Super Mario Bros. Wonder review: Fun but too familiar

With the Nintendo Switch released back in March 2017 and rumours of a successor console becoming more frequent every day, it’s safe to say that we’re in the twilight years of this hardware. The Switch brought so much innovation and so many novel ideas to the gaming world both in hardware and software, which makes Super Mario Bros. Wonder feel a bit out of place as a more vanilla 2D Mario title.

As we also come close to the review period we had with the game we still can’t shake that feeling – that this is a game that is great fun on its own merits, but leaves us with a sense of unwanted familiarity as more could have been shaken up.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder, as alluded to above, is the latest 2D Mario. The “Wonder” in its title comes from Wonder Flowers that players can interact with in levels, unlocking the Wonder Effect. This takes the form of completely transforming the level into something new and different, or transporting the player somewhere else entirely.

Sometimes a Wonder Effect will flip gravity, change dimensions, turn the player into a new form, put on a timer or race, completely change the physics and much more. The Wonder Effect is the best part of Super Mario Bros. Wonder but, also, the part that made us feel the most melancholic about the whole adventure.

The reason for this is that, every time the Wonder Effect ended, we were left with a regular 2D Mario game that simply is not as fun to play as whatever was happening when the Wonder Effect was engaged. In effect, most levels are broken down into mostly a normal, more boring level that is elevated for a precious few minutes (or even seconds) into an experience that is way more fun.

It just ends up feeling like… why couldn’t the entire game be this? Why can’t each level be wonderous and weird and quirky, different to the uncountable 2D Mario games we’ve played in the past? This may just be a case of the “cake for every meal” problem. Everyone loves cake on special occasions, but it would be ruined if you ate it for every meal. If the entirety of this game was so different maybe that would wear thin and we would be pining for something plainer.

But then we have a counterargument: Super Mario Odyssey. While Super Mario Odyssey definitely wasn’t going full tilt at every second that you’re playing, the insane skill ceiling of that game left players free to be as bombastic as they wanted outside of the level design. Think of it this way: in Super Mario Bros. Wonder the best parts of the game are in the control of the game designers and only on loan to the player in certain, short bursts. In Super Mario Odyssey, if you put in the time to properly engage with the mechanics, you can be as flashy and wild as you like on your terms, all of the time.

While the namesake of this game left us wanting, we have to say that we still had a lot of fun here. While the controls are a bit looser than we’d like, this is still a very enjoyable platforming adventure.

A lot of this enjoyment comes from the sheer attention and love that went into everything you see and do in Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Every single character and environmental detail, no matter how small and fast it passes the screen, is joyful and happy. The music is jaunty and inviting, the characters are all intensely stylised and the little touches you catch make spotting them a game in itself. Our favourite is that, whenever you enter a Warp Pipe horizontally, Mario and Luigi will reach back to grab their hat that flies off. Even better is that your hat will change depending on the power-up you have active, and the animation will change to reflect this.

Simply being in this world is so fun that we can’t help but love it, even during some irritating parts, like especially difficult levels or when the Wonder Effect ends right when it was the most enjoyable. The challenge aspect of the game is entirely on the player who can pursue difficulty at their leisure. The main aim of the entire game is collecting Wonder Seeds to save the Flower Kingdom and beat a newly empowered Bowser. The number of seeds you need to progress, however, are much less than the number available in the game, so you can take the path of least resistance if all you want to do is beat Bowser and the other bosses.

Each level also has a difficult rating and the game reveals, at the level select map, how many Wonder Seeds the level has to offer, so you can choose what to play measured by those two metrics.

Also up to you is the cast of playable characters which is unexpectedly large. Even better is that you can play all of them right from the beginning of the game, and gameplay will change. The cast is broken up into two lots: regular characters and special characters. The regular characters are Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yellow Toad, Blue Toad and Toadette. The special characters are Yoshi, Red Yoshi, Yellow Yoshi, Light-Blue Yoshi and Nabbit.

The regular characters all act identically and represent the normal way to play the game. The special characters, however, do not take damage and can’t use power-ups. You could see the special characters as an “easy mode” but we like to think of it as a “little brother mode”. For the longest time the gaming community has asked for some kind of mode where a younger sibling or cousin could play the game without dying or hampering the progress of the main player, and the special characters in Super Mario Bros. Wonder fit this idea beautifully.

The game can be played with between one and four players too, so you can make quite the mix and match between regular and special characters. This gets even more varied when you consider Badges that can be collected throughout the game. Badges are essentially powerups that grant you one extra ability. The first Badge you get, “Parachute Cap” allows you to stay in the air a little longer by holding down R or shaking the Joy-Con. Badges like the Parachute Cap can be active requiring a button press, while others are passive and work on their own.

We won’t spoil any other Badges, but we will say that there are quite a few that can change how you play entirely. Some, however, come across as a bit of a joke and seemingly make the game harder or at least make it stranger to play. We can see a lot of challenge videos on YouTube popping up, seeing if the game can be beaten with these weirder Badges.

If you’re playing Super Mario Bros. Wonder as a purely single-player experience you may find yourself annoyed by being limited to one Badge per level. This is almost certainly a balancing choice by the developers so that each player has a different badge, increasing the variety of the experience. We understand that decision but we can’t help but feel like even increasing the default Badge allotment to two per player would have been very welcome.

As we experienced more of this game the feeling of these small niggles interrupting the overall great experience became more pronounced. Being held back by the simpler levels outside of Wonder Effect, the single Badge and some repetition in the level types became more apparent as we sunk more hours in.

During some longer play sessions, as we aimed to get a certain number of Wonder Seeds to unlock some new part of the map, these niggles really added up. As did some outdated game design elements, like the lives system. It’s crazy that we’re going into 2024 and lives are still around. It’s even worse in this game because buying lives with another collectable is extremely cheap, so the entire system should have been left out entirely.

This vestigial lives mechanic is indicative of some older school thinking that is holding back 2D Mario games, even when the visuals, music and ideas are so damn good. In balance, the sheer fun of Super Mario Bros. Wonder cannot be overlooked, especially for kids and groups of players, but we don’t think it went far enough to properly wow us.



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