While I’m only partway through Super Mario Bros. Wonder, I’m already utterly in love with the game.
As our glowing review outlined, it’s a highly polished 2D platformer that’s approachable for anyone to play and elicits a joyous and vibrant sense of wonder. But for me, what makes Super Mario Bros. Wonder special aren’t so much the wild Wonder effects or elephant transformations. It’s the subtle touches. These elements might not be immediately noticeable or relevant to most, but they all work together to create an experience that’s a step above most other platformers.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder isn’t afraid to show that it’s different from previous Mario games through small moments and changes. One instance that illustrates this early on is in one of the first Bowser Jr. fights. It starts like all his New Super Mario Bros. boss fights do, with him getting in his shell and spinning toward Mario. At first, I was disappointed that Nintendo was just doing the same thing again, but after the first hit, that changed. Bowser Jr. activates a Wonder effect and changes in size for the following two stages of his fight. It’s a moment of surprise that subverts my expectations, which are based on decades of Mario games. This is a small moment and reference that many Super Mario Bros. Wonder players probably won’t even internalize. Still, it is a smart way to show how the platformer differs from what came before.
Tiny changes like that are abundant, even in some basic design changes that you may not think twice about. Take the removal of level timers, for instance. A staple since the first Super Mario Bros. game, almost every 2D Mario game has put a timer on how long someone can take to get through a level. The games typically gave players more than enough time to get through a level at a somewhat leisurely pace, but introducing a timer brings a sense of pressure and urgency. As a result, I’ll admit my first priority when playing Mario levels was typically to get to the end as quickly as possible.
By getting rid of the level timer by default, Super Mario Bros. Wonder removes that added pressure. I came to appreciate this the most when playing in co-op, as my friends and I could mess around with each other and different parts of the level without someone feeling the need to push forward constantly. Not having it in the game by default also allows Nintendo to add a timer for specific Wonder Effects, creating time-based pressure in a much more intense and meaningful way than previous Mario games.
One change that seems noticeable, but negligible at first has many implications for making the gameplay experience as smooth and enjoyable as possible. Because there’s no timer, I could take the time to appreciate the levels that Nintendo created. And that was only enhanced by another difference: players can no longer bounce on each other in co-op. While some derided this choice before the game’s release, I think it makes the game more enjoyable as it prevents multiplayer trolling and ensures that players don’t get in each other’s way. However, they must still rely on each other for things like getting revived as ghosts. These two changes make Super Mario Bros. Wonder the best multiplayer 2D Mario game yet.
Nintendo is still at the top of its game when it comes to level design too. This is a series that can get critiqued for being polished, yet formulaic, but entering every new level in this game for the first time has an enchanting sense of discovery. Within each of them, you’ll likely encounter some new kind of enemy or obstacle you have not seen in the game until that point. The game introduces a mechanic in safer spaces where players can mess around and learn its ins and outs before dealing with that gimmick in a more challenging situation or a using a Wonder Effect to complete the level.
As a result, each Super Mario Bros. Wonder level feels like its own little sandbox. While “sandbox” is a somewhat overused gaming buzzword used to promote how players can interact with the world, Nintendo reminded us of the true meaning of its definition this year. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom did so on a massive, open-world scale; its Ultrahand and Fuse systems gave the players the tools they’d need to tackle a challenge in various ways, not just the illusion of choice.
Even though Super Mario Bros. Wonder is made up of dozens of smaller levels, each of them are subtly sandboxes in their own way. This game might not have as vast of a toolset as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, but whatever limited toolset Super Mario Bros. Wonder gives you in a level, it fully expands upon. Rarely have I played a 2D platformer like this where everything I think to do is accounted for.
If there’s an area above the camera’s view that it seems like you can get to and walk on, you probably can. More subtly, things like spraying grass with water in the Elephant costume causes flowers to sprout. Then there are enemies like Armads that vibrate the Joy-Cons before you have to throw them. These might not be core, game-defining mechanics, but they make every Super Mario Bros. Wonder level feel like a living, breathing world. It’s a game that encourages players to tinker with every tool or gimmick a level throws at them, only to enhance or recontextualize them in a wild way with a Wonder Effect.
All these elements combine with the colorful visuals and enhanced audio design to make each of Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s stages feel like an enchanting, undiscovered world that players can interact with as they see fit. If you take time to stop and smell the roses in Super Mario Bros. Wonder and actually take in all of the genius design changes and choices the game is making, you’ll come to appreciate the game even more.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is available now on Nintendo Switch.
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