Nintendo’s flagship intellectual property, the Super Mario Bros. franchise has had a long history of amazing games, and on many occasions, has heralded major shifts in the gaming industry.
However, like eating your favorite food for a week straight, too much of a good thing can take something you love and make it wholly mundane.
This idea perfectly sums up my feelings about 2D Mario titles since 2006. When New Super Mario Bros. released for the Nintendo DS, fans of the franchise were treated to their first look at the modern form this beloved series would take. The game brought the platformer’s previous sprite-based characters into a new art style, making use of 3D models navigating a 2D plane. These new designs and the official renders that accompanied them helped solidify Mario’s status as one of gaming’s most high profile mascots.
From here, Nintendo banked on Mario’s place in the gaming canon, releasing later titles under the “New Super Mario Bros.” banner every few years and making major returns each and every time. Each iteration of this series brought new levels, but aside from more content fitting the same formula, the only other additions were a few new power-up items.
The two latest releases in 2D Mario, Mario Maker 1 and 2, took the tools used by Nintendo in crafting the prior five entries and allowed players to create their own custom levels. Some viewed this choice as having been made rather contemptuously, as though Nintendo had given up on 2D Mario games and relegated this beloved side of the IP to only be held up by user generated content.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder breaks this pattern and with a radically new image that propels it out of its longtime stagnation. On the surface, it’s obvious the series has taken on a new art style, now explicitly reminiscent of Mario concept artists like Yoichi Kotabe and Shigehisa Nakaue. Mario and friends are also outfitted with new animations, emphasizing their unique facial expressions and mannerisms.
Nintendo has additionally taken the bold step of building an entirely new engine for the game. While the fundamental gameplay of “run left to right and avoid obstacles” remains much the same, the new engine allows for a different feel to the way Mario gains momentum and moves through a level.
Another new feature is the “Badges” mechanic, which can give a player a unique ability or alter a level in a variety of ways. In multiplayer, characters now interact with one another in a much more limited capacity, causing co-op gameplay to no longer suffer from the counterproductive chaos that plagued the “New” series.
This novel art style and gameplay also venture into a more psychedelic presentation. Collecting “Wonder Seeds” requires players to navigate a twisted segment of the level incorporating things like giving life to inanimate objects, transforming players into creatures native to the Flower Kingdom, or having players navigate in four directions along the background walls of the level.
Each of these could have been singular gimmicks added to an individual Mario game, but taken in whole, they give Wonder a novel quality. Super Mario Bros. Wonder has set a new standard for the franchise, and reinvigorated the creative energy that brought Mario to such prominence in the first place.