Super Mario Bros. Wonder - Flower Power (Review)
Super Mario Bros. Wonder
Released: October 20th, 2023
It’s been a few years since I last took hallucinogens. I’ve had many delightful times with them, but the last go was a doozy. As a general rule, you shouldn’t change your mind twenty minutes after shoveling acid into your mouth, or the next six to eight hours will be a nightmare.
Anyway, after years of overplayed jokes about how Mario uses magic mushrooms and literally gets high off of assorted plantlife, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the closest any game in the venerable franchise has come to simulating an absolute nutfucker of a trip.
It reminds me of the time I stood on a balcony, blasting Lou Reed's Transformer while the Philadelphia skyline crackled with deep blue electricity. It makes me think of that time the soundtrack to Moulin Rouge physically manifested and leapt out of my TV.
Mario Wonder is out of its bloody mind.
For quite some time, Mario’s 2D outings have been solid but rather prone to treading water. The New Super Mario Bros. formula first conjured in 2006 has had its mileage thoroughly pushed, with subsequent iterations releasing across multiple systems and several console generations. With the 3D Marios constantly evolving, the more traditional counterparts could’ve used freshening up.
That freshness has come in the form of a game curiously close to overcompensating, as it doesn’t so much build upon previous entries as spunk a technicolor torrent of hot nonsense.
If the audiovisual anarchy of Mario Wonder brings psychedelics to mind, the structure and pace of it more closely evokes a frenzied cocaine binge.
Mario Wonder is a game that never sits still, always at the ready with another wild gimmick to cram into a player’s eyes and ears before excitedly hurrying along to the next one. Almost every regular level has something different to offer, a shot of inspired gameplay or colorfully trippy silliness.
It’s impressive how much Wonder is able to switch gears while maintaining a consistently high level of quality. That said, the fact it never revisits or extrapolates upon anything can be a little disappointing, not to mention overwhelming at times with its barrage of constant changes.
Look, I’m just saying that the level in which the Piranha Plants put on an adorable musical number is over all too soon, and I spent a lot of the game desperately hoping for an encore.
All of this weirdness comes courtesy of a central new gimmick - Wonder Flowers. Every main level contains one of these flowers, sometimes clearly shown and sometimes obscured, and touching it begins a surreal transformation of the surroundings based on whatever that level’s theme is.
The stage involving charging rhino-type enemies will become a fast-paced sequence in which you ride on the back of a stampeding herd. Another transforms you into a gelatinous globule that navigates by sticking to walls and ceilings. Some make you immune to whatever that course’s primary threat was, allowing you to pass through fire or conduct electricity.
Like so much about Wonder, the effects of these Flowers are notably brief. Some are explicitly timed while others just make up a short section of a stage. They’re fantastic while they last - the whole screen energizes in a bright and jubilant car crash of sound and color, and the ideas behind each Flower’s activation range from cute to genuinely ingenious.
I mentioned the Piranha Plant Parade, right? Good.
As well as traditionally structured levels, each of the Flower Kingdom’s world maps are littered with challenges, puzzles, and other bits of sidecorn. They’ll need completing along with the usual platforming in order to get enough Wonder Seeds to unlock boss fights against Bowser Jr.
You’ll also acquire Flower Coins as well as the usual 1UP Coins. These purple buggers are used to buy Standees, which we’ll get to, and will be required at times to pay shitty little NPCs to open up parts of the map, even though you’re doing all this to save their fucking asses and 50 Coins to pay some floral jerkoff to build a bridge because he’s “tired” is just plain fucking extortion and he should be burned.
This would be a good time to outline the plot, I suppose. Wonder’s obligatory realm of mawkish goons is the Flower Kingdom, ruled over by a caterpillar prince whom I despise. Bowser decides to take this kingdom over by turning himself into a big floating castle with a face. There’s no further context for that - Bowser Is Castles Now.
Those side levels continue Wonder’s trend of playing around with the formula or offering fresh little twists. There are battle stages, where you clear several arenas of enemies as quickly as possible, scavenger hunt challenges, and levels explicitly built around using Badges.
Badges, collected throughout the game, offer a variety of effects from the universally useful to the situationally useful to the not very useful at all, and one can be equipped at a time. Some allow you to perform a unique action, such as a boosted crouch jump, and others offer more passive alterations like awarding extra coins for defeating enemies or adding a bunch of extra blocks to the level layout.
Some of these badges are pretty wild. One lets you throw out a grappling hook to get around like a rudimentary Spider-Man, while another makes your character constantly bounce up and down. Some have very specific uses, such as an underwater dash move, and some simply enhance your existing moves, making you faster or a higher jumper. None of them break the game, but they can definitely help, and trying them out is quite fun.
I would have liked to equip two at a time, an active and a passive one. Being able to magnetize coins toward yourself is really cool, but it’s hard to justify equipping it over the power to glide.
Mario Wonder’s consistently brilliant but that brilliance isn’t consistently distributed. Some levels are better measured in seconds as opposed to minutes, making for an uneven experience. Coupled with so many short Wonder Flower sequences constantly changing the tempo, the unpredictable burst fire gameplay can be rather jarring.
The overall result is a Mario game in which I’ve struggled more than usual to get into a groove with. Rather than being able to vibe with it for a lengthy period of time, I’ve engaged with Wonder the way it’s engaged with me - my sessions of play have been intermittent. I completed the game over the course of many short periods rather than remain hooked for hours at a time.
While it’s never outright offputting, the sometimes stuttery feel of progression has kept me waist deep in the game as opposed to fully submerged.
One thing Wonder does consistently well is parallel multiplayer. Similar to what we saw way back in From Software’s Demon’s Souls, playing online means you’ll see other players onscreen as ghosts, able to see their characters moving around in real-time. The resulting encouragement to keep going as you see others having fun alongside you pulls the same trick as the Souls games to a far more comprehensive degree, and actually did a better job of keeping me in the game than the level design did.
When connected, you’ll always see translucent representations of other players, and the HUD even gives you updates on their progress. What’s more, online play offers a cool safety net - rather than automatically lose a life when falling down a hole or taking one hit too many, you’ll spawn as a ghost and have several seconds to find and touch one of those other players. Doing so resurrects you on the spot.
That’s just great. Aside from those times I resurrected above a pitfall or within a hazard, I’ve had a few level restarts taken off my plate thanks to this system.
The camaraderie goes even beyond that. I’ve seen situations where other players complete their levels at a deliberately similar pace to others, simply so they can provide moving respawn points. It’s just really, really nice to see.
I just wish you had more than four vague emotes to communicate with - it’s a very “Nintendo” brand of arbitrary limitation.
Players can also place Standees as they progress. These are cardboard cutouts of the player’s character, and are used as online respawn points too. Furthermore, they can mark important secrets for other players - if you see a Standee in mid-air, for example, you’ve been told that a hidden platform is there, since you can only place Standees on solid surfaces.
Some stages seem explicitly designed around players cooperating in this parallel fashion to find secreted items. The hidden item stages are pretty crappy even online, and absolutely suck without that multiplayer backup.
I wish Standees were more robust as a feature. Each character can unlock multiple cutouts which are randomly selected when one is dropped. You can only use cutouts of your current character, and those characters are the only ones represented. I’d have much rather had a wide range of them pulling from characters across the Mario series, and gotten to choose one that explicitly represents me. In fact, customization would have made them far more involving.
Instead, you only get to use a few rather boring ones, and collecting them is similarly dull. They’re bought from merchants, who will give you a random cutout of an equally random character, and can sell you doubles just to waste your money. I spent a lot of coins before eventually learning of a merchant that sells specific characters without doubles, but by that point I’d grown utterly disinterested in Standee collection.
Needless to say, the audiovisual side of things is first rate. The colorful visuals put the sugar in eye candy, and the usual Mario art style has been given a little refresher that makes characters and enemies just that bit more endearing. The music is catchy as hell, which is certainly to be expected from this series.
Mario of course has a new voice actor, Charles Martinet having been unceremoniously replaced. After so many years of Martinet, the new Mario feels off, but I didn’t give myself much time to acclimate since this game lets you play as Daisy so why would I pick Mario?
For some reason, Nintendo decided we needed talking flowers dotted around every level to provide constant commentary. They sometimes say funny things, but most of the time their chatter is incessant and their voices are annoying. Fortunately you can mute them or, better yet, change their language to German.
Rounding out the new stuff is a fresh suite of Power-Ups, chiefly the Elephant, Drill, and Bubble powers. The Elephant is big, hits things with its trunk, and can suck up water to make dry flowers grow for items and new paths. It's a solid offering with the interesting side effect of revealing that Peach and Daisy's underwear. I mean... that's what we're seeing billowing out from under the dress, right? The Drill can attack enemies from underneath and burrow under the ground, making for a damn useful tool, but my favorite is the Bubble power.
The Bubble ability, true to its name, can blow a stream of bubbles that capture and pop enemies. The fact they pass through solid walls to do so makes for a great weapon, and they have the added utility of boosting your height if you jump off them. I really like the purple outfit it puts on characters, and it's just kind of cute of blow bubbles all over the place.
Oh, and you get to be a Goomba on one level. In a stealth section. Why not?
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is like a rapid firework display of ideas that never stops dazzling, throwing curveball after curveball and never lingering on a single concept. There’s something to be said for gameplay that doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, but often is the case that Wonder’s twists and tricks barely make it through the threshold before they leave, never to return. I’m impressed by what Wonder does, amazed at its drug-like wackiness, and left with a longing for some of that stuff to stick around longer than it does.
There are worse things to be than a great game that leaves a player yearning for more.