Oct 18, 2023 - Technology

Review: Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a malleable marvel

Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Screenshot: Nintendo

If playing a video game, as it's been said, involves making a series of interesting decisions, Nintendo's newest game, Super Mario Bros. Wonder, offers players the most interesting set of decisions ever presented in the company's flagship series.

Why it matters: Wonder, set for release on Friday, is the first big new Mario game in six years and the first since the release of April's theatrical blockbuster, The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

Details: Super Mario Bros. Wonder, like its dozen or so predecessors from the last 38 years, is an interactive obstacle course. This one is set on a 2D plane, a so-called sidescroller like the earliest Mario games.

  • Players can control Mario, but they don't have to. Nintendo provides a record 12 characters to choose from, including a trio of female stars: Princess Peach, Daisy and Toadette. Most of the cast control the same.
  • Levels, as always, are governed by dream-logic physics that allows for floating platforms, mushrooms that make your protagonist bigger, and, in the titular twist, one magical "Wonder flower" per level that enjoyably transforms each course in some radical and usually unique way.
  • Some of those Wonder effects: A stampede of bulls may rush in, forcing players to ride through the rest of the level on their backs. Or players might be transformed into another creature, or see the in-game camera shift its angle as Wonder's background becomes the ground.

The most interesting choice in Super Mario Wonder is presented before each level, as players are invited to choose one of 24 unlockable badges that significantly modify how their character will function.

  • Some badges make the game easier (by, say, turning the protagonist's hat into an optional parachute) or more fun to explore (some enhance the heroes' jumping ability, making it easier to access Wonder's many secret areas). Some even make it more difficult (one devilish badge turns our hero invisible; good luck clearing levels like that).
  • These options spice up a game that may not have all of the long-running franchises' best levels but offers an unmatched system for making each of its courses more interesting.
  • And they suit the enterprising culture of how players have unofficially tackled Mario games for years: playing the games rapidly to set speed records, playing blind-folded, controlling them with a dance pad, etc.

The big picture: Nintendo's sequels to its mega-franchises like Mario and Zelda are events, not just in terms of sales, but because they give the world's most acclaimed maker of video games a chance to make bold creative statements.

  • The statement Nintendo has been making this year is that tapping into its customers' creativity–rather than just their eagerness to be pulled through an entertaining experience–is an increasingly essential part of its games.
  • That was evident in its May hit, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, which let players craft contraptions to solve its puzzles and is paramount again in Wonder.
  • That central vibe in Nintendo's biggest franchises suits a modern culture where audiences are increasingly co-creators of their entertainment. Kids now grow up making mountains in Minecraft and remixing reaction videos on TikTok.

Of note: Wonder is well-tuned for up to four-person multiplayer.

  • Earlier Mario games had chaotic multiplayer modes where players could bump into each other and cause mutual grief.
  • That's not the case in Wonder, where hero characters pass through each other, leading to more cooperation without any infuriating collisions.
  • Revival options allow players to aid others who are struggling.

The intrigue: Super Mario Bros. Wonder bears little connection to April's big Mario movie, and the game's creators have said the film didn't influence the game.

  • If anything, the amount of user involvement in Wonder underscores how different the medium Nintendo parachuted into last spring is from the interactive one it has thrived in for four decades.
  • Only in video games can the audience have this much control.

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