It’s hard to look at new 2D Mario games with the same level of wonder—pun totally intended—as I do, say, Super Mario Galaxy or Super Mario Odyssey. Part of the reason is that a 3D Mario game feels bigger, has tons of surprises in store, and features inventive levels that you tend to remember years after you played them. Each time a new one comes out, it feels like it’s a placeholder under the next 3D game comes out to blow us all away. But seeing how Nintendo is known for their Mario games—heck, 30 years ago 2D side-scrollers was all they did—it’s no surprise they know a thing or two about creating games that impress us no matter their format.
- Tons of charming levels with their own unique gimmick to master
- Wonder Flower effects are dazzling and change up how you play
- Online features feel essential and create an immersive experience
- Later challenges are a bit easier than you’d hope
- Music isn’t on par with the rest of its wonders
Case in point, Super Mario Bros. Wonder, a game that fills you with so much joy and excitement throughout its many levels and amazes you in the same vein Super Mario World amazed the world decades ago. It may look like another unassuming side-scrolling platformer from a distance, but there’s so much to love and respect about Wonder’s gameplay, controls, and level design that make it stand toe to toe to those epic 2D classics of yesteryear.
What a Wonderful World
Straightforward and to the point, the game’s plot is what you would expect from a Mario game. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it sets up why you get to do the cool things you do. Mario and friends have been invited to the Flower Kingdom when Bowser comes along and crashes the party by fusing himself with the prince’s castle, essentially becoming this huge floating head in the middle of the kingdom. Mario and friends are tasked with finding special Royal Seeds in each of the game’s various worlds to stop Bowser before he gets too powerful.
Levels in the Flower Kingdom are mainly side-scrolling romps that feature plenty of enemies to avoid, coins to collect, and some sort of gimmick that differentiates each one from the next. Each one also has at least one Wonder Seed for you to collect, which open the way to new levels and worlds. Most of them can be simply obtained by just reaching a level’s goal, but some of them are hidden and require you to figure out each level’s unique secrets to get them all.
Perhaps the basis as to why Wonder feels so fresh and innovative is that each of these levels feels like opening a mystery gift, not knowing what’s inside until you get your hands on it. Sometimes you’ll be ascending a stage on giant hippo balls called Hoppos, traversing a volcano where the boulders you step on sequentially get hot, or even just exploring underground caves while avoiding a poisonous bog below. What’s great is that at the start of each level you get a little preview of its gimmick, which gets bigger and more challenging as you make your way to the end.
Each level also hides a Wonder Flower for you to find which leads to another Wonder Seed to collect. Touching a flower, however, can have a multitude of effects that drastically change how you’ve been playing the level up to that point. Those Hoppos could suddenly start floating in the air, that volcano could suddenly be underwater, or you could turn into a blob with the ability to cling to walls. It’s that zany and random.
Sometimes those effects are merely cosmetic, but most of the time they really change how each level feels and behaves which then causes you to think on your feet a bit more to figure out how to overcome it and get moving. It’s a wonderful cycle that repeats throughout each level and never gets old. Not only do the Wonder Flowers cause the level to get trippy in look and feel, but they also showcase how much liberty the developers had when designing the game. Sure, it’s just another 2D platformer, but there are moments that Wonder feels uniquely special thanks to its combination of classic yet polished level design with some inventive Wonder Flower touches.
A Big Mario Party
Of course, at its core the game still feels very much like a Mario game and never loses sight of its identity. Platforming is still key here as is collecting everything you can in each level including Wonder Seeds and Purple Flower Coins. The latter are optional, but they do let you purchase new badges that give your character a buff for the duration of a level. Some can let you float, jump higher, or even become invisible, and it’s really up to you to decide what badge to wear to beat a level. I kept the same one on for the majority of the game, but later levels forced me to try on different ones as their effects were essential in getting through their pesky challenges.
Certain shorter levels are also dedicated to some of your badges so they are great for getting used to them and mastering their effects. Other levels offer arenas where you need to defeat waves of enemies, and others even put you on a treasure hunt to locate special tokens hidden in a small area. These shorter stages break up the action of the traditional side-scrolling levels and still manage to offer you something unique to enjoy.
Paired with the inventiveness of its level design, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a smorgasbord of fun and whimsy that keeps you happy and entertained no matter how old you are.
You can play as Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Toad, and Toadette, and each character will move and act the same. They don’t have any unique abilities like they do in New Super Mario Bros., so everyone is on an even playing field, except, of course, when someone uses a power-up. The classic Fire Flower returns, but new ones like the Elephant, Drill, and—my favorite—Bubble abilities give you some new toys to play with. Those wanting an easier experience can also select Yoshi or Nabbit, which offer newer or younger players a chance to join in on the fun without worrying about taking damage.
If you play with more than one person, your characters also won’t bump into each other, making it easier to not get in each other’s way, but the camera does only follow the main character, which can cause the other players to move out of screen if they don’t keep up the pace. Whenever that happens or whenever you die, your character gets turned into a ghost, but touching another player who is still alive will revive you right away. This makes playing with more than one person a super cooperative experience that can either be beneficial at times or chaotic during others depending on your level of teamwork.
Even if you play alone, you can still get a feel for multiplayer by turning on the game’s online features, something I found to be an essential part of playing the game. When you start a level, you will see players also playing the same level as you in their own game. Borrowing from the Souls genre, you can also place standees as you play which will act as checkpoints that will revive any player that touches them. So even though you may not be in the same room together, you and other players can still interact even if it’s indirectly. This not only makes some of the insanity of Wonder easier to swallow, but it also adds an interesting mechanic to platforming games that should be implemented all the time.
Visually, Wonder is what you would hope for a game that feels like the Mushroom Kingdom on, well, mushrooms. Sometimes levels will be brimming in color while other times all you will see are the shadows of your characters running around on screen scurrying in the darkness. Touching a Wonder Flower kicks things up a notch as levels transform into concerts complete with fireworks, dazzling lights, and plenty of charm that’s a joy to behold. Its soundtrack, on the other hand, isn’t as strong or memorable as those in recent Mario games, but it does offer some throwback remixes that remind you what kind of game you’re playing.
Even after you beat Bowser and save the Flower Kingdom in about five hours, Wonder keeps the fun alive with plenty of extra secret challenges and levels for you to discover. They’re not too difficult, but finding all the remaining Wonder Seeds and completing the game lets you discover even more fun ways the game builds on existing gimmicks, concepts, and Wonder Flower effects.
Paired with the inventiveness of its level design, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a smorgasbord of fun and whimsy that keeps you happy and entertained no matter how old you are. It’s a fresh, vibrant take on a classic 2D formula that continues what Nintendo started back with Super Mario World and features timeless gameplay elements that many strive to emulate today. It is a future classic in the making.
Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com