Critical Chicken
Nintendo DirectReviewPreviewsSunday, 3rd September 2023 by

Super Mario Bros. Wonder looks plenty creative — but it can’t shake off the series’ two most soul-sucking conventions

Now I’ve had time to digest the non-stop, 15-minute infodump that was Thursday’s Super Mario Bros. Wonder Direct (as an ADHDer, this sort of thing is my Kryptonite), I’m… cautiously optimistic that Nintendo is finally climbing out of its 2D Mario slump. More on that in a minute.

I’m also pretty confident that all the mainstream reviews will say Wonder “successfully does away with series conventions” and “marks a meaningful change in direction for the franchise”, neither of which I really believe is true. There will be an ✨accolades trailer✨, and I will roll my eyes at it.

We Rayman Legends now

Just like parts of Crash Bandicoot 4, Mario Bros. Wonder seems to be borrowing heavily from 2013’s Rayman Legends, both in terms of its visuals and its level design. This is no bad thing: while Nintendo was farting out near-identical New Super Mario Bros. games, Ubisoft was busy putting together one of the most imaginative 2D platformers in living memory.

This is what I mean by a “slump” — whereas the first few 2D Marios each sported a unique look and a bunch of new power-ups and gameplay mechanics, 2006’s New Super Mario Bros. marked a Miyamotoian, Paper Mario-esque descent into uncreativity. Each new game in the series served up the same character models, in the same art style, with the same shading, the same music, and the same basic power-ups and level elements. “Gosh,” Nintendo obviously thought we would say, “New Super Mario Bros. 2 has lots of coins! That is surely enough innovation for one generation!”

But we did not say that, and the series’ Metacritic scores reflect that: NSMB’s Metascores average out at just 84.5, compared to 93.0 for the last four 3D Mario games.

A Wonderful step in the right direction

Thankfully, Super Mario Bros. Wonder does at least bring some new stuff to the table. And I don’t just mean its gorgeous, colourful, watercolour-style graphics.

The Elephant power-up makes you large enough to dash over small gaps.

Here’s a quick rundown of what’s new:

One Wonder Effect turns the game into a mind-bending, top-down dungeon crawler.

It’s not the Mushroom Kingdom, but it’s not not the Mushroom Kingdom

That said, not everything is new. For one, as lovely as the art style is, it’s not exactly “new” — more like “New Super Mario Bros. turned up to eleven”. And more annoyingly, Mario is still being held back by a handful of unshakable series conventions.

Yes, this game is set in the “Flower Kingdom” rather than the “Mushroom Kingdom”, but there’s no escaping the fact Prince Florian looks like your common-or-garden Wiggler. Or that Poplins, Wonder Seeds, and Wonder Flowers are just veeeeery gently reworked Toads, Lumas, and Ice Flowers, respectively.

And sure, Bowser doesn’t kidnap Princess Peach this time, but y’all’re still going to chase him through a generic grass/plains area, an ice area, a cloud/sky area, a dank forest/poison area, a beach/underwater area, a desert area, and a fire/volcano area.

Literally, look at this shit:

A table showing the rough themes of each world in the four New Super Mario Bros. games, and Super Mario Bros. Wonder.
That eighth world is almost certainly going to be another “Koopa-occupied castle”, by the way.

Meanwhile, aforementioned Rayman Legends had worlds based around Día de Muertos, Mexican food, ancient Greece, and espionage. Crash Bandicoot 4 included tribal, swashbuckling, futuristic, industrial, and Japanese levels — and even some set on a well-realised alien world.

So why can’t Nintendo get away from the same played-out themes in its 2D Mario games?

Too bad!

And there’s something else about Wonder that’s grinding my gears: while the annoying countdown clock has been removed from the top-right of the screen, there’s still a lives system! Baffling!

While Rayman, Crash, Kirby, 3D Mario, and even ‘hardcore’ platformers like Celeste have all ditched their lives counters in favour of generous checkpoint systems, in Mario Wonder it’s the same old same old. A limited number of lives, one checkpoint flag per level, collect a 1-Up Mushroom or 100 coins to get an extra life. Boom, boom, boom.

Five of the game’s twelve characters are invulnerable — and a third of them are palette-swaps.

Meanwhile, Nintendo is continuing its tradition of including weirdly patronising play options in its games, which wouldn’t be needed if they just did away with lives. In Wonder, this comes in the form of Nabbit and Yoshi; playing as either character means you won’t take damage from enemies, although you can still fall into pits.

So that’s where things stand right now, six-and-a-bit weeks before the game’s launch on Friday, 20th October, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is looking like the best 2D Mario in a very long time — but it remains to be seen whether Nintendo has more surprises up its sleeve, or if it’s continuing its recent trend of playing things way too safe.

Either way, we’ll be bringing you our full review in October.

Nintendo DirectReviewPreviews