I have to be honest – most of New Super Mario Bros. sort of passed me by. I really enjoyed the original one, back on DS, but as that series wore on, my excitement for 2D Mario increasingly waned. But in one short hands-on, Super Mario Bros. Wonder has restored that excitement, and reminded me of why I loved 2D Mario so very much.
In many ways, the shift of Super Mario Bros. Wonder is best represented by its art style. The NSMB games that have dominated 2D Mario for years have used an art style as established by 1996’s Super Mario 64; a chunky, smooth-looking 3D Mario based on the CG model used for the cover and promotional art for that game. In fact, that’s been how Mario has looked for decades now – in Mario Party, in Mario Kart, and in 2D and 3D games. There’s an established aesthetic – and for my money, it’s grown pretty stale.
It’s therefore no surprise that I’ve been thrilled to see Nintendo embrace some slightly different looks for the adventuring plumber and his friends. The best among them is a throwback, the art style depicted in Wonder. The characters just feel a little more characterful and better-defined. This new look is clearly inspired by the art of Yoichi Kotabe, the former Nintendo employee who tided up Miyamoto’s concept drawings for the cast of Mario and drew many of the iconic pieces of character art and game covers for the NES and SNES titles.
The result is a high definition Mario game that looks like how I imagined the characters would look ‘for real’ back when they were pixel art. And that approach seems to carry through to the whole game.
What I mean by this, basically, is that this feels more like a successor to Super Mario World than pretty much anything else that has come since. It’s a difficult thing to exactly put one’s finger on, especially within the confines of what bits of the game Nintendo is presently willing to currently let us talk about. But, honestly, it’s more if a vibe, a feeling, that places it closer to Super Mario World.
This doesn’t mean that lessons from NSMB don’t remain, of course. Wonder brings back co-op with a range of characters to play, and there’s a handful of new gimmicks that truly aim to set Wonder apart.
The ‘Badge’ system is interesting, essentially allowing you to choose and equip a single power-up at the start of a level. These are basically like little perks and can do things like give you a second chance at life when put in a bad situation, or offer you more practical bonuses like an upgraded wall-jump. There’s individual levels in the game that are ‘Badge Challenges’, too. These smaller stages basically strip you of everything but one of these Badge abilities and both aim to teach you how to use a badge’s unique perk and test your mastery of it.
The most interesting change is the game’s titular feature; the Wonder Seeds, which when grabbed trigger ‘wonderful’ effects. The trailers have done a pretty good job of depicting this – stages can warp and change, they can transport you to slightly different places – all sorts of stuff. Honestly, the Wonder Seeds are cool, but they’re also not blowing my mind. With that said, they’re the best sort of gimmick, too – inoffensive, and not the sort of mechanic that is going to get in the way of the core Mario action. In fact, it may very well end up enhancing the overall experience. In terms of the flow of the game, though, the badge skills are actually looking like a bigger deal than the Wonder Seeds.
I keep coming back to that art style and what it represents, though. Especially in the context of a game that also appears keen to mine the ‘golden age’ of 2D Mario for material. Returning enemies, references in the level design, and just an overall feeling really ‘sells’ wonder as a true sequel to Mario World. At long last, all these years later. In many ways, while it still has the 3D visuals, this feels like Mario’s nostalgia-stoking Sonic Mania moment – and that’s the most exciting thing of all.