Super Mario Bros. Wonder Review
A Wonderful Reinvention
I don't think I would be out of line in saying that the 2D world of Mario has been languishing for some time now. While the 3D entries have constantly pushed Nintendo's iconic plumber in interesting directions, the traditional 2D games have mostly stuck to the basics. The New Super Mario Bros. series was a nice throwback upon release but had diminishing returns each time it resurfaced. The Mario Maker spin-offs improved things, but they still pulled from the same pool of material. It's refreshing, then, that Nintendo is finally mashing together the creativity of their 3D releases and the gameplay of their 2D games with the arrival of Super Mario Bros. Wonder.
Taking us away from the Mushroom Kingdom, Super Mario Bros. Wonder has Mario, Peach and the rest of the gang visiting the Flower Kingdom. Prince Florian has welcomed them with open arms, and has plans to showcase the kingdom's crown jewel, the Wonder Flower, to his esteemed guests. However, before this can be done, Bowser decides to muck things up by swooping in and stealing it. The unique powers of the flower transform Bowser into a sentient castle that is now corrupting the Flower Kingdom. The heroes of the Mushroom Kingdom, along with Prince Florian, must now take down Bowser, and retrieve the flower before any more harm can come.
No one comes to the Mario franchise for the deep storytelling, and I doubt Wonder will change that. Facing off against Bowser is essentially the status quo for Mario and friends. The only difference this time is that it is taking place in the unusual Flower Kingdom. While the characters aren't fleshed out in any meaningful way, I do think the Flower Kingdom has a potent personality that often shines. Talking flowers litter every level, and chime in with fun bits of dialogue. The different members of the Flower Kingdom you come across in each hub world have some charm to them as well. Again, there's as much depth to the plot as there was in the recent movie, but the oddity of the Flower Kingdom helps freshen things up.
The set-up of the game is merely a launching point for the copious amount of creativity the gameplay incorporates. As evidenced by how the Wonder Flower turned Bowser into a castle creature, the unusual foliage of the Flower Kingdom often brings unexpected reactions. Each level typically includes a Wonder Flower to find, and once you touch the plant, the gameplay will completely change. Sometimes you'll be transformed into an enemy featured in the level, other times you may find yourself running through a sea of power-up stars. The trippy effects of the Wonder Flower will be switched off once you collect a Wonder Seed. This is usually one of two Wonder Seeds in the level, with the second one being rewarded upon completing the stage. These objects are used to destroy powered-up Piranha Plants blocking additional levels.
Although the gameplay doesn't stray too far from the usual, the Wonder Flower effects liven up the experience significantly. To me, they are the highlight of the title. Moments like being chased by a ghost version of yourself or having to collect coins to the rhythm of music, mash the excellent platforming of the series up with something fresh. These moments do an excellent job of switching up the tried and true gameplay just enough to make it feel unique, but not so much that it shifts away from what Mario has always done best. The visual pizazz of each Wonder Flower also helps sell the absurdity of what you are doing. There's very little repetition to these effects as well, so you don't need to worry about getting tired out by a certain effect version. The staggering amount of creativity that went into making sure every Wonder Flower power feels different from the previous is a major boon for the game.
As mentioned, the core gameplay will feel familiar to any fan of the franchise. You're jumping over pits, collecting coins, stomping Goombas and jumping up flagpoles. Whether you came in during the OG, or only during the era of the New titles, you'll feel right at home with Super Mario Bros. Wonder. There are a few new powers for Mario and company to acquire, though. The most well-known is the Elephant fruit, which is arguably the strongest power in the game. You can easily swipe foes away with a trunk and carry water in it as well to douse flames and water plants. There's also the drill hat, which lets you burrow underground, and the bubble flower, which lets you blow bubbles that can capture enemies and items. I don't love those last two powers and would take either Elephant or classic Fire Flower over them. But they do have their uses, and it's nice to see Nintendo still coming up with new abilities for players to discover.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder does have another major addition, which is the new badge system. During your time with the game, you'll acquire over two dozen different badges, and they can be equipped prior to jumping into a level. Badges are broken down into three different categories: Action, Boost and Expert. Action badges give you a new skill to use, Boosts are passive bonuses and Expert gives you a great ability but makes the game itself harder to play. The hook is that you can only equip one badge at a time, and you may discover that certain badges work better for certain stages. You may only be able to reach a certain item if you have the Floating High Jump badge, or you may find it easier to clear a stage with the extra blocks provided by the Add Blocks badge. Expert badges such as Jet Run (always be sprinting) or Spring Feet (constantly hopping) have their advantages, but not being able to turn those off can lead to errant deaths.
There are good and bad elements that come from the badges. On the one hand, they add replay value to the game, as you can use them to tackle levels in different ways. I also like that you unlock most of them by completing specific bonus levels, which are really fun. On the other hand, I wish you had the option to equip more than one at a time. They could have even forced players to not be able to equip two badges of the same category at once. Maybe it would have broken some levels, but it would have been nice to have the option at least.
Whereas multiplayer options in past 2D Mario games have been more combative, the multiplayer in Super Mario Bros. Wonder errs on the more cooperative side of things. Players can choose from several different characters, including the regular faces, as well as odder additions such as Nabbit, to tackle a level together. You're not smashing into each other like you did in the New series, and you can even save a friend's life if they die by touching their ghost. One of the downsides is that when you are equipping a badge, your entire group of players uses the same one badge. You can't even mix and match between different players, which was not a good choice in my eyes.
One of the cooler aspects of online play, though, is how it is weaved into the single-player mode. As you play through the campaign, you are given the option to turn on seeing other players running the level the same time you do. By doing so, you can potentially uncover secret items and areas due to seeing other players figuring out what to do in the background. You can also drop standees in a level that will populate on other's levels in the same location. These can be used to revive fallen players, or again, to help someone find a secret. It can end up feeling very similar to the experience found in Journey as you work together to 100% a level. For a company that doesn't always do a great job of integrating online play, Nintendo hit it out of the park here.
Although technically fine, the art style used for the last few 2D Mario games had really run its course. It was too sterile and lacking in personality. Wonder manages to douse the franchise in a fun, fresh coat of paint. The Flower Kingdom is filled with great level designs bursting with personality. This includes both when a Wonder Flower is activated, and when you are running through the stage normally. The new kingdom also brings new creatures for you to beat, but Goombas and Koopas are still hanging around as well. What really helps the title stand out are the player animations though. They look fantastic, and every action, whether it be regular or badge-powered, has a charming look. They look like they came from an entirely different universe than the tired, stiff animations of the New games.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is exactly what the series needed after all these years. While the 3D entries are still the franchise at its best, this is a significant step-up from where the 2D titles had previously been. It's filled to the brim with creativity, and offers up a ton of variety. It still plays just as good as you would expect it to, as nothing has been sacrificed from the platforming to fit the various gimmicks of the Wonder Flowers. If the badge system had been tweaked in just a few areas, this may have had a claim to the title of best 2D Mario game ever. As it stands, though, it will merely have to sit as one of the best titles of the year.