Game Ramblings #178 – Super Mario Bros Wonder

More Info from Nintendo

  • Genre: Platformer
  • Platform: Switch

It’s not that I thought the New Super Mario Bros series were bad, but they were incredibly safe. The platforming was fun and solid, but it wasn’t necessarily anything new and interesting. NSMB and NSMB Wii were clearly outclassed by the two Galaxy games. NSMB2 and NSMBU were clearly outclassed the also safe 3D Land and 3D World. It wasn’t really a bad thing that the series then went on effective hiatus while Mario Maker took over and Odyssey wowed the world. Wonder finally feels like the 2D series’ Odyssey moment.

If I was just going to sit here and talk about how Mario feels to run and jump and whatever, it’s basically NSMB for me again. The core physics still feels a bit slower than I’d prefer, at least to a point. There is a couple noticeable small changes that really help this feel snappier than the older titles, and they both have to do with stopping.

One of my biggest problems with NSMB physics is how slow stopping is. If I’m trying to hit a tight platform it was usually safer to jump when I landed in order to reset using air movement, because if I was to just let go of the stick I would generally fall off. Wonder has drastically faster stopping allowing me to usually just land. It’s a small change but makes the game feel incredibly better in precise spots. Reversing direction is similar. In NSMB reversing from a sprint would slide you for a while, then you’d reverse direction and accelerate normally. Wonder combines the quicker stopping with what I can only describe as a speed boost to make sure that if you’re reversing direction you are quickly reversing direction. It makes things like vertical segments hopping between platforms incredibly better.

However, the thing about Wonder isn’t so much that it ultimately feels all that different, but it embraces fun for the sake of fun. The key around all of that is the Wonder Flower system they’ve setup. What it basically is is a system that changes the level for a short period of time – typically 30 seconds or less. The media I’m posting in this rambling are all examples of that. Sometimes it’s just turning the level into a musical number for the sake of it. Sometimes you have fundamental shifts in the mechanics of the level, like the long Mario above. At some points you’ll take over the bodies of an enemy in segments very reminiscent of Mario Odyssey, such as taking over a Goomba who can’t jump but can hide behind foliage in the background layer. The thing about all of these changes is that they aren’t fundamentally changing the game away from being a platformer, but they’re providing a fun change of pace in a way that is entirely unique to the level. You never really know what you’re going to get into when you activate one of the Wonder Flowers, but what you do know is it’s going to be entertaining.

The other part of all this that is incredibly impressive is how much variety there is in this system, and that extends across the whole game. Besides the core platforming mechanics, most levels have unique mechanics that you might only see two or three times in the entire game. One flower that sticks out in my head is a segment in which you’re thrown into a box sublevel that rotates periodically, forcing you to keep up with the rotation as walls become floors and ceilings. The screenshot above transforms the entire game into a near direct copy of the SNES title Smart Ball and is only used in maybe three levels. There are segments where you’re floating in the sky avoiding lightning and enemies. There’s a spot where Mario literally becomes a walking piece of a platform that can bounce things away. There are a couple sections where you’re platforming around on a flying dragon. There are a couple levels where there is specifically an enemy that will eat things like powerups if you don’t get to them in time.

The list here can go on and on because there’s a ton of variety in the roughly 70 main levels you run across. However, the point I guess is that across that you might be seeing 30 or 40 mechanics that are used two or three times and seem like they were created simply because they thematically fit with the level they belonged in. It’s such a rarity for any game to have mechanics simply for the sake of it enhancing the rest of the surrounding experience. It’s even more rare for there to be such a wide array of low-use mechanics and still have them be both fun and quick to learn on the fly. Mario Wonder manages to pull that off to an amazing level of quality that just isn’t seen by most other studios.

That attention to detail extends to the visuals as well, and that’s hugely important coming off of NSMB. Visually I could only describe those games as being at best sufficient. They were generally overly safe and overly boring. Everything served a functional purpose, but it didn’t really feel alive. Animation was kind of stiff, the backgrounds were pretty static, and overall it felt kind of lazy,

Super Mario Wonder is so much the polar opposite that I can’t believe we didn’t see any of this before. It’s easy to look at Mario’s core animations and be impressed with the level of quality given to him. A lot of this is thanks to them switching from a pure side view to more of a three-quarter view, giving him a ton of facial detail that they use. However, it’s the little things that really caught my attention. There’s fun little moments everywhere, such as Goombas being asleep (with the requisite snot bubble) if they come in from off screen. There’s stuff like enemies emoting panic if they fall off a ledge or if a nearby enemy gets hit by a fire flower. There’s entire scenes like the first video where the entire world is singing and dancing. It all has just a ton of life that was missing from 2D Mario. And that’s all to say nothing of the backgrounds, which are full of color and full of a ton of depth. This feels like a modern gaming experience now, rather than the pretty safe and boring NSMB levels.

I really didn’t think that this game was going to be as good as it turned out. Early trailers gave me some hope that it would be fun, but it’s still surprising to me that this game isn’t just a much better visual treatment of NSMB‘s core gameplay. This feels like a studio that was given an incredible amount of time to deliver something fun, and really took that to heart to give players a game that is just packed to the brim with things serving that core goal.