Super Mario Bros Wonder takes the plumber back to his 2D roots – and the result is one of the best games of the year. Our review:
What was the last 2D Mario game that filled you with wonder? Most people would agree that no other developer comes close to matching the plumber’s 3D adventures in feel or invention. But when it comes to side-scrollers, we’ve been spoiled by the indie scene’s ability to find fresh ideas in the act of running and jumping that show up the blandness of the New Super Mario Bros titles in the Wii and Wii U era.
As excellent as Super Mario Maker and its sequel was, it essentially reinforced the idea that the most creative 2D platforming wasn’t coming from within Nintendo. Thank goodness, then, for Super Mario Bros. Wonder, the first proper new 2D Mario game in more than a decade, which doesn’t just prove the critics wrong but packs in more ideas than whatever’s in your top 10 list of the year so far combined.
It’s a Mario game that does away with several traditions, perhaps the one generating the most headlines being that Mario’s original voice actor Charles Martinet has now been put out to pasture, while more welcome is that Wonder doesn’t fall back on the same rescue-the-princess plot (being able to play as Peach, Daisy, and Toadette, as well as multiple colours of Toads and Yoshis arguably makes this the most diverse roster the series has ever had). Another change is a less linear overworld structure, including a smart, flexible approach to difficulty – notably a star rating for each level – meaning that players looking for a challenge no longer need to wait until they’ve reached the post-game.
The star of the show, though, is the level design, which also offers a novel subversion of what you usually expect from a new Mario game. Traditionally, the highlight is a new power-up, so in Super Mario Bros 3 this was the tanooki leaf; in World it was the cape feather, while topping all of this in Odyssey was Cappy, which basically transformed Mario into just about anything. Sure, you can transform into an elephant now, which in all fairness is hilariously charming, the line exclaimed by Mario and pals whenever they nab an elephant fruit being, “Wowee zowee!”. Being a larger size also provides an extra touch to animations when you’re trying to squeeze through a pipe or door (regardless, no matter what you’re doing, character actions have never looked so expressive, even in a 3D Mario game). It is, however, more of a meme than a game-changer when it comes to how you approach a level, and not even shown on the game’s box art. Nope, that honour goes to the Wonder Flower.
Here’s the inspired thing about Wonder Flowers: they aren’t transformational power-ups for you, but rather the level itself, and it’s here where the creativity of Nintendo EPD runs wild. You might assume it’s a novel way to turn the level into a temporary drug trip (to be fair, it’s some pretty potent stuff – not speaking from experience) but it’s really an opportunity to flip the rules of a level on their head, take an existing theme to its extreme, or introduce something completely different. There’s even Odyssey-inspired transformations too, but the beauty is that you simply won’t know what to expect until you touch a Wonder Flower, so of course I’m not about to spoil any of them for you. All that I’ll say is that each one will have you either in awe or laughter or both, as Nintendo’s fun house seems to effortlessly spit out countless ideas, rarely using the same twice, and the hit rate is astonishingly high.
Which isn’t to say that the simple act of movement in a 2D Mario game isn’t a joy in its own right, because I think even if you took out the Wonder Flowers in each level (indeed, they’re not always in plain sight, either, so you’ll find yourself working a little more to find them in later levels), the 2D platforming is still very tight. But Super Mario Wonder is also an entry that manages to pack a variety of Mario’s movesets into one thanks to the badge system.
At a glance, you might just assume this is an optional way to adjust difficulty – and sometimes it is. Some badges mean you always start at Super Mushroom size, or another lets you survive one instant-death pit or lava fall, for instance. But there are also badges that grant you a moveset , such as the consecutive triple jump, or gives you a parachute cap to glide in the air briefly, or there’s one that lets you swim underwater while also destroying blocks in your path. You can also only equip one badge at a time so you might have to put some thought into how one badge might be better suited in a particular level or could be essential for reaching a secret area. And if you feel spoiled for choice, there’s even some cool challenge levels that make use of a specific badge ability.
Ultimately, they add flexibility to your playstyle, and it’s a better idea than locking a specific moveset to a character, such as the way Peach’s floaty jump is used to make her the designated ‘easy’ option. There are the Yoshis (and Nabbit) who act as the accessible part of the roster, but for the most part, it’s good that you can play the character you like without their ability being a factor.
Sure, some fans might have wished for another 3D follow-up akin to Odyssey, but Super Mario Wonder proves that side-scrolling Mario needn’t stick to being the safe, casual fare that it’s had a reputation for being in the previous decade. Nintendo EPD lets loose with creative ideas most studios would spend a lifetime trying to come up with, and it hardly puts a foot wrong (if I have to make one complaint, it’s those annoying talking flowers, though you can at least turn off the audio for that). It’s just a wonder that the Switch has had a Zelda and Mario all-timer emerge in the same year for the second time in its lifetime. Wowee zowee, indeed.
Wonder’s optional asynchronous online co-op takes surprise inspiration from both Dark Souls and Death Stranding, allowing you to help revive other players or offer hints to a level’s secrets. Purists can choose not to engage with this at all, though it’s especially fun to use in search party levels, as you work together to figure out the locations of five secret coins needed to make a Wonder Seed appear.
The most fun and inventive 2D Mario title since Super Mario World on SNES, Wonder deserves to be considered among the best games in the entire series.