Let the past die, kill it if you have to.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder represents a major shift in Nintendo’s approach to 2D Mario. For nearly two decades, 2D Mario has been developed with a goal of living up to what came before. The entirety of the New Super Mario Bros. series which spanned from 2006 to 2012 (barring a Switch port of the final game in 2019) spent its entire run desperately clawing its way to the level of Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World. While that branch of 2D Mario certainly improved over its four games, I’d argue that it never really did hit that goal. Throughout all of this, each game struggled to find its own identity. The New Super Mario Bros. series existed entirely as an echo of what had come before, rarely branching out with new ideas. So why does all this matter? Because what Super Mario Bros. Wonder does that makes it so much better than anything in the last twenty years of 2D Mario, isn’t to be more like Super Mario World, but rather to stop trying.
The first thing you’ll notice about Super Mario Bros. Wonder is an increased focus on narrative. This isn’t to say that Wonder is full of long cutscenes, but rather that it is constantly providing the player with motivation beyond the initial call to action of Bowser causing a problem. Each world you explore will generally feature a somewhat self contained narrative arc. For example when you arrive in a desert area, it isn’t simply a question of playing through all the levels on the way to a castle, rather an inhabitant of this area explains that Bowser Jr. has stolen their water supply and they need you to defeat him and get it back. Then after traveling the desert and arriving at Bowser Jr's castle, you find him swimming in a giant pool of water, the only water you’ll encounter in any of these levels. Other worlds may not even have a final boss in any traditional sense. Rather levels will simply play out in a way that satisfies the narrative hook of that area. While I don’t expect most of us are playing 2D Mario for the plot, this is a change that alters the player perspective of the gauntlet of levels presented to them. Entering a world isn’t just a question of playing levels with a new theme, it's a new story that will play out across the next series of stages. It makes the entire game feel like a consistently evolving adventure. It is a concept that calls to mind the more NPC filled worlds of the 3D Mario series that have been absent from the 2D franchise all along.
When starting a game you’ll be able to choose from twelve characters. Of these twelve, the four Yoshis and Nabbit are all invulnerable to damage but cannot pick up powerups. It is a great option, especially for younger or inexperienced players to have, but much like its implementation in New Super Mario Bros U, or Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze I’m disappointed that this feature remains locked to specific characters rather than simply being a toggle. Watching my nephews disappointedly switch back to Yoshi because a level is too hard for them to play as the character they actually want is disheartening. The worst part is other games like Yoshi’s Crafted World had already solved this with their Mellow Mode option. On the bright side, players no longer have collisions with each other when in multiplayer. That means you can spend more time focusing on playing the level, and less time accidentally bouncing off each other. The camera only following one player without offering propper split-screen is still a problem, especially for those playing with younger children, but it is overall still an improved experience over the New Super Mario Bros. games. The game does also offer an online mode in which you can see ghost images of other players, but in my opinion this added little to the game other than visual clutter, and ultimately took away from the experience of exploring a level. Still the option is there for those who want a more social experience.
As you play you will encounter a few new power-ups in addition to the new badge system. The elephant power-up turns Mario (or whichever playable character you’re using) into an elephant twice Mario’s usual size. While in this form Mario can use his trunk to smash blocks and enemies horizontally, a bit like the cape spin from Super Mario World but with a lot more power. This form can also take in water which can be used to feed dying plants, or cool flaming objects. Drill Mario evolves on an idea first seen in the Super Mario Galaxy series allowing Mario to drill down into the floor or ceiling. This allows him to circumvent certain obstacles and defeat otherwise armored enemies. Finally, Bubble Mario is largely useless in most situations. The real meat and potatoes of Mario’s new powers however, come in the form of badges. Badges grant Mario a permanent ability, regardless of his form. Only one badge can be worn at a time, so you’ll have to choose your preferred ability carefully. For myself, an early favorite was a badge that allowed for an extra vertical wall jump. Another that I picked up in one of the later worlds replaced this, but I won’t spoil that for those who haven’t found it yet.
The biggest weak point in what is largely an excellent game, is its boss battles. There are only three bosses throughout the entire game, and you’ll fight two of them over and over again. Each fight includes only minor variations to the environment and no changes to enemy attack patterns. It is a step back from New Super Mario Bros. U which featured thirteen unique boss fights, or even Super Mario World which featured six plus some variants. The last Mario game to have this few boss types was actually Super Mario 3D Land.
However, speaking of Super Mario 3D Land, while I think Wonder may have inherited its worst element in its boss variety, it also inherited its creativity. That expands beyond 3D Land as well and into 3D Mario in general. The entire time I was playing Super Mario Bros. Wonder I couldn’t help but feel less reminded of any 2D Mario and more reminded of Super Mario 3D Land, or 3D World. The non-linear approach to level order, the progression based on collectibles, even just the visual design of the overworld, all of these call to mind Mario’s 3D adventures. Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the first 2D Mario game to feel like it is looking forward from 1990 rather than back. A quick look at the credits reveals that Koichi Hayashida, who was the director of Super Mario 3D World and worked on every 3D Mario game since Mario Sunshine, just so happened to serve as a game designer on Wonder. The influence of the lessons learned from decades of 3D Mario are felt everywhere in Wonder, and are a huge part of why this feels like the first truly new 2D Mario experience since the early 90’s.
It is hard not to be absolutely blown away by Super Mario Bros. Wonder. It is easily the best 2D Mario in over thirty years. It does this by not trying so hard to match the past, and instead focus on new ideas and learn from how Mario has evolved in other dimensions since then. That being said, it does make the areas where Wonder gets tripped up feel all the more egregious. Not because there are issues to be solved, but because none of them are inherent to any of the new ideas. Gating difficulty options behind certain characters, the locked-in multiplayer camera, and the extreme lack of boss variety are all issues that have been with Mario for years. It is one thing when bold new design brings up new challenges, but these are just old complaints that don’t really have an excuse for not being fixed by now. Of course that doesn’t take away from the excellence of this title, but they do stand out. However, even with these blemishes, at the end of the day Super Mario Bros. Wonder is an incredible breath of fresh air overall. It has reaffirmed that 2D Mario has the potential to be more than just good, it can be incredible. It sweeps away any concerns I had that my love of the best games in the series isn’t just nostalgia and that a truly original 2D Mario absolutely has the potential to stand alongside Super Mario Bros. 3, and Super Mario World. While Super Mario Bros. Wonder isn’t quite perfect, it is a gleaming star we can hopefully follow into a new era for 2D Mario.