Super Mario Bros. Wonder is pure joy, through and through. From its expressive aesthetic to its whimsical stage designs, it delights you at virtually every step. With style and confidence, Wonder serves up a bountiful platter of stages that work hard to either make you smile and laugh out loud at the surprises they have waiting in store, or have you sweating at hard-won challenges that are tuned just so.
Building on the fundamentals of the Super Mario 2D platforming style, Wonder introduces and explores the limits of a slew of entertaining new gimmicks, in short, snackable stages, while having the restraint to never revisit the same idea more than a few times, at the most. In a direction that’s surely inspired by the late-stage psychedelia movement, the game takes place in a land called the Flower Kingdom, where items known as Wonder Flowers exist in each level, and bend reality in mind-expanding ways when Mario and his troupe find and touch them.
The Wonder Flower conceit has seemingly opened the door for some truly inspiring thematic and mechanical concepts that are genuinely a treat, and break a lot of the ideas of what a Super Mario game can entail. Their effects can involve anything from inanimate objects turning sentient, to a destructive stampede that tears apart the level, to musical numbers inspired by The Muppets.
Even outside of the Wonder Flower activations, each stage provides a variety of different experiences, from careful and considered platforming to non-stop speed runs, actual head-to-head races and even puzzle-box-style mysteries. Traditional concepts like secret paths that lead to hidden exits also remain, though amplified by some of the game’s new ideas. Certain “Break Time” stages exist purely to enjoy the inherent fun of one of the game’s mechanics without threat, and stages themed around particular pieces of music are utterly wonderful.
The creativity extends to a new suite of powerups and abilities for the cast of characters too, which are largely delightful. The Fire Flower is the only returning ability, with the amusingly powerful Elephant power-up taking centre stage, turning characters into stampeding titans. In Elephant form, you can crash through blocks, send enemies flying with your trunk, and water plants, which will reveal coins or other secrets. The Drill hat ability is also entertainingly destructive, allowing characters to attack enemies from below, as well as burrow into the ground or ceilings, and pop out with great force. The Bubble ability rounds out the selection, allowing for some interesting if less exciting ideas, allowing you to blow bubbles through walls to defeat enemies, and bounce on said bubbles to chart new pathways.
In a more interesting move, Super Mario Bros. Wonder does away with defining traits and abilities for each character, with the entire roster of 12 – Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Toadette, two Toads, four Yoshis, and Nabbit – all behaving the same way, with the exception of Yoshis and Nabbit being immune to enemy damage for a slightly more approachable experience.
Instead, what would have previously been considered character abilities have been transplanted onto a Badge system, with each badge providing either a new ability (like a grappling hook or floaty jump), a passive boost (like a sensor that can track down secrets, or a free bounce out of bottomless pits), or a challenging modifier to augment your experience (like always being invisible or running non-stop). Only one badge can be equipped at a time, though in most cases you’re able to swap out the badge you’re using upon death.
The idea adds a rare element of customisability and planning to Super Mario – now, you can alter or enhance your preferred playstyle with different options to traverse the stages, allowing for slightly different ways to get to objectives, or picking more suitable options for each new stage. Would this stage benefit from you being able to leap high from a standstill, or perhaps something else with a bit more forward momentum? Perhaps you’d rather have an option to make impromptu mid-air decisions to correct yourself?
The badges serve the additional purpose of making stages either easier or harder for yourself, a boon given Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s more varied level of challenges throughout the entire campaign. As you might expect, the game’s stages begin as a cakewalk, and ultimately end with demanding, high-stakes challenges. In between, each world features non-linear portions that allow for some freedom in choosing your next steps. Stages are clearly graded by difficulty, and not all are necessarily required to progress through to the next world. But if you do find yourself coming up against some adversity, the option to choose a different approach with the Badge system, or even give yourself some assistance with a boost badge, is there to help give you a slightly better time. The fact that the Yoshis and Nabbit don’t take enemy damage also contributes to this added leniency in Wonder.
Surprisingly, the online features of Super Mario Bros. Wonder can also be of some assistance. Taking some creative cues from Dark Souls, Wonder features asynchronous online multiplayer functionality that will have you witness the silhouettes of players past as you work your way through its stages. Get knocked out, and you’ll turn into a ghost, with the ability to revive yourself if you manage to touch another player. You may also encounter 2D standees left by other players in the stage, which can also serve as revival points, and have added benefits in being able to signal hidden stage elements to other players, at least in our experience. It’s an inventive idea that adds an additional dimension of life to the game.
There are times when those silhouettes might actually be other players, too, which allows those aforementioned mechanics to work in real-time, opening up additional abilities like sharing items. Wonder also supports online cooperative play of its entire campaign, with the bonus of opt-in races on certain levels as well. They’re great features, but even without all those bells and whistles, Wonder still shines just as brightly.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is built on an abundance of whimsical surprises, and the delight that each new one brings will keep you smiling from beginning to end. It’s a significant, impeccably refined creative leap that resoundingly demonstrates that there is still a lot that can be done to a near 40-year-old idea, and one that continues to spark a fulfilling sense of newfound joy through play.
Five stars: ★★★★★
Super Mario Bros Wonder
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: 20 October 2023
A copy of Super Mario Bros. Wonder was provided and played for the purposes of this review. GamesHub reviews are scored on a five-point scale. GamesHub has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content. GamesHub may earn a small percentage of commission for products purchased via affiliate links.