The series returns to platforming roots with classic platforming that is innovative and shows what wonderful things can still be done on the Nintendo Switch
Oh, have I seen some things.
An elephant man complete with moustache and tight fitting overalls. A member of royalty turned into a bouncy slice of cake. A musical number delivered by singing piranha plants. A runaway freight train of stampeding dinosaurs flying through the sky. These are just a handful of throwaway moments that Super Mario Bros. Wonder casually throws at you in its opening levels.
It’s another day in the mushroom kingdom but this is a very different outing than usual for Mario and gang - and it might just be the best thing to happen to the 2D Mario platformer since 1995’s Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.
It’s a big turnaround from Nintendo's previous 2D Mario outing - New Super Mario Bros U - which - pardon the two-dimensional pun, felt flat. In a series known for establishing the formula of a successful platforming game, Mario games have either been extremely creative or unwilling to expand past the structures of what is expected of them.
Thankfully, Wonder falls into the creative and experimental branch of Mario games - at once celebrating the series while breaking all the expectations and rules of how a 2D Mario game might flow.
The first thing you’ll notice when you boot up Super Mario Bros. Wonder is its art style and presentation. It’s unmissable. Gone are the flat backdrops of Mario Bros U, replaced with technicolour levels that glow and glitter with possibility. Strange little flowers pop up sporadically around each level and literally cheer you on as you jump, climb and explore.
There’s just so much character expression taking place in small bursts of giddy animation design. Luigi hoots out his own name in pride whenever he grabs a fire flower. Mario’s gleeful exclamation of ‘wowie zowie’ as he comically inflates into elephant-form. Elephant-Daisy’s oddly amusing crouch animation. My favourite throw-away moment takes place in the underwater levels. Take a pipe to a new location and Mario’s hat will stay floating in the water for just a moment - only for his hand to scurry back out of the pipe to snag his missing headwear. It’s just so good.
Musically - the game just sings. Legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo (who wrote this somewhat familiar tune) returns to the Mario series and gives everything a playful flare. Pounding the ground plays a giddy little drum-roll sound effect. Charging into a running sprint causes a flourish of string instruments to start kicking into gear. It all adds to the weight and impact of every moment in the game. Every single second of Wonder is a treat to be savoured. Not a moment is wasted or taken for granted here.
And then there’s the level design. It’s classic Mario-fare at first. Lots of little scattered collectibles are hiding away in each level and there’s warp pipes, hidden power blocks and tiny little challenge zones. There’s even the classic end-of-level flagpole to jump onto.
But that all changes the moment you bump into a Wonder Flower, a brand new power-up and the main mechanic of Super Mario Bros: Wonder. There’s a wonder flower hidden in each level and the moment you touch them, the screen begins to shake, glow and strobe - before everything around you shifts and changes.
What happens when you eat a wonder flower? Anything is possible. You might end up walking on the ceiling, chased by a giant snowball or sliding up and down invisible pathways into the sky. It’s that sense of surprise - and the joy and silliness of it all that makes this game truly shine.
Entirely new platforming mechanics may be introduced by a wonder flower. You might end up having the entire physics of a level turned inside-out. And the real kicker - you may never experience the same moment twice. Mario Wonder is gleeful in dolling out surprises, secrets and new ideas - so much so that it feels like they come at you as fast as you can swipe through TikTok For You feed. It’s a dopamine hit of sugar-crusted, multi-coloured platforming chaos.
As you continue to explore through the game’s opening levels, you’ll unlock access to the ‘badges’ system, a selection of unlockable power ups that can be slotted in to enable new moves and ways of playing. One badge transforms Mario's traditional wall-kick jump into a vertical bounce - allowing you to reach higher locations. Another badge allows you to use your hat to glide and extend your long jumps.
Other badges can hinder you, like the spring feet badge - you’ll get a bigger high jump, but the trade off is being forced to permanently bounce about. It’s an absolute nightmare and I can’t wait to see some kaizo Mario speed runners finishing the hardest levels in the game with it equipped.
Difficulty wise; the game is quite accessible for the most part. Each level has a star-rating that lets you know what sort of challenge you might be getting into, with some levels being optional. Some of the hardest levels require accurate timing and precision, but there are ways to soften the experience and make it slightly forgiving. Players can opt to use badges such as safety bounce (which lets you lead out of pits, lava or poison swamps without K.Oing) or they can play a character like Yoshi or Nabbit who are immune to enemy damage.
Then there’s multiplayer. Couch multiplayer has been significantly improved. There’s no more character collision between players - allowing you to safely platform without knocking each other about everywhere. One player can also take control of a Yoshi so that their friend can mount and ride them safely through difficult platforming challenges.
It’s the online multiplayer that’s really fun though. Borrowing slightly from the Dark Souls series; Mario Wonder has an asynchronous multiplayer mode you can enable that allows you to see other players exploring levels alongside you. These player ghosts can leave standing markers on levels - helping to point out secrets. If you die while playing in an online connected-session, you’ll be turned into a ghost and have 5 seconds to fly over to an ally’s marker or their ghost to be rescued. It’s fun and feels good to help out a player who might be struggling by rescuing them through a particularly treacherous stretch of platforming.
Wonder takes the foundational building blocks of the traditional Mario game and tips them onto the floor like a multicoloured Lego set, ready for you to step all over or be built into fantastical new shapes and ideas. With a series like this it'd be easy for it to become rote, but so much harder to keep innovating.
It’s a rare moment of pure joy and one of the best games of the year.
A copy of SUPER MARIO BROS. WONDER on Nintendo Switch was provided to SIFTER for the purpose of this review.