Super Mario Bros. Wonder is out now, and it’s a true Nintendo hit. Mario’s latest adventure was met with a wave of glowing reviews earlier this week, and it’s easy to see why. The 2D platformer is both a reinvention and a return to form for Nintendo’s most important franchise, bringing transformative new gameplay ideas to an age-old formula. There’s some tasty icing on that cake too: It just so happens to be one of the best-looking video games of the year.
While it’s not the glitzy spectacle of Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 or the photorealistic achievement that is Forza Motorsport, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a sight to behold in its own right. That’s thanks to vibrant cartoon visuals, detailed animations, and painterly backdrops that bring depth to the 2D Flower Kingdom. It’s a marvelous feat, and it was all accomplished on the same aging console that has left gamers begging for an upgrade. While that Nintendo Switch successor may be right around the corner, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a reminder that strong art direction can be just as impactful as raw power.
Just looking at out-of-context screenshots, Super Mario Bros. Wonder might not look that much different from New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe. It’s only when you first boot it up that you’re drawn into a deceptively beautiful world. That’s apparent from the very first stage, as Mario stands against a sea of green and blue hills rolling in the distance. Star-shaped trees tower above him, with their simple leaves lightly blowing in the wind. The Flower Kingdom instantly feels alive in ways that even some of the biggest-budget 3D games aren’t able to accomplish.
There are a lot of little details that work to make that possible. While levels aren’t filled with ultra-detailed textures, a richer color palette makes everything pop with cartoon charm. In particular, a new snail enemy sticks in my mind thanks to its vibrant pink shell contrasting with its gooey green body. Little pop art splashes make a big difference too. Mario’s ground pounds are emphasized with a white and-yellow flash that gives the maneuver more impact — and that’s underlined even more with the sound of a snare hit to make it punchier.
Everything works hand in hand with a revitalized approach to animation. Wonder is the most expressive Mario game to date — 2D or 3D — thanks to tiny details. You can see that in action thanks to an excellent video from GameXplain that directly compares Wonder and Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe’s animations. When Mario goes down a warp pipe in Deluxe, he’d simply sink into it like he was riding an elevator. In Wonder, he hops in the air off of one foot and hunches his shoulders before straightening his body to fit through. Touches like that make two games that might look comparable on paper feel light-years apart.
Smart stylization has always been the secret to Nintendo’s most timeless games. The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker is perhaps the company’s most famous example, but several Switch rereleases drove that point home in 2023. The original two Pikmin games, which came to Switch ahead of Pikmin 4’s launch, still look excellent today thanks to their unique hybrid of natural realism and bright whimsy. Metroid Prime Remastered is an undeniable visual upgrade over its 2002 counterpart, but it largely shines by keeping the original game’s striking art direction intact.
The impact of top-notch art direction can especially be felt in this year’s Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe. The Nintendo Wii remaster is a significant visual improvement over the original 2011 platformer, but it accomplishes that through stronger stylization. A boilerplate 2.5D platformer look gets an upgrade thanks to much brighter colors and bolder lines that make it look like a moving cartoon. It’s even a night-and-day difference with 2018’s Kirby Star Allies, a Switch game that looks like it was released a generation apart from Return to Dream Land Deluxe. Super Mario Bros. Wonder has that same strength, and it makes the nearly seven-year-old Nintendo Switch feel like an entirely new platform again.
That won’t stop hungry Nintendo fans from clamoring for a Switch 2 — and it shouldn’t. Even the prettiest Switch games (Wonder included) still suffer from unsightly edges that could stand to be smoothed out by new hardware. And naturally, graphical fidelity isn’t the only way more powerful consoles can improve games — just look at Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 with its instant loading. It’s high time for new Nintendo hardware, but Super Mario Bros. Wonder should remind us that fresh specs aren’t a magic potion that will inherently make every game look better. Sometimes a creative refresh is the upgrade a series like Mario needs.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is out now for Nintendo Switch.
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