What's Good About Super Mario Bros. Wonder

What's Good About Super Mario Bros. Wonder
We're in for a Wonderful Time

Audio Version, to Listen Along to.

You know, it’s not every day I get to talk about Mario. A lot of it is because Mario games speak for themselves for the most part. You know you're getting quality when you boot one up, and when a new mainline Mario game comes out, it’s an event. I’m talking full-on “everyone who is even remotely interested in video games will check this out” kind of event. But I don’t talk about Mario because what else can be said? Man’s one of the most well-known characters in video games, if not the most well-known. To the point where he had an actual capital B-billion dollar grossing movie coming out this year that from all accounts was pretty decent. He’s just always been kind of there in my video game-playing life, kind of like how Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have always been kind of there. It's just a constant. But I will say that while I only really started getting back into the 3D Mario games when I got my Switch and a copy of Super Mario Odyssey, I’ve been big up on the 2D Mario stuff pretty much since I could have means of playing Handhelds and the original systems they came out on. This also meant that I was looking forward to Super Mario Bros. Wonder and in a year as stacked as this release-wise, there’s something quite nice about a 2D Mario game being one of my favourite releases of this year. 

Mario on a Pipe broughtto life by a Wonder Flower.
I told you things got weird.

A good chunk of this comes down to the setting in which Wonder takes place. It does what a lot of my favourite Mario games do and takes place outside of the Mushroom Kingdom, here Mario and Luigi join Peach’s entourage on a diplomatic visit to the neighbouring Flower Kingdom. Things immediately go wrong when Bowser steals one of the kingdom’s Wonder Flowers, which he uses to fuse with the castle of Prince Florian and the resulting chaotic energy is wreaking havoc. These levels and worlds are some of the most creative I’ve seen in a 2D Mario game and their being set in the Flower Kingdom is the main reason for that. While World 1 looks like a plateau that looks a lot like Warp Pipes, Worlds 2 and 3 are set primarily on the cloudy summit of an icy mountaintop and a metallic, polyhedral lake respectively. And these are all enhanced by the Wonder Flower Effects. Each level has a different effect that radically changes the tempo of each level and they are the structural highlight of the game. I’m not gonna delve too much into them for spoiler reasons, but the second level made me feel like I was dropping acid with Salvador Dali in a pub. This is weirdly fitting because Mario as a series draws a lot from absurdism. It was wild. 

A lot of the new forms that Mario and friends can take are spawned from these Wonder Effects and it leads to some of the best gameplay in the entire game. But there are also Wonder-agnostic power-ups and here is where things are kind of a bummer. There are only three of them, the Bubble Flower which gives you the power to shoot bubbles to trap enemies and use them to increase jump heights, the Drill Cap lets you drill through tough terrain and the Elephant Fruit which makes you into a super strong elephant form. The Elephant Fruit is the only one I found myself actively going out of my way to keep on at all times because it felt like it had the most utility for how I like to play. 

Mario, Luigi, Peach, and a Toad all jumping up on the top of a flag pole

But none of these would matter if the actual gameplay was bunk and I am pleased to say that it’s awesome. You can speed up, slow down, jump and change directions on a dime and after over a decade of the more plodding pace of New Super Mario Bros it feels so nice to have a fast and agile Mario game again. These are enhanced by all of the things I mentioned in the Wonder Effects, power-ups and also level designs and new enemies. This is the first Mario game in a long time where we have the majority of the enemies are brand new and it leads to some creative challenges. You get guys that when approaching you open their mouths wide open to swallow you whole, bull-like enemies that will bum rush you, birds that shoot their beaks to make new platforms, walking Piranha Plants, and more. There are also a bunch of badges that either passively enhance your abilities like making you start each stage full-sized, or more active stuff like giving you a glide, a flutter jump, or even a Mega Man X-style wall jump or a Goddamn grappling hook. These all tie together for what is the best feeling 2D Mario Experience I've played in a literal decade. It has me thinking of all the ways I can change approaches when going through courses with badges and power-ups. Hell, I opened a separate Google Doc to document all of that because I’m an obsessive-compulsive weirdo. 

Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a great game in a year of great games. It’s bursting at the seams with creativity that only Nintendo’s output can. Its changes to the controls and how the Wonder Effects iterate on the rest of the game all come together to make what is, for my money at least, the best 2D Mario game since Yoshi’s Island. And Yoshi’s Island is my favourite of those, so I am not being light with the praise here.