Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Super Mario Bros. Wonder (Review)

Super Mario Bros. Wonder Logo

If you're in the mood for a short and sweet game after putting hundreds of hours into Tears of the Kingdom, then Nintendo has you covered with Super Mario Bros. Wonder, the next iteration of 2D Mario. The last one was New Super Mario Bros. U, one of the launch titles for the Wii U, which also found its way onto the Nintendo Switch four and a half years ago, in the same year as the remake of Link's Awakening. So, it's been a while and it already wasn't the most exciting release back then...

While you can see that the New Super Mario Bros. games were used as a foundation, Nintendo really tried to freshen things up a bit with Super Mario Bros. Wonder and improve the game on various fronts. For once, it looks much prettier, where the expressive characters and all the new effects add a lot of charm. But first and foremost they have smoothed many of the edges, mostly by taking notes from Super Mario 3D World.

For example, you're not thrown out of a level onto the world map any longer when you die, you can just instantly retry, saving you a lot of time. You don't have to actually beat the game in order to save whenever you want, you can do this from the start without the need of temporary quick saves. You can also store an additional power-up in your pocket, which can be released by holding the A button.

If you collect one of the big Flower Coins, where there's three in each level, similar to the Star Coins in previous games, you will keep it even on death, which works like the green stars in Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury on the Nintendo Switch. But the game also now keeps track of every level where you have touched the top of the flag pole for completion, adding a little extra challenge there.

Luigi and Toad riding on rockets

In multiplayer the player characters don't collide any longer and the game also doesn't freeze for the other players when someone grabs a power-up, which makes things a lot less frustrating and potentially more fun to play, unless you really enjoyed screwing your teammates over. It also removes some options, like using the others as a stepping stone. You can only play together in person on the same Nintendo Switch, however, where the new online mode lets you see other players and help them out, but you're not really playing together... This seems like a weird restriction, given how the local multiplayer already limited the interactions between players.

Nintendo has also removed scores and the arbitrary time limits from the levels (with some exceptions). The latter is certainly a good decision for any platformer that comes with secrets and hidden collectibles, because sometimes you just want to explore and then the timer cuts you off for no good reason... And you may not care about the scores at all, where the removal doesn't really matter, but it might have been an incentive for some to replay the levels, where there really isn't any reason to do so in Super Mario Bros. Wonder once you got all the checkmarks.

Toadette in a coin collecting level

At this point you might even question the existence of other common Super Mario elements in this game, like for example the golden coins. They still give you a 1-Up for every 100 that you collect, but that's really all they do and that's not really much.

Problem is that Super Mario Bros. Wonder has a second currency with the purple Flowers Coins, which really pop visually next to their golden counterparts. They can be used to buy various other collectibles in the game, but also lives, where here you need only five Flower Coins for one. You can even buy lives in bundles for a volume discount and it's so easy to get enough that they game probably could have gotten rid of lives altogether, just like the unnecessary restriction of a time limit.

Sunbaked Desert World Map entrance

The world map is also more similar to Super Mario 3D World, where the levels are shown as little dioramas and you can even walk around freely in certain areas to play levels in any order and even explore the map for little secrets, like hidden Captain Toads. Other parts follow the traditional pathways between the levels and it really depends on the world, where some are completely open, others only use paths, but most of them have a good mix.

If you've grown sick of seeing the same couple of worlds in the same order, then Super Mario Bros. Wonder also mixes things up quite a bit. The traditional desert world, for example, now comes much later, is entirely made out of cake, and features a huge oriental castle with some surprises. The beach world, called "Petal Isles", now acts as a hub and even leads to the final levels of the game. There are also new ideas for worlds, like a mine, but overall they didn't go as crazy as they did in the Super Mario Land games, for example. But it's a huge way coming from the stale New Super Mario Bros. games.

They did go quite crazy with the levels themselves, however, where you never know what to expect from them. It's on par with the excellent Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, where each level becomes a unique step in the journey, introducing new ideas and gameplay mechanics on every turn. When Piranha Plants start singing and walking already in the second level, you know that you're up for quite a ride. Super Mario Bros. Wonder even has a variety of enemies that you will only see in one or two levels, always keeping things fresh.

silhouette level

And then it gets turned all on its head with the Wonder Flowers, where you never know what you can expect on what's essentially Mario's version of a LSD trip. You may ride on a giant Dragon Yoshi, get transformed into a spiked ball (with Manbo's Mambo to beat), or chased by a horde of enemies. The level may turn into a silhouette (also like in the new Donkey Kong Country games) with stretchy bodies, remove the gravity, or shift the perspective to a top-down view. It's a surprise box and while you can see what might be coming in some cases, it never gets old and often puts a smile on your face.

But what effort and creativity went into designing the levels and even the new enemies, there wasn't enough left of it for the bosses. You've probably heard this complaint a hundred times already when reading this, but it needs to be said. As stale as the Koopalings may have gotten with New Super Mario Bros. U, it still beats fighting Bowser Jr. three times over... The rest of the worlds simply don't end on a boss, where giving them something unique already would have done wonders in this department. The final boss is pretty entertaining, though.

The power-ups also feel a bit lackluster. The star is the new Elephant Fruit with its powerful trunk and funny character designs. The Bubble Flower is also very useful against enemies, where it's slower than the Fire Flower, but easier to hit with, and the bubbles can even be used as a platform. The Drill Mushroom turns the Spin Drill from Super Mario Galaxy 2 into a proper power-up, which lets you dig into the ground or ceilings and then move below the surface. It doesn't work on vertical walls, however, so you can't go full Spider Ball with this thing.

And that's it. No Ice Flower, Penguin Suit, or anything alike. All the other transformations are caused by the Wonder Flower as a temporary change, where you will find some of the crazier stuff. And some other abilities from past power-ups got relegated to the badges, where for example the gliding effect of the Super Acorn is now found within the Parachute Cap.

the badge menu with all badges unlocked

With the badges you can pick a perk before every level, which can even be changed on death. You will earn these in special Badge Challenges or be able to buy them in shops for Flower Coins. These perks may give you additional mobility in some form, modify the levels, alter what power-ups you get, earn you more coins, and so on. It's similar to the Magic Rings from Oracle of Ages & Seasons and it can be fun to experiment.

But the problem with these systems in general is often that there are certain perks that outshine all others and Super Mario Bros. Wonder is no exception to this. In this case the "Boosting Spin Jump", which gives you some additional altitude while spinning in the air, is simply too good most of the time. It works like a light version of the Propeller Mushroom from New Super Mario Bros. Wii and it's effectively a double jump, which helps with a lot of the trickier Flower Coins. There are some levels where other badges are better, e.g. the Dolphin Kick is a must for all underwater sections, but for most part you want that spin boost.

The "Expert Badges" are even meant to make the game harder, where you will either run or jump continuously or be turned invisible to the enemies and yourself. There is no real point of using them outside the delegated challenges, which were designed around them, however. It would have added a good amount of challenge and replayability if the game kept track what levels you've beaten with these particular badges...

Peach and Mario on a Yoshi dragon

You may also argue that the abilities and perks of the badges should have went into the different playable characters. In games like Super Mario 3D World the high jump used to be Luigi's thing, while Peach was able to float, and Toad was faster. These are all badges now and you could even come up with new character ideas for some of the other badges. For example, the Grappling Vine could have been used by some friendly Piranha Plant.

But the way it is here also has its advantages, because you can simply play whatever character you like best with whatever ability you like best. It also puts all players on the same page, which makes it easier to stay together.

all twelve playable characters in a row

Five of the twelve playable characters still behave differently, though. Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Blue Toad, Yellow Toad, and Toadette are the default characters and all act the same. So, there is no Super Crown or other shenanigans this time and these are your choices when you want to play the game normally, where there is plenty of options even when playing with the full four players.

Nabbit is the oddball and works similar to New Super Luigi U, where he can avoid enemies and obstacles, making him the easy mode character, but he also can't use any power-ups. Some of the Flower Coins require the usage of certain power-ups, so you probably won't be able to truly complete the game this way.

The four Yoshis in different colors work similar to Nabbit, but they can actually be pushed back by anything that would normally damage you, making them a bit harder to play than Nabbit. They make up for it with the signature flatter jump and other players can ride on them, including other Yoshis, which gives you a way of interacting after all. Playing as Yoshi can even be seen as a solid choice in certain levels that don't provide any necessary power-ups and are more on the frustrating side of things.

"You collected all of the standees, earning you a medal! That makes 6!" - Toadette at the Special World shop

Like any modern Mario game, Super Mario Bros. Wonder comes with a Special World filled with extra hard levels, which aren't required to beat the game, but to earn all medals and complete it. The difference is that this special world gets accessed from all the other worlds to unlock its levels one by one, so you can play these challenges from time to time, instead of being overwhelmed by them at the end of the game.

There's nothing in there that will make accustomed players of Super Mario Maker or Kaizo Marios sweat, but some of it can be a bit frustrating. The very last bit of the game, for example, wants you to jump over a series of enemies... with the Invisibility equipped. There is a lot of trial and error there, which wouldn't be so terrible if it didn't require you to replay the three sections before it every time. It's punishment by mindless repetition that makes for bad challenges like this.

Another level requires you perfect timing of wall jumps at the end, where the game seems awfully strict with the inputs there. You have to press against the wall when you jump or else it won't work.

Elephant Toad is up for a show!

But for the most part Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a joy ride, just don't expect it to last all too long. It may take around 20 hours or even less to complete it all, where you will get more content and play time out of each of the two Wii U ports, New Super Mario Bros. Deluxe and Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury, for the same amount of money. Super Mario Bros. Wonder will offer a sweeter time, though, while it comes with some of the best qualities of the Wii U Mario games combined into one... Except for the boss fights.

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