Day 68:46Super Mario Bros. Wonder is here. Should you play it?
The first 10 minutes of Super Mario Bros. Wonder has more surprises and moments of joy than the entire Super Mario Bros. Movie from earlier this year.
In the first level, I sprinted past several talking flowers, rode a sentient green pipe that slithered like a giant worm, and transformed Mario into a husky, bipedal elephant that still bore his signature overalls and mustache.
Indeed, if you’re planning on playing the first new 2D Mario game since 2012 with young children, you’ll have to figure out how to do it without making references to psychedelic substances every few minutes.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder keeps the fundamentals. You’re running and jumping on a two-dimensional plane, usually from left to right, avoiding obstacles and bopping enemies on the head until you reach the goal post at the end.
But Nintendo’s designers have outdone themselves with mind-bending twists on the genre. Wonder is the best 2D Mario game since 1991’s Super Mario World, managing to feel fresh while remaining faithful to the blueprint set back in 1986 that, for many, codified what a video game is.
Wonder Flowers for a good trip
The story is paper-thin, as expected. Mario and friends are visiting the nearby Flower Kingdom, when longtime series big-bad Bowser shows up and uses something called a Wonder Flower to merge with that kingdom’s royal castle.
Having transformed into a giant floating fortress with his cackling grin on the front, Bowser has set himself up in the centre of the Flower Kingdom threatening an impending disaster.
All of this, of course, is mere set dressing to unleash the player on an amusement park of dozens of levels and challenges of increasing difficulty and ingenuity.
The biggest addition to the formula are Wonder Flowers: items in every level that significantly change the experience in surprising ways.
Every level’s Wonder effect is at least a little different, but they all unlock a sort of level-within-the-level with new rules and visual effects. Sometimes a giant version of a regular enemy will show up, crumbling the world’s architecture.
Other times, Mario will be transformed in a way that changes how you interact with the level, such as into a giant rolling spiked ball, or simply inflating him into a balloon that floats and tumbles across the night sky.
Some Wonder effects elicited loud yelps as I played. Some made me rethink what a 2D video game can be; others made me rethink my assumptions on the free will of some of Bowser’s colourful minions (in ways Nintendo’s review embargo strictly prevents me from saying outright).
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It’s thanks in part to Nintendo’s approach to developing their first-party games. Rather than revving up a content treadmill to offer a new game every year, developers were reportedly given no deadline for what would become Super Mario Bros Wonder.
According to an interview in Gamespot, developers drew up over 2,000 ideas before winnowing it down to their best ones.
The end result is a game where nearly every level has an enemy, obstacle or visual flair that won’t be seen anywhere else. The ideas are used to their fullest in rapid-fire, five-minute bursts, and never threaten to become overused or boring. Every level is now That One Weird Level, but in a different way compared to every other one.
Badges are fun, but limited in use
Super Mario Bros. Wonder also introduces some options for players if they don’t want to approach the Flower Kingdom’s bizarro flora and fauna the same way twice.
Players can equip one of several badges to change their abilities. One will allow you to expand your signature red cap, turning it into a parachute so you can glide far distances. Another will turn you into a magnet for golden coins, making collecting them a little easier.
Outside of short challenge levels specifically designed to test your skill with the altered abilities, I didn’t find much use for them. The architecture on most levels is already designed with your normal abilities in mind; changing the geometry even a little with a longer jump or faster running speed tilts the rhythm out of sync.
Players can choose several characters other than Mario, including his brother Luigi, several diminutive Toads or princesses Peach and Daisy — finally improving the number of playable female characters in a non-spinoff Mario game to two.
New Mario voice actor
Headlines leading up to Wonder’s release zeroed in on this being the first game since 1996 that Mario won’t be voiced by Charles Martinet. The voice actor who defined the character’s buoyant personality retired from the role earlier this year, moving into a brand ambassador role.
After months of speculation, L.A.-based actor Kevin Afghani just tweeted it out earlier this week that he’s inherited the role of both Mario and Luigi.
Gamers disappointed by Chris Pratt’s more grounded take from the Super Mario Movie should be satisfied by Afghani’s take, which is a mostly accurate imitation of Martinet’s work. Nintendo’s brand bible caretakers will rest easy knowing Afghani should be able to “It’s a-me” and “Wahoo” in the same beloved manner for years to come.
Special praise is deserved for Wonder‘s visuals. Levels and world maps pop with details sometimes with a vibrant palette that feels like it was painted in watercolour.
Each world has a distinct feel; in one, a blocky castle with muted tones looks like it’s ripped from a Tetris poster from its Soviet days; meanwhile Bowser’s mechanical worlds feel borrowed from rival Sonic and Mega Man’s levels, but infused with Mario’s signature all-ages charm.
Characters and enemies have a more hand-drawn quality to them compared to the stiffer versions in recent 2D Mario games. Mario and the supporting cast have more personality on the screen than ever with little more than a scrunched-up face while crouched on the floor, or wiggling their toes while in elephant form trying to fit into a green pipe.
Gamers may be disappointed at Nintendo’s uneven clip at releasing new first-party titles, often waiting six years or more for a new Mario or Zelda entry — with other franchises put on ice for decades at a time.
But a game as superlative as Super Mario Bros. Wonder shows again that the team knows what it’s doing, and should probably be left alone to work on whatever schedule they want. It will enthrall players young and old for years to come.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is out Friday for the Nintendo Switch gaming console.