Justin takes a critical look at one of the year’s most acclaimed titles.
Back in 2006, New Super Mario Bros. released on the Nintendo DS after a 15 year hiatus from the traditional Super Mario Bros. series. The first game in the New series was met with mostly positive reviews, but even back then I was a little let down by the entry. Over time it seems as though more people have come to agree that the first New Super Mario Bros. game isn’t that strong of a title when compared to other legendary games in the franchise.
Fast forward to 2023. A decade has passed since the previous Mario game was released (New Super Mario Bros.U), and we can see Super Mario Bros. Wonder being met with near universal praise. While I do think Wonder is a great game worthy of praise, I don’t think the level of which it is being met with is warranted. I aim to take a more critical look at the game that will hopefully stand up more to the test of time.
Before you grab your pitchforks please remember I do enjoy Super Mario Bros. Wonder and really feel the art style is much better than the generic look of the New series. It’s a solid title, but lacking in many places. I’m writing this more critical look because I love the franchise and want it to be better. If I were to rate Wonder in a traditional review I’d give it an 8 out of 10. With that out of the way I hope you can view this as a constructive look at the latest entry in the Super Mario Bros. series.
The first piece of gameplay I’d like to look at is the main new mechanic, the Wonder Flowers. The gameplay in Super Mario Bros. Wonder is largely built around these new items that can change the stage in many ways. Upon getting the item the gameplay will be warped to meet whatever secret twist has been concocted. This can be very fun and surprising, but the issue is because there are so many different elements, each new idea is short lived and lacking depth.
Only a handful of ideas come back in later stages and this is a big problem. It makes the level of difficulty that each can be presented with stay consistently easy because they have to assume the player is learning about these new gameplay mechanics for the first time. Usually in platformers things tend to ramp up, however due to new elements constantly being introduced the difficulty curve remains fairly low. It makes Wonder feel more like a roller coaster ride instead of a platforming challenge. Fun, but lacking the larger sense of accomplishment.
The Wonder Flowers also pose another issue. If you choose to ignore them, which the game often tries to make sure you don’t by having Talking Flower’s warn you, the levels don’t have much to offer. Many will end soon after a Wonder Flower is skipped, or the level will just be weakly built for players that skip them. The game would have been much stronger if these branching paths were more creative, as in several cases you need to beat the level both ways in order to hit the tops of the Flagpoles for multiple exits - a necessity for full completion.
My final issue with the Wonder Flowers is that they make the traditional Mario power-ups less impactful. This is because after touching several of the Wonder Flowers the gameplay or Mario’s form can often change making them pointless. While many of the new power-ups are fun, they sometimes just mean less in this new gameplay environment.
Next I’d like to touch on the new Badge system. The Badge system is one of many crutches found in Super Mario Bros. Wonder. That’s not a bad thing, I just find they aren’t implemented well. The game starts players off with the Parachute Cap Badge, which I would consider the most busted Badge in the game. This Badge lets you float, and skilled players will quickly find it also lets you wall jump off a single wall infinitely. This not only makes the rest of the badges much less useful outside a few specific instances, but it makes earning them feel pointless. For example, the Parachute Badge can do what the Wall-Climb Jump Badge does only better.
Balance isn’t my only issue with the Badges as I think they could have been incorporated into stages to let players find secret exits that would require them. Imagine having some areas you’d have to go back to with a specific Badge earned later in the game that would allow you to cut to various places early, maybe even getting to credits sooner if played wisely. Sadly there are also no early end game warps in Wonder either, but I think more Badge specific secrets within stages would have been a good addition that would add value to specific Badges.
Multiplayer is the next element of Wonder I’d like to touch on. While I only played a little local multiplayer, I have heard several reports of it not being that great amongst more serious players. It sounds like there are issues on who the camera focuses on which need to be ironed out. The online multiplayer is also a major crutch for lower skilled players. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, but it can make much of the game a joke as I’ve seen people damage boost as a ghost through almost the entirety of the game having people save them on the other side of challenges. Also it’s a bit sad that the hearts earned by playing online are completely meaningless. Ultimately, it’s a little embarrassing that we can’t just play co-op Super Mario Bros. with friends in 2023. It seemed to work well in the Switch release of Super Mario 3D World.
One thing I would like to applaud Nintendo on is the fact that characters no longer bump into and bounce off one another while playing local multiplayer. When the characters stopped one another in past titles it felt really miserable for 2D platforming. There is, however, likely room for a middle ground. It would be cool if when a shoulder button was held it then turned on the ability to interact with other players. That way if two players held it down they could do some useful things like bounce one character higher or something. Just an idea I’d like to see in the future.
Boss fights are low-hanging fruit for criticism. They are just bad in Super Mario Bros. Wonder with maybe the exception of the final boss. They are jokingly easy and mostly uncreative, especially the Airship endings where you are tasked with just touching a Switch at the end. You’d think with all these fresh new Wonder Flowers changing gameplay the developers would have come up with some very unique ideas. Sadly they didn't, and even worse is that the Koopalings don’t show up at all.
This leads me right into the general difficulty of Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Due to the previously stated issues with the Wonder Flowers, the game rarely gives the player much of a challenge. Add on top of this the several crutches for weaker players such as Easy Characters, Badges, Online Help, and the game can be a cakewalk. The only stage I found difficult was the true final stage, and I’ve even seen people cheese that with the online play. I want to be clear that I think it’s fine to offer crutches for weaker players in order to experience the content, but even without them the game doesn’t offer much of a challenge outside of the final level. Ultimately, due to the game offering various types of gameplay the more traditional platforming challenges are weakened.
The difficulty rating system found in the game is also a bit out of whack. The range of difficulty found in the five star category can be all over the place. I’ve completed a few five star stages on my first or second attempt. This rating system may need to be expanded to a 10 star system instead of the current five in a sequel.
One solution to the difficulty problem would be to keep the standard game as is, but also include a New Super Luigi U style second quest that increases the difficulty and depth of mechanics for more expert players. While I do enjoy the length of the main game I think a harder level set is necessary as there is clearly an aim on a more mainstream audience with the difficulty of the current game. I just want a more fair Mario challenge and I’m not talking about Kaizo stuff some people create in Mario Maker. Kaizo has its audience but I don’t find one frame tricks or fighting the physical limitations of my controller to be that fun.
Anything else I’d change? Yeah. I am very happy that it’s possible to play as more characters but I do feel having them all play the same, outside of the easy characters, to be a bit boring. Having each character play a little differently just adds personality and depth to the gameplay and it’s something I miss. Also, I was very disappointed that the final reward of the game was a useless Badge and not Rosalina. Additionally, it would be nice if a player, after completing everything, could do a New Game Plus mode with all the Badges unlocked from the start so they could maybe try doing a full playthrough with some of the weird Badges like the Invisibility Badge. Some additional gripes include Standees being meaningless for offline play and the limit of holding a maximum of 999 Flower Coins is extremely short sighted.
I’d also like to see the Time Limit and Score come back. The game just felt way too relaxed without the Time Limit and fun things can be done with the Scoring mechanic. I remember a mode in Super Mario Bros. Deluxe which required players to learn how to get high scores on each stage and that was very fun. A shame that’s never been expanded on in a Mario game since. It would also be nice to balance the game better by dishing out fewer lives and punishing players that lose them. Again, the game is pretty easy as a result of the current setup and I don’t think there is anything wrong with raising the stakes a little more or finding a new use for 1-Ups.
To conclude, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a fun game, and I recommend picking it up. However, I do think in time this game will start to get more criticism due to many of the issues I’ve pointed out, though I don’t think it will fall as far as the original New Super Mario Bros. has in critical opinion. Ultimately I want the Mario series to continue to get better and Super Mario Bros. Wonder is, in many ways, a step in the right direction. However, I still clearly think there is room for improvement. Here’s hoping that Super Mario Bros. Whimsey, or whatever the sequel will be called, can push the franchise to the mega heights I know it’s capable of.