Are 2D Mario games the “easy pass” for Nintendo? With all the innovation and creativity that has to go into Mario’s three-dimensional adventures, you’d think putting the pixelated plumber back on flat grounds would be a breeze for the video game giant. Especially in the last 15-odd years with the imaginative leaps made by Super Mario Galaxy, Super Mario Odyssey and Bowser’s Fury. Does that mean games from the New Super Mario Bros. era are lesser installments? In a way, yes, but that doesn’t mean Nintendo half-asses the game design. If anything, new 2D Mario games are testing grounds for little touches: new power-ups, different skills, challenging level designs, and even new voices. It may not have the jaw-dropping expansiveness of New Donk City, but it’s hard to call Super Mario Bros. Wonder “run of the mill.”
Off to the Flower Kingdom
With 3D Mario still on ice (or, whatever body of land he was on in Bowser’s Fury), 2D Mario tags in for Super Mario Bros. Wonder. The new subtitle refers to the “Wonder Flower,” the newest MacGuffin proudly on display for Mario and friends to gawk at in the neighboring Flower Kingdom. Because every land Mario goes to has the worst homeland security, Bowser swoops in to steal the Wonder Flower and beef-up his newest floating castle. With Prince Florian’s only counter offensive being fluttering his head petals, Mario takes the squad of Luigi, Princess Peach, Princess Daisy, some Toads, some Yoshis and Nabbit deep into Flower Kingdom to jump, swim, run, and bounce off platforms collecting Wonder Seeds in different levels chasing off Bowser Jr.’s sub-posts to get to the big bad turtle.
The core of Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the same as all the 2D Mario titles: linear left to right level design with the occasional sections of swimming deep or jumping high. You go one way, bounce on some Goombas or whatever minuscule enemy fits the level theme, hit boxes for power-ups and coins before hitting a checkpoint and then the finishing, overly-tall flag pole. Most of the levels can be cleared in less than five minutes with colorful looks and peppy music keeping players amused in that time frame. Whether you’re an expert on the New Super Mario Bros. series or haven’t touched a controller since the 80s, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is Nintendo flexing its mastery of making Mario playable for anyone.
Mario Bros. Wonder tries a lot of new things
Then there’s the word “Wonder” in the title. Mario games always have a flight of fancy imagination to them, often trying to give the player the feel of controlling the brightest, happiest, most whimsical Saturday morning cartoon they’ve ever seen. Most of the time it works, but it can also be seen as Nintendo lazily putting a slightly more stylized sheen on territory they’ve mined for far too long. The core of Super Mario Bros. Wonder is definitely territory that’s been picked-at enough, but the “wonder” comes in via the little touches peppered into every level.
One of the more notable (i.e. wackier) touches is the elephant power-up, turning your character into one of the more successful experiments from The Island of Dr. Moreau so you can trunk-flip enemies into the sky, barrel through big blockades to access secret areas, and bring water to dry flowers for extra coins. Nothing Mario has ever done in the past, let alone this very game, has ever hinted at him mixing with the most forgetful creature you’ll find on safari; but it sure is fun to see him, Luigi, or even Toad go big mode and blast through levels (note: Yoshi and Nabbit can’t use power-ups but also don’t take damage). Other power ups include a drill head power-up to dig into surfaces or crack blockades and a bubble power-up that can serve as a jump boost if you have to hop high. There’s also badges you earn along the way to give you the right edge in certain levels, like the clap glider badge for levels where you float between platforms. Not all of it is necessary and you’ll likely end up only using three or four of the variety to unlock, but it does make platforming a bit more fun and encourages a bit more exploration in each stage.
Some of those stages have their own unique gimmicks that occasionally turn things into a puzzle platformer. “The Sharp Trial: Launch to Victory,” for instance, has the gimmick of pointy-spiked platforms and a moving stand with a launcher making you time your jumps to avoid hits and grab Wonder Seeds. It’s a two-part challenge that’s both clever and a bit twisted, like a hidden gem someone whipped-up in Super Mario Maker. Super Mario Bros. Wonder excels more and more at kooky puzzle platforming the more the game goes, like on “Cruising with Linking Lifts” and “Pole Block Passage.” For those wanting more of the weirdness of the elephant power-up, there’s “Fluff-Puff Peaks Palace” where the Wonder Seed turns you into a long-necked freak of nature so you can crouch under and weigh-down obstacles. Again, the wackiness of the details surrounding the core gameplay is what gives Wonder its title.
I Get By With A Little Help From The Walrus
While 2-D Mario games have coasted since their Nintendo DS resurgence with New Super Mario Bros. nearly 20 years ago, that sub series eventually introduced a then innovative four player co-op system. Where Mario’s control felt as slick as oil, friction between other players made supporting each other just as fun as it was challenging. Now, Wonder removes physical interaction between players to support tighter controls, and individual characters movement, save for Yoshi’s hover-flutter sneakers, is relegated to the new Badge system that allows skills like floating, wall jumping and dolphin kicks while swimming to be equipped.
The trade off is lowering the overall skill level, by allowing characters who have failed to make physical contact with partners to come back into play. This also works with the new Standee function, a mechanic that feels more akin to Death Stranding or Dark Souls than anything else, as contacting these cute cutouts dropped by other players can revive you, too. Anyone whose standee does revive someone gets a kickback of brownie points later on.
The other online component is the new way to connect with strangers via an asynchronous multiplayer. Instead of worrying about Nintendo’s archaic internet servers, you can play online with ghost data of players across the world, who can anonymously help you revive same as your couch co-op pals and complete the harder to reach gems for shop points. This does, however, add a wrinkle, as this feature is included in lieu of being able to connect online with multiple players on one Switch, or with your friends via Switch Online. It’s an all or nothing affair when it comes to cooperative play in the Flower Kingdom.
Not always Wonder-ful
Super Mario Bros. Wonder throws a lot at the wall, but not all of it sticks. You will not use all of the earned badges along the way, with a few of them even making levels easier than the recommended badges the game tries to get you to try. Not all of the quirky level designs work either: the “Crouching High Jump” stages bring the energy to a screeching halt and boss fights don’t have much challenge to them. Despite the occasional brain teasing jump mechanics and fun new enemy designs, Wonder still falls back into a same-y energy that’s less engrossing and more like an occasional distraction for a slow day at home.
In other words, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is another new 2D Mario game. It has plenty of accentuation that make it stand on its own compared to the previous New Super Mario Bros. titles. But it still feels like a stopgap compared to previous 3D entries, especially after the expansive add-on of Bowser’s Fury and even the retrospective Super Mario 3D All-Stars. Maybe in three to five years when Nintendo rolls out the red carpet for another 3D Mario adventure, we can find the little trial runs used in Mario Bros. Wonder expanded into more fleshed-out challenges and environments for Mario to run around. It’s a strong testament to the developer that even its titles used as a drawing board beat most multi-million games in any given year.
Featured Screenshots © Nintendo.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder - 6/10