We've played through the kiosk demo available nationwide, but is it Wonder-ful?
Super Mario Bros. Wonder, Nintendo’s return to the 2D platformer series that started it all, was announced on the heels of the wildly successful Illumination film back in June. In the nearly 11 year gap since the initial release of New Super Mario Bros U, Nintendo has given players New Super Luigi U’s challenging retread of the game, keys to the castle with Super Mario Maker 1 & 2, and New Super Mario Bros U. Deluxe so that a much wider audience could experience the last of the “New” series. In the brief stint I had to try it, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is going to feel like a breath of fresh air, blending the 2D Mario foundation with creative and clever game design.
The demo takes place in Pipe Rock Plateau, the first world, with the first two levels that up to four players can take on. The character select screen has never been so extensive, with Mario, Luigi, Princess Peach, Princess Daisy, Nabbit, Toads, Toadette, and Yoshis of various colors splayed out. My partner and I chose Mario and Luigi, opting for the traditional, if boring, choices. Afterward, we were given the most basic written introduction to the game, with no dialogue or cutscenes. I’d imagine this is for the sake of the demo only to allow players the opportunity to experience it at home for the first time. The actual gameplay will be natural to pick-up, but one big change is that characters no longer interact with each other. No more running into each other; no more jumping on top of each other’s heads.
The first level, “Welcome to Flower Kingdom,” acts as an introduction to what you can expect from the experience without feeling like an outright tutorial. The game quickly tosses the elephant power-up featured in the announcement trailer, with lots of goombas to flick with the trunk and pipes to draw water from for the super-soaker shot. While the elephant body’s size increase makes you a bigger target, the characters did not lose the sense of speed or momentum that the base forms had, which was a pleasant surprise. The little flowers littering the stage make little comments as you pass them by, but they are brief enough and quiet enough to not be obtrusive, and some of them even give tiny hints of where to go. Rather than tell you directly what to do, one of them might say “what’s that?” as if trying to draw your attention to a power-up or side path. It’s a smart way to give the player direction without feeling like a lesson.
The second level, “Scram Skedaddlers,” is thematically very similar to the first stage, but adds some extra fun with a scaredy-cat chipmunk that spits acorns and some fun music blocks that don’t have the same kind of spring you’d expect but hit music tones with each bounce. The chipmunks will book it away from you, so much of the level turns into chasing after them. We also came across a wonder flower, which when activated changed the environment from day to night and featured a longer chase against the rodent with characters lighting up like you’d just picked up a star. At the end of each level is the expected flag with fanfare, but the game also takes a brief snapshot of your characters in action with a timestamp. It’s a fun cherry on top that almost feels like Nintendo wants you to make memories with the photographs.
Those with New Super Mario Bros. fatigue are in for a pleasant awakening. The levels have so much more depth to them, with several layers of hills, mountaintops, and plains. The color palette also follows suit, and those same landmarks have detail I haven’t seen in a Mario game before, with vibrant flora that shimmers and crags that have different shades depending on how light hits them. When power-ups are selected, small animations pop-up around you like a splash of color you’d expect from a comic book. The characters have never looked so expressive. Even that squirrel from the second level looks absolutely terrified when you give chase. Mario and his pals have several looks of joy, surprise, shock, and even almost a smug satisfaction depending on what’s happening around them on screen. If that wasn’t enough, players now have a radial button of emojis to select from. In the demo, it included a smiley face, question mark, and exclamation point. It’s something that could have risked being too hokey, but somehow it feels natural to the game’s sensibilities.
Every mainline Super Mario Bros. is not just a game; it’s an event for the entire industry. Nintendo is in a position between the success of Nintendo Switch and New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe’s sales figures that they could have taken an iterative step and still enjoyed another hit. If the demo is any indication, though, Wonder may be not just a new entry in the series. It is shaping up to also be one of the most imaginative Mario titles yet.