It is perhaps redundant to say that Nintendo has had a very, very good console generation. Out of the ashes of the disastrous WiiU came the Switch, Nintendo’s first truly hybrid handheld, combining the convenience of gaming on the go with the horsepower of a dedicated, under-the-TV console. It was a union that felt obvious and right, as though Nintendo finally understood how to approach hardware in a way that leveraged both its strengths and its audience’s interests.
Just as Nintendo was locking in the ideal approach to hardware, it was similarly arriving at an epiphany about how to handle its franchises. Zelda, Mario, Smash Bros., Mario Kart, Bayonetta, Xenoblade, Animal Crossing and many others are rich in history and ripe with potential. With a judicious combination of re-releases, remasters and original titles, Nintendo clearly reached a new level of understanding when it comes to where its franchises had come from, where they are now and where they should go in the future.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the latest example of a Nintendo at the height of its power – totally aware of Mario’s legacy in both a character and gameplay sense, and yet possessed of a crystal-clear vision for what the future of 2D Mario games should be. Much like Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, Super Mario Bros. Wonder feels at all times both familiar and contemporary, comforting and challenging, a celebration of the past that still boldly invents a new future.
It’s a truly, truly remarkable game. To play it is to smile – to be spirited away to simpler times when this type of game was what video games were. The wonder that we experienced when we played these games back on the NES and SNES – Nintendo has managed to recapture it here in a 2D platformer that is so bursting with innovation and creativity that it feels, at times, impossible. Like how could any one game be so full of so many different ideas, all of them executed flawlessly, all of them so FUN, no matter how challenging they might be.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is likely one of the swansongs for the Switch – perhaps the last flagship first-party exclusive before the next Switch arrives (likely next year), and if that’s the case then this is one hell of a farewell party for the little hand-held that could, because Super Mario Bros. Wonder is…wonderful.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder begins much the same way that every single other Mario games does – Bowser is bad and he’s doing bad Bowser things in the Flower Kingdom. This time he’s taken over the castle and transformed it into his own flying fortress, suspended in the middle of the kingdom. By collecting Royal Seeds hidden throughout various levels, Mario and his friends can break down Bowser’s defences, bop him on the head three times and restore peace to the land.
Immediately, Super Mario Bros. Wonder makes a striking impression owing to how rich, colourful and detailed this new rendition of the Flower King is. Screenshots do not do this game justice. They do not showcase how much is animated in the foreground and background, or how much range and visual diversity there is in just a single level. They don’t show the angry facial expressions that Goombas make when you draw near to them, or the surprise on their faces when you bounce on their noggins.
Wonder feels at all times both familiar and contemporary, comforting and challenging, a celebration of the past that still boldly invents a new future
There is a familiarity to all of these characters, enemies and locations that feels authentically ‘Mario,’ but every single thing has some little touch or flourish that makes it feel significantly refreshed for this latest outing.
It runs beautifully too. The 2D perspective gives Nintendo a lot of headroom, allowing them to pack a huge amount of visual detail into every scene, while also retaining rock solid performance no matter how quickly you find yourself speeding through levels.
As impressive as this visual presentation is, Nintendo managed to outdo itself with audio design. The soundtrack in this game is inspired – a mix of boppy Mario theme remixes that immediately lift your spirits no matter how down in the doldrums you might be, to broody, ambient tracks that set the scene for perilous dungeons or dank mushroom mines, right through to actual musical numbers featuring piranha plants as backup singers and you jumping to the beat to keep the track going. Level music will change based on which power up is active, a playful trombone taking the lead whenever your character transforms into an elephant for instance (more on those transformations later). Music will subtly shift if you enter a secret area, or even if you so much as crouch down low. It’s as though Nintendo looked at every single level and asked, “How can make the music as responsive as the visuals?” and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any game do it quite so well.
This being a 2D Mario game, Super Mario Bros. Wonder utilises the tried-and-true overworld map and level structure that has served it so well over the preceding four decades (yes, it really has been that long).
Across a number of Worlds (the total number of which or themes I won’t spoil), Mario races from node to node, completing levels to collect Wonder Seeds which open up further levels. Some parts of the overworld are static tracks that Mario cannot explore, while others are more open areas, allowing Mario to move freely. These are only very small areas to explore but even then many of them can be rich with secrets, hiding bonus coins, 1Ups, shortcuts to other parts of the map or even entire levels. You are definitely encouraged to poke and prod at every corner of these open world maps because you’ll almost always be rewarded for doing so.
It’s a philosophy present within the levels as well. Each and every one of them is stacked with secrets, be it invisible blocks, hidden pathways, tricksy pipes that will spit you out in the most unexpected of places – the list goes on. The level design on display here is an absolute masterclass, with each new level its own chapter in a curriculum that seems inexhaustible. One level will see you platforming on the back of a stampede of bison-like creates, while another will see time slow and then speed up in an undulating pattern that must be accounted for when timing your jumps and movements. Another will see you playing as a Goomba, avoiding enemies who are trying to devour you by hiding behind shrubbery. It’s Mario meets Metal Gear, and it’s just one of dozens and dozens and dozens of gameplay scenarios that spill out of Super Mario Bros. Wonder like it’s a cup overfilled with ideas and creativity.
What makes all of this even more absurd is that for all of the innovation and creativity that each individual level brings, it’s only one half of the equation. The other half are the Wonder Flowers, which when collected transform levels yet again. They may make your character two or three times larger and able to crash through solid walls. They may transform you into a glob or sticky ooze, able to squeeze through tiny spaces. They may summon a rain of falling Super Stars, making you invulnerable while you race across a bed of spikes towards the finishing flag. The Wonder Flower effects are always brief, usually 60–90 seconds long, but they are the last bit of flourish to top you off as you approach the ending of a stage. Already impressed by the uniqueness and ingenuity of what you’ve seen, Nintendo keeps one final surprise in the bag, and it does this for each and every level, and you will never not be totally surprised at what they manage to come up with.
Another area that shines is the cast of characters, because it’s not just Mario here, it’s an entire cast of Flower Kingdom heroes – Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Daisy, Toads of multiple colour variants, Yoshis (again, plural) and even a Nabbit, the Flower Kingdom equivalent of the Hamburgler. You can swap between each of these characters at any time. They all play identically – the only difference is aesthetics and their glorious sound effects, so you really can just choose whichever character makes you happiest and off you go.
After that, it’s time to choose your badge, and this is where things start getting really crazy when it comes to things like exploration and speed-running.
Badges are essentially selectable, permanent power ups. You earn them in a variety of ways, and once you’ve unlocked them you can equip it from a menu and take it into whichever stage you please. They have the potential to really transform how you tackle a level. One badge gives you a parachute hat, massively increasingly the range of your jump. Another gives you more height on your jump when crouch for a second, and another will throw a vine out in front of you, allowing you to basically grapple to a wall. Then there are the more utility-focused badges, like one that will give you a Super Mushroom at the start of every level, while others give you coins every time you dispatch a foe or reveal secrets when you get near to them.
You’ve no doubt seen Mario as an elephant and you’re maybe thinking that that’s him wearing the elephant badge. No. The elephant transformation and the other power ups like it are a whole other game system we haven’t even talked about yet, one that is layered on top of the badges to provide even more variation and customisation when you play.
The elephant, the Fire Suit, the Drill Cap and the Bubble Suit are all power ups you get the same way you always got power ups in Mario – by headbutting a solid object. These power ups all appear in one level or another but you can take them into other levels if you keep them when you finish a level. So a level that doesn’t have a Drill Cap still has to withstand what the drill cap enables (burrowing under the floor, into the ceiling and being able to quickly destroy objects).
The level design on display here is an absolute masterclass, with each new level its own chapter in a curriculum that seems inexhaustible
All of this facilitates the creative experimentation that has been core to the success of two of the biggest games this year: Baldur’s Gate III and Tears of the Kingdom. Those games both provided a rich sandbox that allowed players to mix and match different mechanics, experimenting with each of them to produce surprising and unexpected results. That is absolutely one of the hallmark features of Super Mario Bros. Wonder too, the ability to take these numerous sandbox elements, combine them with one another, stand back to see the results and always think to yourself, “I’m a goddamn genius.” You may well be, but the real genius is Nintendo for giving you the tools to pull off whatever it was you did.
Super Mario Bros Wonder also manages to do some pretty impressive things with online play, though it is still a little held back by Nintendo’s historically poor multiplayer connectivity issues. . If you want to go online, you can do so through the menu at any time. After this, the game will begin dynamically matchmaking you with the ghosts of people who have completed these levels earlier. They don’t have any collision so they don’t get in the way, and they’re also kind of greyed out so they aren’t distracting, but they are extremely useful because they will often drop ‘Standees’ (cardboard cutouts of their characters) that will rescue you from death if your ghost can reach one within five seconds of biting the bullet.
In addition to this you can also invite your friends into Rooms, allowing you to play together and even race each other on almost any level. It’s here that the limits of Nintendo’s online systems REALLY surface. When playing with some friends, none of us were going to download some phone app for voice chat so that was off the table. We couldn’t message each other in-game to suggest which levels to do next (we relied on text messages for that) and the game’s interface does a poor job of telling you where your friends are or what they’re doing. In a game so perfectly designed and polished, the sub-standard nature of Nintendo’s current online ecosystem stands out all the more, and it’s a shame to see a small part of Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s potential undermined when solutions to all of this stuff have been in existence since the days of Xbox Live 22 years ago.
It is somewhat difficult to believe that in a year as good as the one we’re having right now, Nintendo manage to swing in at the last moment and release another GOTY contender, but that’s exactly what’s happened. I would say, though, that the success of Mario Wonder shouldn’t be viewed in the context of a single year, or even console generation. Rather, Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s achievement stretches back to the SNES days, when the last truly great 2D Mario games were released, and when those games stood at the pinnacle of visual presentation and game design. Since then, the 2D Mario outings have lived in the shadow cast by the superb 3D Mario outings, but no longer. Super Mario Bros. Wonder provides an experience so brimming with personality, innovation, creativity and charm that it thrusts the 2D perspective back into the centre of the way we think about Mario games, and if Nintendo sticks with this formula and builds on it, 2D Mario games are never going to have to play second fiddle ever again.
Reviewed on Switch // Review code supplied by publisher
- October 20, 2023