Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the best 2D Mario in years. Simply a must-play for Switch owners
- Wonder Flowers mean you never know what to expect from a level
- Fun online mode
- Ingenious badge system
- Elephant Mario
- Online play might be a bit chaotic for some people
- It ends
As we sit down to write this review, there’s a temptation – one that Nintendo has perhaps anticipated and therefore wisely forbidden us from giving in to – to simply list all of the completely bonkers things we witnessed in Super Mario Bros. Wonder in one rambling outpouring of excitement.
Not for mean-spirited, spoilerific reasons, to be clear, but because this is a game so stuffed with these weird and, yes, wonderful moments, so relentless in its desire to entertain and often bewilder you, that we were worried we’d forget about half of them if we didn’t write them all down.
A new Mario game is always a big deal. But it’s fair to say that the 2D series has become less of an event than its 3D counterpart. While enormously successful, the New Super Mario Bros. series was accused of playing it a bit too safe, and if you discount Super Mario Maker and the mobile-only auto-runner, Super Mario Run, it’s been 11 years since the plumber has returned to his side-scrolling roots for an all-new adventure.
Nintendo would certainly never say that Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a direct response to those who said the 2D series could no longer innovate, but that’s what it feels like to us. Mario’s trippiest, strangest and funniest outing yet is another deliriously inventive entry in gaming’s most important series. It deserves to become a new generation’s Super Mario World.
Mario in Wonderland
Super Mario Bros. Wonder opens as most Mario games do. The plumber and pals are on a trip, this time away from the Mushroom Kingdom to the neighbouring Flower Kingdom (new for this game). It presumably smells nicer than their home turf. Sadly Mario and co don’t have long to take in the picturesque landscape of this unfamiliar world. Because you-know-who inevitably rolls up to wreck the vibe. Bowser steals a Wonder Flower because that’s the kind of thing he likes to do, transforms into a flying castle, and as usual it falls to the moustachoied handyman to stop his nemesis from doing evil business.
You know Nintendo is pretty confident about what it has in store for the player when it only waits a minute or so to introduce the power-up that grabbed all the headlines when Wonder was announced. In case you’ve been living offline for the last three months, Mario – or any other character you choose to play as – can consume a fruit that transforms him into an elephant. And not just any elephant. One that can fling most enemies into the air with a single flick of its trunk and, somehow, stuff itself into Warp Pipes. Elephant Mario is as fun to play as he is funny to look at. He’s qually as acrobatic as non-mammal Mario and just as capable of butt stomping Goombas (now accompanied by a delightful drum sound), should you want a quick break from all the trunk whacks (unlikely).
In any other game a wonderfully animated anthropomorphic elephant would be the main attraction, but in Super Mario Bros. Wonder it’s just the starter. As is constantly hinted at by the fully voiced talking flowers you encounter along the way, the major addition here is the Wonder Flower. You can find one hidden in every level in the game. When Mario touches a Wonder Flower it triggers an event that will often dramatically alter the level in some way until you reach the Wonder Seed that acts as a reward. This is where Wonder is at its most spectacular.
To go into too much detail would spoil the surprise of discovering them for yourself. But to give you a little taster, expect Warp Pipes to become worms, Bulrush (smiling rhinos, essentially) stampedes, perspective-flipping obstacle courses, zero gravity, skydives, chaotic musical numbers, and all manner of chase sequences. Countless grin-inducingly brilliant ideas deployed and then disposed of immediately in place of another. You get a second Wonder Seed just for reaching the goal pole. Which makes it possible to go through a whole level without seeing its Wonder effect.
But these quickfire little sugar rushes of platforming genius are the heart and soul of Wonder, so if you miss one, you’ll be going straight back in to find it. And doing so means it’s more likely that you’ll stumble upon one of the game’s many other secrets. It’s a 2D Mario game after all.
Earn your badges
If it’s the Wonder Flower that makes Super Mario Bros. Wonder soar (often literally), it’s the new badge system that’ll keep you coming back to it after the credits roll. As you make your way through the Flower Kingdom, you unlock a series of badges either by completing special challenge levels or buying them from in-game stores. Mario can be equipped with one badge at a time, and you’re given the opportunity to change them out as each course loads.
Badges give Mario a special ability or perk, making levels easier (and in some cases more challenging) to traverse. With the Parachute Cap badge, the plumber can open his famous hat in mid-air to float slowly downward and easily skip a whole screen’s worth of enemies, while equipping Safety Bounce allows you to bounce back up out of pits after a badly-timed jump, for one time only. Perhaps not one for Mario purists, but it’s always a nice relief.
There’s a badge that earns you coins for defeating enemies and one that senses nearby items of importance. Badges can make you jump higher, further, up walls, and swim faster. And that’s just the ones we’re allowed to tell you about. Because they make each course slightly different to play, you’re more likely to replay levels with your favourite badge in tow. The game will also recommend badges to turn on for specific levels.
Some badges also have their own second-tier trials, which really give your thumbs a workout with their precision platforming. Nintendo wisely makes these optional, so seasoned players can tackle them, and the casual crowd are free to decline. All main courses are given a star rating for difficulty, and it’s always great to play a Mario game that caters to everyone’s tastes.
I come from a land of Wonder
When matched up against the rich and diverse game worlds of Mario all-timers like Odyssey and Galaxy, it’s easy to see why the recent 2D entries have slightly underwhelmed. But thanks to the reality-bending Wonder Flowers and a new art style, Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s Flower Kingdom is a delight to explore. While there are inevitably riffs on classic Mario themes – water, desert and, er, hills – each of its six worlds (seven if you count Petal Isles which connects them) feel distinct, from the pink clouds and squidgy platforms at the top of the excellently-named Fluff-Puff Peaks, to the psychedelic forest of oversized mushrooms you visit later on. Each world has its own vibrant colour palette, and if you own a Switch OLED, rest assured that this is the kind of game that really makes its display pop.
There’s plenty of enemy variety, too. You’ve got your classic Goombas and Piranha Plants, the latter now alarmingly capable of leaping out of their pipes to chase you, but Wonder also introduces new enemies, such as Hoppycats, little spiked creatures that copy your jumps, Mumsies, whose tall bandage dressings you can unravel by pulling a handle, and our personal favourite, Maw-Maws, deceptively cute monsters that’ll eat anything that moves with their comically huge mouths.
I’m forever firing bubbles
And while the Elephant Fruit is definitely the attention-grabbing power-up, there are others that are worthy of a mention. With the Bubble Flower, Mario’s overalls take on a pink hue as he fires bubbles that can both trap enemies and be used as temporary platforms to hop off. Later on you’ll get to use the Drill Mushroom, which allows you to burrow into the ground and either take out enemies from beneath them, or just whizz past them altogether. Every power-up and badge in the game is delicately balanced, so you never feel too powerful or athletic, while the controls, as you’d expect from a Mario team on its A-game, are pitch-perfect. Rarely does a 2D platformer feel this good in the hands.
One thing series veterans are bound to notice is that Charles Martinet is no longer the voice of Mario, bowing out after many successful years of wahoo-ing. Nintendo recently announced that voice actor Kevin Afghani brings both of the Bros to life in Wonder, and presumably future series entries. If you listen out for it you’ll notice the difference, but given that Mario isn’t known for giving long monologues, we got used to this brave new world pretty quickly. Still, thanks for the many, many memories, Charles.
Ghost and the shell
Here’s a sentence we never thought we’d write: Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s online multiplayer component has a hint of Dark Souls about it. Provided you have an active Nintendo Switch Online membership, you can go online at any point, and once you do you’ll start seeing shadows of other players from around the world who are either playing at the same time as you, or have played the level you’re currently in before. When you touch the shadow of another player a name pops up over their head so you know you’re in it together.
Nothing they do in their game directly impacts your own, or vice versa, so you can’t have other players take on bosses with you, à la the aforementioned Souls, and in typical Nintendo fashion you can only be a force for good. But where Wonder does take after FromSoftware’s series is in the way you can leave your mark on someone else’s game.
At any point you can drop a “Standee”, a cardboard cutout statue of your player character that indicates you’ve been there before. When you or another player dies in their game, they briefly turn into a ghost, during which time it is possible to be revived by flying into someone else’s shadow. These frantic searches are great fun, if arguably a little bit too much of a get-out-of-jail for bad platforming decisions.
You can also be rescued by live shadows, and if you’re holding an item such as a Super Mushroom in reserve, you can gift it to other players. Doing good deeds like lending items and reviving ghosts will earn you heart points which other players can see. Having thousands of them won’t make it any easier to take down Bowser, but everyone will know how much of a good dude you are.
The servers were only open for a brief window during the review period, but even in a Flower Kingdom exclusively occupied by games journalists and Nintendo employees, it was pretty hectic out there. Maybe too hectic at times, but it’s easy to go offline for a while if you’re feeling a bit friendly ghosted out. There are also private rooms for playing with friends, where you’re also able to race each other to the goal.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder verdict
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is everything a 2D Mario game should be in 2023. It’s a winning blend of the industry-defining early games’ secrets and masterful level design, the multiplayer mayhem of the New Super Mario Bros. series, and the punk rock energy and unhinged unpredictability of Super Mario Maker in one incredibly generous package. And you can turn into an elephant.
If next year is to be the final one of the Switch, Nintendo has given its mascot a fantastic game to go out on, and if you thought modern-day Mario’s best moments were reserved for his three-dimensional outings, it’s time to stop and smell the Wonder Flowers.
The best 2D Mario game in years is simply a must-play for Switch owners
Wonder Flowers mean you never know what to expect from a level
Fun online mode
Ingenious badge system
Online play might be a bit chaotic for some people