of the 2D Marios that have gone before, but that’s such a high bar that any game able to reach it is a once-in-a-generation unicorn. To stretch that metaphor to breaking point, Super Mario Bros. Wonder isn’t a unicorn, but it is a horse with a bone spur on its forehead, which is close enough.