There are few moments in my gaming life that come close to the wonder I experienced when I first played Nintendo‘s Super Mario World on the SNES. A few have come close, but no games eclipsed the sheer awe I witnessed as masterful and challenging level design was matched by incredible music, expressive animation, and surprises and secrets on every screen. Even little details like the echo of sounds while in an underground area were perfectly captured and accounted for. It has stayed in my top 5 games of all time since I played it, and no 2D platformer, not even Rayman Legends (though that is debatable), reached the same level of greatness. Until now.
Yes, if you simply want to skip straight to the well-earned perfect score at the bottom of this review, you’re certainly welcome to do so, but you will miss the journey. My journey, that is, and that’s OK. I can’t blame you for wanting to hurry and experience one of the finest games you’ll play on any platform, even in a year such as 2023 that may just be the greatest year for gaming of all time. I preached to all who would listen that Baldur’s Gate 3 couldn’t be topped as my game of this year, and boy was I wrong. I simply hadn’t yet played Super Mario Wonder.
If you’re still with me, strap in for the ride as I do my best to explain why Nintendo’s Super Mario Wonder, released on the Switch, is one of the finest games you’ll ever experience. It all starts in a place you might not expect. It’s not fine controls or hummable music that kick-starts the wonder to come, and it’s not the whimsical graphics or the creative level design, though the game has all of these and so much more. No, the hero of this tale is one characteristic that permeates every aspect and detail: personality.
I’m not sure of any other game that could proclaim its hallmark achievement as “personality” and still be considered a top tier adventure. But personality is baked in to everything you see, hear, and do in Super Mario Wonder. A huge part of that “wonder” comes in not knowing what each new stage will bring, and the game couldn’t pull this off as well as it does without the little personality touches that never stop being endearing.
So what am I talking about regarding personality, and why is it so important? You’ll notice enemies reacting to you in different ways depending on what you are doing. The animations all have little flairs, like Mario grabbing his hat after he loses it when going through a pipe, fireball throwing and jumping while ducking actions having little touches in the way they animate, and the elephant form blowing water on the flower resident at the end of a level. These are little things that were accounted for that didn’t need to be. But they all add up to a game that was well thought out in even the smallest aspects.
Speaking of that elephant form, it is one of the new transformations that Mario and his other selectable friends can employ. Become an elephant and destroy bricks or enemies with your trunk, and collect water in that trunk to sprinkle on seeds to see what might happen. Or, don a drill hat and burrow into floors and ceilings alike, bypassing baddies and opening new areas. Fire Flowers return, allowing you to fling fireballs, or you can utilize a Bubble Flower to encapsulate enemies with bubbles or jump on the bubbles as makeshift trampolines. You can also become a goomba or a spikey ball, along with a plethora of situational transformations that are dependent on the most important major addition to Super Mario Wonder: the Wonder Seed.
The worlds and stages are already quite varied as each adds new creative gameplay elements, enemies, and obstacles, but the Wonder Seeds change everything. If you come across a Wonder Flower in a stage, which sets up a Wonder Effect, buckle up, because you have no idea what may happen. I don’t want to spoil much, especially some that are simply magical, but some of what you can expect include pipes coming alive, unlimited invincibility stars falling from the sky, and the 2D world changing into a 3D plane. These Wonder Seeds also have a habit of changing your character into many different forms, adding new temporary gameplay variables to the stage.
Once you clear the Wonder Effect, you will obtain a Wonder Seed. You can also find Wonder Seeds at the end of each main level and in stores where you can spend pink Wonder Coins on them and other items. Each map has certain blockades that require a number of Wonder Seeds to progress beyond those points on your way to the end of each world. As you clear each main world map, you will earn a Royal Wonder Seed, and the goal of the game is to obtain six of these which have the power to thwart Bowser’s evil plans.
We Need a Hero
It takes more than Royal Wonder Seeds to stop Bowser, however; it takes a hero. At the start of the game, you choose this hero among a small group of Mario and his friends, including Luigi, Princess Peach, Daisy, Yellow Toad, Blue Toad, and Toadette. Each of these characters controls exactly the same, but each has their own animations to bring out their personality. You may also choose Yoshi in many different color variations, and Nabbit from New Super Mario Bros. U. The Yoshis and Nabbit are invincible from enemies, though falling in pits still defeats them. They cannot use upgrades, so there are secrets that they won’t be able to discover themselves, but they are designed for newer players or those that need a bit of help in the levels.
Speaking of help, Super Mario Wonder implements multiplayer in a way that is absolutely game-changing. First, there is the multiplayer that has been included for some time in Mario games. Up to four players can join a game, either online or through couch co-op, and everyone can select their characters and run the stages together. If someone gets “K.O.’d” by an enemy or falls off a cliff, they turn into ghost form for a few seconds, and if another active player can touch the ghost, that player will be revived on the spot. Players can set up private rooms for their friends to adventure together and even take part in races.
Is This a Souls-like?
If there are private rooms, then that must mean there are public rooms, right? That’s where the multiplayer mode goes bonkers. Taking a page from Dark Souls of all things, Super Mario Wonder has a public multiplayer mode where everyone is in their own world, but you can see other players running around the maps and stages, doing their own thing.
You cannot interact with other worlds directly, meaning you cannot break a block and have it break in someone else’s world, but you CAN interact in other ways. There are emotes that you can use to cheer each other on or to express appreciation. This appreciation will be felt a lot, especially on the tougher stages, because players can rescue other players while in multiplayer.
Just like in direct multiplayer, if you see a player’s ghost floating about, you can touch it to save that player. You may also place a “standee” in a stage that will allow any ghost except for yours to be rescued if the ghost touches that standee. In this way, you cannot save yourself, but you can save others. In the same way, should you tumble off of a ledge to your doom, your ghost can race toward another player’s standee, or to another active player, to be saved.
Hearts and Badges
When you save another player, whether through standee or a personal touch, you gain hearts. You may also earn hearts by doing things like jumping on to the end-of-level pole together with other players. These hearts essentially do nothing, but they are an indicator as to how much you have helped and participated with other players in the mulitplayer mode. I honestly didn’t think that I would play in the multiplayer mode all that much, but it is so well implemented and fun that I cannot help but join the worldwide party whenever I’m adventuring through the Flower Kingdom.
Adventuring through the many worlds, you will come across many badges. One badge may be equipped at the start of each stage, and each does something to change aspects of the experience. These can include the ability to jump higher, the addition of blocks across the stage, and even awarding coins whenever you jump to the beat of the soundtrack.
Masters of the Craft
Something that will accompany you in your adventures is that wonderful soundtrack. Koji Kondo, a legend in Nintendo gaming music, heads a team of musicians that bring each stage to life, filled with audio personality and splendor that will have you humming the tunes well after your play session is over. Plus, the music is integral to the gameplay across many of the stages, making the soundtrack as important as any other element. Hearing these tunes, many reprises of older Mario songs, will brand an emotional smile on your face.
Every aspect of Super Mario Wonder delivers. This is the part of the review where I’m supposed to bash all that it doesn’t do well. The thing is, there’s nothing that it doesn’t do as far as what the game sets out to do. It is a 2D platformer, so if you don’t like that genre of game, I’d still say to try this just to see if perfection can sway you. Another thing that I could point to is the lack of accessibility options. With the inclusion of the Yoshis and Nabbit, players of all skills are accounted for, but I still would have liked to see more accessibility prioritized.
Very rarely does a game release that has virtually no flaws. If you want to play it solo, have at it. Should you want to play with friends, you can play in nearly any way you wish, with friends you know or with new acquaintances from across the globe. Afraid of the game feeling “samey”? Fear not, as the game is always changing, even briefly switching genres from time to time due to the Wonder Effects. Tight controls also ensure that any mistakes you make are yours alone, as well as your skillful triumphs.
From popping and stylized graphics and animations that ooze personality to nostalgic and whimsical music and sound effects, new gameplay elements across so many varied stages, and replayability due to badges, power-ups, and Wonder Effects opening up new areas in the stages, “wonder” is almost an understatement to describe Super Mario Wonder. It never ceases to amaze and surprise, all the way to the end and beyond where even more secrets await. We finally have a game that can match Super Mario World as a masterclass in 2D platforming. Super Mario Wonder epitomizes infectious personality and masterful perfection, and it is a must-play wonder to behold.
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