In the 42 years since a little mustachioed Italian plumber first jumped into an arcade game screen, there have been roughly, oh, a gazillion video games featuring Mario and his crew. In fact, the recent Super Mario Maker 2 opened the door for gamers themselves to create and share their hand-crafted Mario challenges, some of those being almost painfully difficult to conquer.
So instead of trying to outshine all that with Super Mario Bros. Wonder, gamemakers have harkened back to the classics—creating Nintendo’s first new side-scrolling platformer in more than a decade. And then they layered on a whole new set of rules and wild ideas.
The game starts out as the Mushroom Kingdom gang is invited to a party over at the neighboring Flower Kingdom. And of course, Bowser crashes the soiree. But instead of snatching up Princess Peach and running for the nearest fortified castle, the fire-breathing baddy grabs a magical Wonder Flower and turns himself into an evil castle surrounded by six swirling Cloud Piranhas. He then settles in the center of the Flower Kingdom map and begins gathering magical power while his minions corrupt the land.
The panicked caterpillar Prince Florian asks Mario to lend his heroic help to set things right.
Gamers can then play as any of 12 different characters in Mario’s crew, including the likes of Mario, Luigi, Peach and Yoshi. The goal is to clear baddies from chaos-filled platform areas and castles; gather powerful Wonder seeds and flowers; and eventually free the seven adjoining regions of the Flower Kingdom from Bowser’s magical grip.
That all sounds fairly familiar, so what new twists are in the mix?
Well, you still stomp on Goombas and collect lots of coins, but there are new power-ups in the mix. Along with the standard Fire Flower and Power Mushroom, an Elephant power-up doubles your size and adds a trunk-swinging gush of water to your protagonist’s abilities. Another new power-up gives Mario a drill hat with which he can dig into secreted away areas. And a Bubble power-up lets Mario’s attacks float up and hit enemies at a distance, or sub in as quick-use platforms.
New Wonder Badges can also be found, collected and worn. This broad collection of boosting badges fall into three categories—Action, Boost and Expert—and give your character special active or passive abilities. Applying the right badge—rewarding you with everything from special wall jump abilities to invisibility to a safety bounce that lets you bounce back from a fall—can help a great deal in the midst of a very difficult level.
There are new quirky enemies in the mix as well, and the ability to jump back into the background of a multilayered level. Wonder’s levels are shaken and stirred a bit, too. Some test your character’s speed as you race a swift opponent. Some plop you in an empty room with the task of exploring for hidden contents. And some are battle-focused, forcing you to quickly take out groups of enemies.
One of my favorite new additions is the little talking flowers that you encounter throughout the lands. While other characters talk in gibberish with English subtitles, these flowers greet you with English verbal encouragements, level clues and requests as you go. And if you get particularly tired of their messages, you can also switch things up and have them speak in one of 15 different languages, such as Japanese or French.
Gamers can also have up to three friends (local or online) join them in the platforming romps. And special game-return abilities even allow you tag-back-in where other online players have fallen and pick up your play from their place in the level. (Online connection, however, is not a necessity for play.)
Wonder is quite delightful to play through and look at, even on a small screen. The characters are colorful and vibrant. And the game allows parents to play along with younger players and help them through difficult sections. …
… That said, this game can get pretty difficult in later levels. And you can’t change the difficulty level in the game menu as you can with some games. The levels are each given a number of stars (one to five) to signify how difficult they are. And as kid-friendly as the game is as a whole, some challenges are pretty tough.
Besides the jumping, running and sliding action of the platform play, there is quite a bit of enemy thumping and battle in the gaming mix. Cartoony enemies can have sharp chomping teeth and claws or shoot flames and blasts. Etc.
In battle those foes are jumped on or hit with jets of water, fireballs, bubbles, tossed shells or other projectiles. But when defeated, they are considered knocked out, not killed. There’s no mess or blood. And when a player falls off a ledge or is hit, they either get smaller or are knocked out and sent back to an earlier section of the level. Online players can revive a fallen friend.
Online play, however, can only happen via a monthly Nintendo subscription.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a creative and joyously bouncing blast. But don’t come in expecting an easy bop. Parents with younger players should be ready to sharpen up their own helpful moves if they want to best that bang-bamming Bowser.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.