Super Mario Bros. Wonder — Review
The Super Mario Bros. games are at their best when they’re weird and different. For the last decade, the 2D Mario games have been anything but. When New Super Mario Bros. dropped in 2006, it was indeed new. It was the refresh the franchise needed… and then Nintendo milked it dry — game after game with the same art, music, controls, and ideas. If you wanted innovation and weirdness, you had to make it yourself with Super Mario Maker or play 3D Mario games — those games had freshness in spades.
Now, in the twilight of the Nintendo Switch’s life, we finally get a brand-new 2D Mario title, and it’s as fresh as it is weird. But it takes more than just a look. Is Wonder the refresh we’ve been waiting for? You might be surprised.
The story of Super Mario Bros. games is usually the same, but we’re not even in the Mushroom Kingdom this time, but the nearby Flower Kingdom. Mario and friends have been invited to the Kingdom by Prince Florian. While the party is just getting started, Bowser shows up and ruins it for everyone. Bowser takes hold of a Wonder Flower and somehow merges himself with his Koopa Clown Car and Prince Florian’s Castle to become a flying nuisance who locks up all the population of the Kingdom (Poplins) in their homes. Mario then sets out with everyone, including the Prince, to free the Poplins and set things right.
The Flower Kingdom isn’t too different from the Mushroom Kingdom, but there is one big difference: it’s home to Wonder Flowers, and these flowers are the main gimmick of Wonder. The word gimmick gets used often as a pejorative, but in this instance, it’s not. The Wonder Flowers inhabit each course, but it’s not always easy to find them. Some courses have more than one Wonder Flower, which results in getting a Wonder Seed, but you’ll always get another seed for finishing the level. While there are shared ideas among these Wonder Flowers, almost all are unique to each course as you play out the game.
Each flower transforms the course differently, constantly surprising you with what they do. You’ve seen the trailers; some flowers make warp pipes dance up and down like a party and flood the stages with bison-like Bulrush, which you ride right through the standard finish flag. I’d love to mention and talk about more Wonder effects, but the ones I can discuss are the ones you’ve seen. Honestly, you’re better off seeing them for the first time yourself. People will be making whole games from some of these wild ideas that the Wonder Flowers present. Wonder Flowers bring back the weird to Super Mario.
Littered throughout the overworld, which you now move around in parts openly like Super Mario 3D World, are all the game’s courses. Aside from the standard courses, there are many new distractions on the overworld to play through as well. These include a KO Arena, which gives you a gauntlet of enemies to take down on a timer. Search Party has you looking for parts of Wonder Flower hidden exceptionally well. This one is a good showcase of the game’s online mode — if you can’t figure out where something is, you might see someone else find it.
Then there’s the Break Time stages, which are shorter little mini-games. All this, plus secret paths, alternative exits, and the Poplin shops where you can buy badges and standees, make the overworld its own fun area to explore. Two excellent quality-of-life updates include each stage being rated on a 5-star difficulty scale, but you can only put off those really tough ones for so long. But the game also makes it easy to zip back to other stages using the Courses screen. No more trudging around the overworld.
The new Badge system is similar to the badges from Yoshi’s Woolly World. Each badge is attached to the travelling Prince with you, and you can unlock them by purchasing them from the store or from Badge Challenges. These courses are based around one particular badge; you’ll unlock the badge by completing it. The badges can then be used on any other level, and it is up to you to find which badge will help you along the way. Keep dying? Get a head start with the Auto Super Mushroom, and it starts the level with an already powered-up character.
There’s the Safety Bounce, which gives you a reprieve from falling lava, and the Sensor, which makes tracking down all those Wonder Flowers and coins easier. Then, some real game breakers like the Jet Run, which gives Mario a Looney Tunes-like coyote time jump, and the Invisibility, which makes Mario invisible to enemies and you. It’s surprisingly hard to play Mario when you can’t see him. Badges can be swapped out quickly after you die, and you don’t get dumped back to the overworld when you do now, either. It’s not just making the game more accessible, but it will also give competitive and more advanced players more tools to get through levels. We’ll see crazy stuff from some of these badges in speedruns.
The three new power-ups in the game are also great additions and unlock even more surprises and fresh ideas, but between the zaniness of the Wonder Flowers and the Badges, they’re also second fiddle. The elephant is the biggest new one, not just because Mario and his friends turn into elephants. When transformed, the elephant for the player can barge its way through almost anything. You can also fill Mario’s trunk and use it to water plants, which can unlock secrets or more collectables and put out fires or lava blocks to aid in platforming. The Drill also lets you move under and above enemies in the ground, grinding your way up through them. The bubble power-up shoots bubbles like a slower, more passive Fire Flower; they can be used for defence and offence. They can also be used to get some extra height.
There are also many other core changes to just the core Mario experience. All the characters no longer move as slowly as molasses, but their acceleration and agility have been increased and tweaked — they also stop a lot quicker and don’t move like they’re on ice. I booted up New Super Mario Bros. U, and aside from Toad, all the players felt slow to get going, turn around and do advanced tricks. Now, no matter what character you select, they all play the same, at a speed faster than Toad used to be, and they zip and dash around with more proficiency.
The only exception here is Yoshi and Nabbit; they’re practically invincible aside from one or two exceptions. Yoshi has his flutter jump and ability to snatch up enemies with his tongue. Nabbit is even more agile than everyone else. They’re an excellent balancer for multiplayer for people who may be on a different level than a more seasoned player. There’s no punishment or marker against a save for using Yoshi or Nabbit. So much has been done away with in Wonder; even the game no longer has a scoring system, nor do levels have a 300-second timer. It frees things up.
Wonder isn’t just a single-player affair; you can play the entire game with up to three other people. The game has also removed collision between players, meaning there’s less pinball-like action happening. With the game’s faster pace, Wonder effects and badges, it’s probably for the better. Although I’m sure someone will be upset.
You can play the game multiplayer locally easily or online as well. Locally, all your characters are on the course, and you play through a stage and help each other out, reviving each other or sharing items. Online things are a little different; online, everyone is a ghost — and while in real time, you don’t play with each other as so much play together on a stage. You can still help each other by reviving, and there’s even a simple communication system. You can also start a race on any level and try and beat your friends to the end. However, many stages aren’t great for this, and I found it felt like an afterthought. Up to 12 players can play online in a room at once, with four players joining a course at any time.
The other big part of Super Mario Bros. Wonder and online isn’t so much a mode but more an integration into the game overall. When you play through stages in the game, you’ll run into the silhouettes of players who have played the stage previously and their standees. These ghost-like figures can help you indirectly by guiding you on where to go, or you could see them uncover a secret. They also help by offering a way to be revived. If you fall or get hit and would usually be dead, you’ll become a ghost; if you chase them down, you’ll get another go. The standees can also act as revival checkpoints or as markers for how best to jump. These silhouettes don’t always appear, but more often than not, it’s pulled me out of a pinch. There are several different standee designs to unlock per character as well. You can spend your Flower Coins unlocking them, but they all do the same thing.
If you look at a still screenshot of the game, you might think, oh yeah, that’s Mario – he’s a little different, in a little different world – what’s the go? Only once it starts moving do you realise how much has changed and been made better. Mario, Luigi, Peach and all the other playable characters look fantastic, moving more gracefully and animatedly. Even something as simple as his jump has been changed. Mario’s jumps look like they do in artwork, not like he moved in New Super Mario Bros.
Just going down a warp pipe, something you do a hundred times, Mario grabs his cap after leaving it behind and squeezes into it when he’s an elephant. The enemies scream and react to their brethren getting knocked out, anticipating incoming shells and fire flowers — Mario even shoots fire from both his hands now. It’s only been one in the past because it was a technical limitation on the NES! The stages, too, are vibrant, enticing and detailed; the coins and items in the level dance along to the beat. Everything is easily spotted, and while a lot is happening on-screen, you always know what’s important.
The game’s graphics are linked to how the game sounds as well. Almost everything is musical. Mario, as does everyone else, has a new default jump noise and has their unique jumping note. There are musical blocks everywhere; some levels play to a beat, and the soundtrack has gone from ho-hum to an upbeat euphony selection of tracks that will join some of the upper echelons of Mario music. There are influences from Super Mario 64, Bros. 3, World and, of all things, Splatoon. There’s one stage with an electric guitar riff that absolutely slaps. If there was a down point, Bowser’s tracks sound soft compared to his new, metal look. Oh, and those flower voices? Yeah, they provide fun conversation, hints and some comedy. If you turn them off, you’re a cop.
It might have taken a while, but Nintendo finally gave the 2D Mario branch a complete refurb and a wild new look and feel. It’s not just a new look but a deep refresh of the animations, how the characters interact with the world and how the game reacts and plays off the music. The new gimmick with the Wonder Flowers constantly surprises. The badge system also allows new ideas and mechanics to make each course unique. The always-online mode also makes you feel like you’re a part of something, even if you can’t play with others in the same room.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder will surprise you at every turn and is one of the best 2D Mario games alongside Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3. It’s the visual refresh, the exciting new ideas and the polish we’ve needed for a while. If only there were an adjective to describe it in one word.
Disclosure: A review code of Super Mario Bros. Wonder was provided to us before its release by Nintendo Australia
+ The most visually compelling Mario has ever been in a game
+ Every course is a well-polished, unique gem of an idea
+ Everything has been touched up, tightened and refreshed and feels better than ever
+ Quality of life updates galore
+ Amazing array of new enemies
- Some brutally challenging levels, which may be a positive for some
- The race with friends online feels like an afterthought