In a year of gaming epics, “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” arrives as a counterpoint. Not all titles need to be sagas that take weeks to finish. Excellence can come in many forms, and in Nintendo’s case, it’s a familiar one.
“Wonder” is the first original 2-D platformer in the series since 2012’s “New Super Mario Bros. U,” and despite the genre being around for decades, the talented team at Nintendo continues to find ways to surprise and delight players.
TWIST TO A FAMILIAR TALE
The latest project follows familiar beats. The Flower Kingdom’s Prince Florian invites Mario and the gang to his country to check out the Wonder Flower, a reality-warping treasure. To no one’s surprise, Bowser swoops in and steals the flower, merging with the royal castle and becoming a living building.
It’s up to the Mushroom Kingdom crew to save the day as players choose from 12 characters who take on a mission to restore order and defeat King Koopa. As in previous games, up to four players can join in at the same time locally or via an online mode. It creates moments of chaos with so many players on the screen.
What’s notable though is that Yoshi and Nabbit won’t take damage, but they also won’t benefit from power-ups. Being invincible allows players of all skill levels to join the action. Mario and company will also encounter levels where having multiple characters helps earn Wonder Seeds (the prized collectible in the campaign) because some hidden blocks are only visible to certain heroes.
BEAUTIFUL ART AND NEW POWER-UPS
Initially, it seems as if “Wonder” goes through the motions. The seven worlds and the hidden special zone are beautiful and imaginative. Players will also encounter three new power-ups.
The Elephant Fruit turns the heroes into pachyderms that can suck up water and splash it around. That’s helpful on fire levels. The trunk also bats away adversaries and blocks. The Bubble Flower is surprisingly versatile and turns nearly all foes into coins. The bubbles also double as ephemeral platforms that players can use to hop over pits. Meanwhile, the Drill Mushroom allows Mario and company to drill into the ceiling or floor to access out-of-the-way areas or ambush adversaries.
The Fire Flower and Super Mushroom are mainstays that return. Nintendo could have done the bare minimum with these power-ups, but the team adds extra flair in the animation. As an elephant the protagonists squeeze through doors and pipes. Elsewhere, Mario will grab his hat as he enters a pipe. That’s another fun touch. Grabbing a Fire Flower even has an extra level of pizzaz that reveals an inordinate amount of care.
BREAKING THE MOLD
Bigger than that, though, is how Nintendo breaks the mold of the old formula through Wonder Flowers hidden in each level. Most stages have a theme-based on an enemy or a type of obstacle, and when players discover these flowers, it explodes that motif in astonishing ways. Pipes come alive and mosey down a level like inch worms. The perspective can change so that the background suddenly becomes the floor and instead of looking at a level through the side, players see it from the top-down.
The first time “Wonder” subverts expectations is during the stage “Bulrush Coming Through!” Players activate the Wonder Flower and suddenly they’re riding atop a stampede of bison-like creatures, and players will have to balance on their backs as they roar through the stage topping blocks and even the conventional flagpole that marks the end of stage. It brings players to an unexpected finish.
This rush of discovery is like finding a warp zone for the first time. There’s a delight in the unexpected. Best of all, every level of “Wonder” is filled with moments like this.
These twists are welcome wrinkles along with the concept of badges. Instead of creating a plethora of other power-ups, Nintendo added these perks as a bonus power that players can equip, but they can only choose one at a time. The action variety gives protagonists more maneuverability options such as an extra floaty jump or a grappling vine that they can use like a grappling hook to hang onto a wall. The Boost Badges help novices by giving them a power-up at the start of a course or adding extra blocks to help with platforming. Expert Badges drastically impact gameplay but are difficult to use and master.
The badges add another layer of depth and strategy. Players will have to figure out which ones can help them reach out-of-the-way areas or help them complete some of the harder levels in the Special World, the secret area with the hardest courses that test players’ skills.
Depending on players’ platforming expertise, “Wonder” can be a breeze or it can take a while to fully complete. In terms of length, it doesn’t hold a candle to hours-long epics such as “Baldur’s Gate 3,” but “Wonder’s” greatness shouldn’t be measured by time spent but rather the joy produced. It’s like comparing “War and Peace” to an Emily Dickinson poem. They’re both great in different scopes. Nintendo’s latest masterpiece captures the developers’ wit and distills that into the purest form of play, and fans will have no problem smiling as they venture through this playground of surprises.
‘Super Mario Bros. Wonder’
4 stars out of four
Platform: Nintendo Switch