Super Mario Bros. Wonder (NS) - ReviewEvan Norris , posted on 18 November 2023 / 4,391 Views
Could Super Mario Bros. Wonder be the start of a trend for naming Nintendo games? Two years ago, Metroid Dread instilled in players an uneasy sense of dread, thanks to its claustrophobic environments and murderous robots. And now Super Mario Bros. Wonder inspires a delightful sensation of wonder, due to its graphical beauty, its constantly surprising stages and mechanics, and all the unfamiliar, inexplicable things its throws at the player. What's next, The Legend of Zelda: Freedom?
Super Mario Bros. Wonder takes place in the Flower Kingdom, a domain "just a short hop away" from the primary setting for the Super Mario franchise, the Mushroom Kingdom. At a meeting between the Flower Kingdom ruler, the caterpillar-like Prince Florian, and the usual suspects — Mario, Luigi, Peach, Toad, etc. — things turn chaotic when Bowser, King of the Koopas, shows up and absorbs a "Wonder Flower". Using the energy of the mysterious flower, Bowser merges with Florian's Flower Castle, turning himself into a giant floating fortress. He transforms the landscape of the Flower Kingdom; imprisons its people, the Poplins; and dares anyone to defy him. Soon, Mario and friends are off once again to save another land from turtle tyranny.
In the paragraph above, you'll notice words like "usual", "again", and "another". As much as Wonder is eager to push 2D Super Mario forward in terms of art direction, special effects, mechanics, and scenarios, it's not particularly ambitious when it comes to narrative. Indeed, it's content to recycle the same tried-and-true premise that has served the series well for almost 40 years. To be fair, Super Mario games, and platformers in general, don't require much in the way of storytelling and world-building. But this seems like the time, 11 years after the last 2D installment of Super Mario, to experiment with stories and characters that are surprising and exciting.
Things are quite surprising and exciting when it comes to level layouts, mechanics, and "Wonder Effects", however. It is in these areas that Super Mario Bros. Wonder absolutely earns its name. For the longest time — at least two generations — the 3D Super Mario games have been defined by invention, endless creativity, and an almost hyperactive approach to the introduction and immediate dismissal of mechanics, gimmicks, and gameplay ideas. Thanks to Wonder, those things are no longer exclusive to the third dimension. In fact, this latest 2D game can go toe-to-toe with titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Odyssey when it comes to pure ingenuity.
There are over 150 stages in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, and almost every one feels like its own thing. All have a foundation in 2D platforming physics, but each one veers off according to a unique interpretation of the sub-genre. In some stages, Mario et al. can travel to the backgrounds and foregrounds of levels; in others, they'll explore above the clouds or under the waves; in still others they'll hitch a ride on conveyor belts, move slowly through blocks of green goo, or swing like Tarzan across a new enemy type called Taily.
New enemies play a big part in the joy and unpredictability of Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Small avian enemies called Blewbirds fire their beaks, which extend into platforms after striking a surface. Metallic rectangles known as Kongs slide along ceilings and floors and try to crush players. Megs, cigar-shaped versions of Bullet Bills, act as traveling platforms that slowly descend after you step on them.
Then there are the new power-ups. The Bubble Flower allows players to blow bubbles that trap enemies, and the Elephant Fruit transforms Mario and friends into anthropomorphic elephants, which can crush blocks, swat away enemies, and carry water that either revives dried-up flowers or neutralizes scorching-hot blocks. The most game-altering power-up, and one of the many highlights of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, is the Drill Mushroom, which significantly changes the spatial rules of the game. It allows its carrier to drill into the ground or the ceiling, to avoid and/or ambush enemies and reach hidden areas.
All of these novelties pale in comparison, however, to the true star of the game: the Wonder Flower. Every time you come into contact with one of these new items, something...well, wondrous happens. Pipes come to life, super stars fall from the heavens, the entire game turns temporarily from a side-scroller into a top-down action game — to name just a few. Sometimes you'll be propelled upward to impossible heights; sometimes you'll be chased by a shadowy "Dark Mario" who mimics your moves. At other times you'll transform into a completely different being. That could be a Goomba, or a red slime, or a giant spiky ball — each with perfect controls, mind you. These so-called "Wonder Effects" are just spectacular. They're little miracles; they're fever dreams; they're undeniable evidence of just how weird, astonishing, and liberating the Super Mario series can be.
In addition to new enemies, power-ups, and items, Super Mario Bros. Wonder adds badges — optional accessories that grant players new abilities or advanced skills, like the "floating high jump". While these don't detract from the experience, neither do they elevate it. Apart from 20 "Badge Challenge" levels sprinkled across the Flower Kingdom, badges aren't well-woven into the fabric of the game. For the most part, levels aren't designed with badges, and the unique abilities associated with them, in mind.
Another new take-it-or-leave-it element to Super Mario Bros. Wonder is its suite of asynchronous online multiplayer features. These allow you to see faint shadows of other players adventuring at the same time, à la Dark Souls. They also allow you to exchange items and greetings, or rescue player ghosts in distress. While these sort of asymmetrical features work well in the Souls series and other methodical, alienating, and dangerous action-adventure games, they don't exactly fit here. For one, the game is quite easy, removing the need for faraway players to rescue you. For another, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a fast-moving platformer that relies on precise jumps — not the best environment for the visual clutter that arrives with these features enabled. Luckily, you can deactivate online mode at any time.
Multiplayer isn't restricted only to this asynchronous template. You can team up with three players locally, or form an online lobby with a group of four, to gallivant through levels simultaneously. Nintendo has fortunately (or unfortunately if you're a chaotic neutral character) eliminated a lot of the unpredictability of Super Mario Bros. multiplayer by removing the ability to bump into, bounce on top of, or otherwise jostle other players. You can now adventure without living in fear of your friend's sudden but inevitable betrayal. Super Mario Bros. as a series still isn't an ideal fit for cooperative multiplayer, but it's certainly making progress.
It's not making notable progress, though, when it comes to difficulty. Outside of 10 Special World levels, which are truly punishing even for platforming veterans, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is on the easy side. Anyone comfortable with platform games should have no trouble clearing each stage — and picking up the majority of its collectibles — on the first try. Even boss battles, which traditionally raise the stakes higher than normal, are fairly simple to overcome. The bosses at the end of each (otherwise brilliant) airship level are particularly undemanding.
Defeating all those bosses and clearing all those stages will take you around nine hours, a respectable running time for a 2D platformer. Should you decide to tackle the Special World levels, find every last Wonder Seed and 10-Flower Coin, and unlock all medals, you can expect to spend 15 to 20 hours with the game. Even after you've officially hit the 100% mark, it's likely you'll pick up the game again in the future. It's a joyful title that demands to be replayed.
Part of that joyfulness comes from its clean, vibrant, artful aesthetic. It would not be a stretch to call this the prettiest 2D Super Mario game since the days of the SNES. The backgrounds are multi-layered beauties, and the character models are amazingly expressive. The game is just awash in color, character, and extra little flourishes that bring everything to life.
Its soundscape is similarly enchanting. Wonder's sunny, inviting "Main Theme", complete with gibberish vocals, is a standout, as is its funky, bass-heavy interpretation of the "Underground" theme. The best of the bunch might be the metal "Airship" theme, with its electric guitar and heavy percussion. But don't sleep on the 80s synth styling of the "Factory" theme, which wouldn't sound out of place in Beverly Hills Cop.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder couldn't have a more appropriate name. It's filled with beautiful sights, lovely music, unexpected mechanics, unfamiliar enemies and power-ups, and, thanks to Wonder Seeds, revelation after revelation after revelation. Not everything new about the game works, and it suffers slightly from easy levels and boss battles, but it delivers everything you'd expect from the series, and more. You could just as well call it Super Mario Bros. Triumph.
This review is based on a retail copy of Super Mario Bros. Wonder for the NS