So much fanfare has been heaped around the Elephant Fruit power-up in Super Mario Bros. Wonder that I fear everyone has lost sight of the fact that this game actually introduces three new Mario power-ups to the dungaree-wearing canon. What we have here is the most creative 2D Mario adventure we've had for a long time. While this is a more traditional side-scrolling platformer experience than something like Super Mario Odyssey, it also manages to brilliantly capture so many of the elements of Mario and friends' more recent endeavors and escapades to make Wonder truly live up to its name.
Release date: October 20, 2023
Platform(s): Nintendo Switch
Developer: Nintendo Planning and Development
Playing Super Mario Bros. Wonder is like your first magical visit to Disneyland. You have no idea what's beyond that first bend on the roller coaster track or behind the next closed door, but there may well be sudden singing, odd little creatures, and the occasional man in an oversized suit. The addition of Wonder Flowers truly mimics this surprise factor found all throughout Wonder. In each level, there's at least one hidden Wonder Flower to discover, which always involves a little detective work or some perfect timing.
What the Wonder Flowers actually do to each level will usually be a complete surprise, but they'll always change the aim and potentially the accompanying mechanics of any given level. One turned the entire playable space into a giant rolling Katamari-esque snowball, while another flipped the world on its side and turned the next section into a top-down puzzler. Other Wonder Flowers have the capacity to change Mario (or the other playable characters) themselves, with one such level turning us into inflated bouncing balloons to mimic an enemy comically known as a Bloomp. You can even turn into a Goomba in some levels, complete with a tiny little Mario hat balanced on its head, which means you can't jump but are immortal to usual hazards like spikes.
Even though a few of the Wonder Flower effects are repeated throughout, there's a magic to unleashing every one. I love the fact it lets this 2D adventure channel the sense of discovery that I particularly love in the more open worlds of Super Mario Odyssey and Super Mario Galaxy. You're always rewarded by pushing at Super Mario Bros. Wonder's boundaries too, whether that be with a Wonder Flower or just a few coins in recognition that you've found a hidden ledge or area. Missing a Wonder Flower for me is an instant level restart too, as I just can't bear the thought of not experiencing whatever slice of silliness that level was waiting to deliver.
That's really at the heart of Super Mario Wonder too – that feeling of playfulness. There's a joy here that's been prevalent through every minute of my time with the game. It really does just make you smile and laugh the entire way through, even if Bowser and co continue their quest to be as irritating and problematic as possible.
A very different Elephant Man
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is easily the prettiest Mario adventure yet, with an overall level of sheen and finish that really sets this game apart from its predecessors. The level designs are stunning, and I love the fact the overworld has a mix of linearity and opportunities for exploration. There are still themed worlds as you'd expect from a Super Mario game like this, but the Wonder Flowers keep things feeling fresh even if the idea of an ice-themed world is one that many Mario games have traversed before.
Something that particularly stood out is Super Mario Bros. Wonder's use of darkness. We've seen haunted house levels in previous Mario games, where the lights go out and the Boos come home to roost, but there are several unique elements here that really take advantage of the contrast between light and dark. Wonder really does well to play with darkness in a way that makes you truly appreciate the depth of the blacks of the Nintendo Switch OLED screen.
There's also an attention to detail here that just heightens that magic playfulness. There's so much to spot, whether it's the snot bubble on a sleeping Goomba or the fact each character's face changes when they start dashing. That's particularly true when you start experimenting with the trio of new power-ups. Watching Mario conveniently almost lose his hat as he enters a tunnel, only to have to reach back out and grab it is a hoot, but doesn't compare to seeing Elephant Mario's chubby butt squeeze itself into a green pipe. Iconic.
The Elephant Fruit itself does more than just make you into an adorable animal though, it gives you a trunk that you can use to whip enemies or suck up water you can use to affect the environment. Then there's the Bubble Flower, which lets you blow bubbles that can encase and defeat enemies, or be bounced on to reach new heights. The third new power-up is the Drill Mushroom for drilling into the ground above or below you to find new areas or directly into enemies.
The Yoshi dilemma
The fact all three have the potential to open up new traversal routes helps aid replayability for Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Annoyingly, while Wonder has the biggest cast of playable characters, unlike titles like Super Mario 3D World, the characters don't have their own unique abilities. It doesn't matter – beyond personal preference – whether you're playing as Peach or Daisy, a Toad or Luigi, Toadette or Mario himself here, as they all play exactly the same way. It feels like a wasted opportunity when there are so many characters available.
The only thing that does make a difference is that playing as a Yoshi or Nabbit means that while you won't take any damage, you also can't take advantage of any of the power-ups. These characters are intended as beginner-friendly options, but the power-ups are such a core part of the Mario experience it does feel really restrictive. Plus, as a huge Yoshi fan, I'd rather have had the option to toggle that specific feature manually rather than having it locked to specific characters.
Of course, all those characters also come in handy for local co-op for up to four-players, which is brilliant fun. There's also support for online play, but that's more limited to specific challenges rather than the entire game in online co-op.
What we do have though is the implementation of badges, which are unlockable abilities of sorts that you earn through challenge levels. The strange thing is that some of these are classic Mario character abilities, such as the crouch to high-jump, or Yoshi's flutter jump – known here as the Floating High Jump. There are unique ones to this game like the Parachute Cap where Mario uses his hat to float downwards, or the Grappling Vine for launching a vine that can stick to walls and pull you towards it. They can feel a little like shortcuts but do aid approachability for a whole range of players. However, they're definitely the weakest element of what is otherwise an excellent package.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is an excellent 2D Mario game with easily the most impressive world-building we've seen in this style. The trilogy of new power-ups are brilliant fun, and regularly humorous, with Nintendo's finishing touches adding extra personality at every turn. The Wonder Flowers are just magical too, rounding off a truly indelible Mario experience.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder was reviewed on Nintendo Switch OLED, with code provided by the publisher.