Stache, panache, and flash: Wonder has it all.
It’s hard to remember the last time I played a 2D Mario game that felt really fresh. It’s been over 10 years since New Super Mario Bros. U, and while the Mario Maker games have existed in that interim period to give players a way to craft their own 2D Mario experience, Super Mario Bros. Wonder stands as Nintendo’s attempt to revitalize 2D Mario and deliver a new entry in the franchise worthy of its name, a pretty difficult task after all of the New games have run their course. Does Wonder live up to its title and the legacy of the Mario franchise?
Super Mario Bros. Wonder makes one immediate improvement over prior 2D Mario entries as of late: the presentation is just phenomenal. I could rave about it all day, but it really stuck out the entire time while I was playing the game. Mario and the rest of the huge playable lineup of characters are all animated incredibly well, the best they’ve ever looked in a recent 2D platformer. The deliberate smear line emulation, varied facial expressions and body movements, and slight adjustments to their proportions all come together to make their animations a little cuter and bouncier. Mario losing his hat when he enters pipes and looking both ways before exiting, or getting stuck on the way down when in Elephant form and having to jam himself through – all of these wonderful flourishes and details give the animations such life, and it’s such a huge step up from prior entries.
This animation philosophy of many moving pieces is not restricted to just your playable characters, either. Wonder does a great job at bringing the entire world to life vibrantly. Every single actor on the screen is delightfully involved, and they all react to what’s happening in the environment. Goombas look up with dread as you come down to stomp them, Koopa Troopas have a cute little “handshake” with their shells if they bump into one another and turn around, and Cheep Cheeps swim with visible fear when a fireball is hurled their way. Many stages also have moving pieces in the background, and more often than not they even respond to what’s going on in the stage itself!
I have to give special praise to the talking flowers, a set of characters I thought might wear on me, but with the huge array of language options on top of how charming and endearing they are, they ended up becoming one of my favorite backdrop items in the game. The way they just cheer you on or make strange, quirky observations feels remarkably close to couch commentary, and it makes the game feel really cozy. Love those fellas.
Of course, I’d be remiss to mention how the game actually handles, and naturally Mario never falters there either. What is just as refreshing as the visuals, though, is the clear improvements to Mario’s handling in Wonder. It’s EASILY the best it’s ever been across the 2D Mario games, with returning features like upwards shell kicking and unbelievably snappy yet natural momentum and weight. Jumping and running feels oh so clean, too. Much like how Super Mario Odyssey refined the controls for 3D Mario games, Wonder does the same for 2D Mario games – and it doesn’t sacrifice the control features that made the New games appealing, either, like the air twirl and the spin jump. It’s a perfect blend of old and new, with wonderful refinements sprinkled about.
I must also give immense praise to the difficulty scaling in this game. Wonder isn’t afraid to greatly vary the difficulty in levels you’re provided with, even early on in the game. The game’s difficulty scaling works on a scale of 1 to 5 stars, and shockingly I was seeing 4-star stages even as early on as the first world! You can even access some 5-star difficulty stages by going to the Special World, which is more akin to Super Mario World’s “Special Zone” than any of the New Super Mario Bros. iterations of it, as you can enter it and play each world’s Special World stage before you even clear the game! It’s nice to see a Mario game willing to allow players to struggle a little throughout their play-through, rather than having to wait until the post-game to do so.
The satisfying play control and visuals are great, but the real draw of Wonder is in its new features. While the level design is paced excellently and features a huge grab bag of little gimmicks and level ideas, its true creative essence comes out with the new Wonder Flowers – a collectible item hidden in each stage. Picking one up summons a Wonder Effect, which can range from completely changing the geometry of the level and adding in strange enemies to putting you in free fall suddenly, or even changing the game’s perspective! These give the already well-crafted levels an extra edge, and best of all, there’s very little repetition in the Wonder Effects. If any do repeat, they’re often utilized differently to effectively maintain the novelty, and this makes you constantly—pardon the expression—wonder about what the next level will have going on.
The Wonder Seeds you get from the Wonder Flower challenges and level completion also allowed the level designers to be really crafty in hiding this game’s Star Coin equivalent: the 10 Flower coins. Since these coins aren’t integral to the progression of the game, they’re hidden in far more clever ways, making them very fun secrets to find. This collectible mechanic pairs really well with the Wonder Flowers, and provides a much welcome additional challenge in each stage without feeling too forced, a change I find satisfactory in comparison to other 2D Mario outings.
Wonder Flowers aren’t the only cool new things, though. Wonder also introduces fantastic new power-ups to the Mario line-up. The Fire Flower returns, naturally, but the real stars of the show are the new power-ups. The Elephant Fruit turns you into an elephant, granting you access to a strong arsenal of attacks and the ability to run over two-tile gaps, but it has a unique trade-off in that it makes you a bigger target. Drill Mushrooms let you drill into the ground and the ceiling, alongside protecting your head from certain attacks, turning low ceilings into a fun method of traversal as a result.
However, the power-up that stole the show for me was the Bubble Flower. It lets you shoot bubbles that can pass through walls, and they can even dispatch enemies that regular fireballs can’t! The catch is that the bubbles float rather slowly and only travel in a straight line, but what’s really unique is that you can also use the bubbles as platforms to bounce on! This lets you fly over huge gaps if your rhythm is good, and it’s so much more fun using this to cross large gaps than it is to simply use a power-up that lets you fly over them, like in previous 2D Mario games.
Somehow, that isn’t even everything new in the game! Badges are another brand new mechanic, allowing you to augment Mario and friends with a bunch of nifty abilities. Without saying too much, you can expect to see a number of familiar skills that used to be distributed across the playable characters in older Mario games, such as the ability to hover and the ability to jump higher and descend slower. Of course, the most fun badges are the ones that grant new abilities. What other Mario game has a satisfying grappling hook mechanic? I can’t think of one, and it feels so awesome to play with in Wonder. The best part of badges is that you can even switch them mid-level if you happen to lose a life, making it seamless and fun to experiment with many different badges in each stage. The game even lets you randomize what badge you get, too, so if you’re interested in challenging yourself, click that random button and see what you can do!
All of these new features made blazing through the game so much fun, and I must emphasize blazing, because this game’s performance is simply amazing. The stable 60 fps is a given, but I was REALLY impressed by how fast the game loaded every single stage. It takes under 3 minutes to get into the game and immediately start playing levels with all of your accrued badges and progress, and the snappy load times in between stages and deaths keeps the pace excellent. It really must be mentioned how well this pairs with the handheld component of the Switch, as it demonstrates Nintendo’s mastery over this system and a culmination of their understanding on optimization. I’ve not seen any huge mention of this elsewhere, and I feel the need to point it out because it’s worth talking about.
Everything combined made my playthrough of Super Mario Bros. Wonder some of the most fun I’ve had with 2D Mario ever, and I struggle to really think of where the game showed any signs of weakness. But, if I had to select anything, it would probably be the boss encounters. Beyond the really fun final boss (complete with an amazing build-up), many of the boss encounters are fairly lacklustre. Bowser Jr. does come at you with a fairly creative arsenal on paper, but the actual fights don’t end up doing much interesting beyond their gimmicks at face value. Thankfully, Wonder isn’t as heavy on these boss fights as other Mario games; there’s no swath of fortresses and castles with bosses apiece in this game, and Bowser Jr. doesn’t take too much of your time either. Some fans might take issue with that, but the game keeps you moving along at that blazing-fast pace so you can experience the elements that really shine.
The post-game in Wonder is also a little lacking, but this is largely because of the progression I mentioned earlier. Since you can access the Special World levels as you find them while playing through the game normally, there’s actually not a lot of levels that are exclusive to the post-game. The ones that are end up being fairly challenging and are really great tests of the cumulative skill that you’ve built up throughout the game—and they definitely encourage you to use the badge system to its fullest—but there’s very few of them in actuality. It is a bit of a shame compared to games like 3D World, where the post-game is a little more robust, but it’s not a game-crippling issue since the main story is fairly large by comparison.
The music isn’t particularly incredible this go around, either. While there’s a lot of charming musical moments in the game, and a number of catchy songs, there have definitely been better Mario soundtracks in recent memory – especially when compared to games like Super Mario Odyssey with its wonderful, sweeping score, which makes Wonder feel like it falls short in the music department. I do love Wonder’s use of a capella leitmotifs, though; it was charming in Super Mario Sunshine and it’s just as endearing here. It really adds to the whimsy of the world, and blends so well with how lively the game is.
All in all, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is just incredible. It’s easily one of the best 2D Mario games I’ve ever played, if not the best. The polish this game has is almost otherworldly, not a single stage ended up feeling weak or lesser. The endless innovation and creativity is so refreshing, I haven’t seen this since something like Yoshi’s Island as far as this franchise goes. If you’re going to play it, I REALLY recommend you go in dry with as little knowledge as possible. So much of this game’s charm is enhanced by letting it lead you on with the many different Wonder Effects, and it’s so good at planting the seeds of curiosity in your brain as you play. Not since Super Mario Bros. 3 has a Mario platformer felt so right, and it brings me so much joy to say it: Super Mario Bros. Wonder really is a 2D Mario masterpiece.