Super Mario Bros. Wonder never stops surprising

A screenshot from the video game Super Mario Bros. Wonder in which Mario stands on a wiggling green pipe in a surreal fantasy world.

When a Super Mario game gets really good, you can’t help but move around in your seat. I find myself leaning into jumps as if it’ll give me an advantage and ducking my head down to avoid flying enemies. Even after a few decades of playing these games, it’s an instinct I can’t seem to avoid — and I was never sitting still while playing Super Mario Bros. Wonder on the Nintendo Switch.

Wonder is the first brand-new side-scrolling Mario game in over a decade and the first mainline entry in the series since Super Mario Odyssey in 2017. It’s also one of the best titles in the franchise to date. Wonder manages to pull from classics like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, while firmly updating the formula with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wild new ideas. Wonder, it turns out, is a very fitting name. It’s a feeling that you’ll experience plenty of while playing.

Like the best Super Mario games, there’s only the hint of a story here. In Wonder, you’re once again fighting off Bowser and his forces, but instead of kidnapping Princess Peach, this time around, he has… turned himself into a giant evil castle. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then again, it doesn’t need to. Mostly, it’s just an excuse to get really weird.

A screenshot from the video game Super Mario Bros. Wonder in which Mario bounces around a group of round purple hippos.

A screenshot from the video game Super Mario Bros. Wonder in which Mario bounces around a group of round purple hippos.

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The basics are still here. Mario (or whichever character you choose) mostly moves from left to right, still gets big when eating a mushroom, and finishes (most) levels by sliding down a flagpole at the end of the stage. You still stomp on Goombas and collect lots of coins. But there are also many updates to the formula that drastically shake up how a 2D Super Mario game plays. In terms of power-ups, you can now turn into an elephant to smash through bricks and enemies or slurp up water to help special seeds grow. Another bonus gives you the ability to shoot out bubbles that can both kill enemies and serve as temporary platforms to jump on.

The rest of the experience has been similarly infused with strange yet incredibly fun concepts. New enemies include birds that will dive-bomb you, Piranha Plants that can get up and run, and inflatable, living balloons. At certain points, you’ll even be able to venture into the background, as levels are often made up of multiple layers. At the same time, the game cleverly builds on previous concepts: there are autoplaying sequences that feel inspired by community creations from Mario Maker, boss battles reminiscent of the very first Mario Bros., and a final sequence that feels ripped out of Bowser’s Fury.

I especially loved how Wonder mixes things up with different types of levels. While most are traditional side-scrolling stages, there are others that test very different skills. Some are battle-focused, forcing you to beat groups of enemies as quickly as possible, while others test your speed as you race a surprisingly fast Wiggler on roller skates. My favorites were the secret-filled stages, where you are presented with a mostly empty room and tasked with exploring it to find hidden coins.

If that’s all Wonder was, it would still be a brilliant, modern refresh of the classic formula on par with the underappreciated New Super Mario Bros. U. But the designers at Nintendo have gone a step further. The headline feature of the game is something called a Wonder Flower, which is basically a temporary acid trip. There’s a flower in most levels — some hidden, some very obvious — and grabbing it will dramatically change things in completely unpredictable ways. Mario might get the ability to swim through lava, or he might turn into a Goomba. Maybe those iconic green pipes come alive. The lights might go out, forcing you to navigate with only silhouettes, or maybe it turns into a musical where you jump in time to the beat. These strange sequences only end when you collect another wonder seed later on in the level.

Even as someone who has played Super Mario since the very beginning, I found myself constantly surprised at the new twists that Wonder threw at me. And this lasts through the entire experience: the final sequence might be my favorite Mario level ever.

A screenshot from the video game Super Mario Bros. Wonder in which a tall Mario, rendered only in silhouette, jumps towards a tall goomba.

A screenshot from the video game Super Mario Bros. Wonder in which a tall Mario, rendered only in silhouette, jumps towards a tall goomba.

Amazingly, Wonder is not only an incredible remix of the Super Mario formula; it’s also quite possibly the most accessible entry in the series. And that’s because it gives you a whole bunch of ways to fine-tune the experience to your tastes. You don’t have to complete every level in order to get to the end, for instance, so I never found myself stuck on an impassable stage with no way to progress. There are also new unlockable badges that give you skill boosts, like a faster run or floatier jump. (You can have only one equipped at a time.) There are characters like Yoshi who essentially serve as an easy mode since they can’t take damage and can jump farther. Wonder’s levels even have star ratings so you know what you’re getting into difficulty-wise.

These features are especially important if you’re playing multiplayer with a group of varying skill levels. Wonder supports co-op play with up to four players, and I was able to play with my two young kids with no issues. They tried their best as multicolored Yoshis, while I carried us through the tougher stages as Princess Peach in elephant cosplay. What’s great about the accessibility tools, though, is that, while totally optional, they can really help most types of players. My kids have a way to push through levels without dying constantly, and I’m able to use some of the badges to get that extra little boost I need to finish a particularly difficult four-star level.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in 2023, it’s that Mario can be just about anything. Freed from the world of video games, he’s become the star of everything from Hollywood movies to a growing group of theme parks. He’s instantly recognizable, even with a new voice. What Super Mario Bros. Wonder does is remind us why a squat Italian plumber became such an icon in the first place. It takes all of the best bits from classic Mario Bros., remixes them, and then splashes on a hefty dose of the bizarre. Wonder is a blast from start to finish — and will make you squirm almost as much as Mario does.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder launches on October 20th on the Nintendo Switch.

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