Super Mario Bros. Wonder Demo Wows Despite Some “New” Baggage

It doesn’t take much to get me interested in another 2D Mario side-scroller. Give me satisfying controls, clever platforming design, an escalating difficulty curve, and three collectibles of whatever you like to seek out in every level. It’s a tried-and-true formula that is bound for success.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder didn’t have to be creative to get people interested. Leave out the new characters, the fantastical visuals, and the wackiness of the new “Wonder Flower,” and you’d still attract fans and newcomers alike. It’s been 10 years since the last entry in the 2D series, and that alone is enough to warrant another game. As fans, we’ve long demanded the series get a major overhaul, but we all knew we’d play whatever Nintendo threw out next.

This sentiment stayed persistent as I got hands-on time with Super Mario Bros. Wonder at the Nintendo Live event at PAX West this past weekend. I knew it was going to be good, and there was no question about it as I played through the demo’s six levels. I got to experience the chaos of multiple players, the discovery of hidden secrets playing solo, and the first-hand reactions to the truly unpredictable nature of the gameplay-altering Wonder Flower. I had an incredible time! But I always knew I would.

Gameplay footage of all six levels we played in the Nintendo Live demo.

For me, it’s especially important to be able to separate the love I have for classic 2D Mario and the weirdly fun and wild things Nintendo is incorporating in this iteration. Did I have a great time with demo because I already knew I loved this type of game? Or was it the breath of fresh air that all the new abilities and visuals were providing that fueled my interest? The obvious answer is that it’s both, but I find it more interesting to try and investigate which of these two foundational pillars I fall under more.

The Wonder Flower is game changer. There’s one in each level, and grabbing the flower will flip the level on its head in ways that are hard to predict. In the demo, the wonder effects ranged from enemies rampaging across the screen to Super Stars crashing down to earth in multitudes. Finding these chaotic flowers quickly become the mission within the mission, making the goal pole at the end of some levels a secondary objective. In a series where understanding your main goal quickly becomes second nature, this is a welcome change.

How do things stay unique when you’re outside the sphere of a Wonder Flower? The world of the Flower Kingdom was intentionally built to match the flower’s zany effects with unconventional designs in both the levels and the enemies. Going underground? Look out for the iconic Mushroom Kingdom hills but flipped upside down and made of a gooey substance. In the open savannah, trees unique to the area can be stomped to launch you upward, and the brand-new enemies like the charging Bulrushes compliment these new worlds.

At its core, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is still a 2D Mario side-scroller. The presentation and the gameplay-altering segments are what make it stand so firmly against what came before it, but you never feel like you’re not playing a Mario game. It’s special in a lot of ways, but the classic feel remains. Maybe a little too much. Despite all the wackiness of the world design and the Wonder Flower, both of which I love, that “New” DNA that’s stuck with the series for so long still feels present underneath it all.

There are a few contenders as to why that is. The controls and feel of the platforming seem to be nearly identical to New Super Mario Bros. U, but that’s also not a bad thing. They were great then, and they’re great now.

There’s also a very… blocky aspect to everything. It’s either sharp squares or diagonal pieces that make up the levels like building blocks. All the games in the series were like this, so it’s not a total shock to see. But because of my time with the series, the levels sometimes feel more like beautiful reskins rather than dynamically designed levels that match the craziness they embody. It’s to the point where I can imagine tapping and building these levels in an editor akin to Super Mario Maker. Again, this isn’t inherently a bad thing, but my time with games like Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze make me wonder how a more versatile and adaptive approach to level design would look for Mario. That’s my takeaway from the demo, at least.

Whether I believe the series has evolved enough is a topic worth exploring, but my time with the Nintendo Live demo has me most interested in all the eccentric ideas at play. There’s no denying Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a blast to play. All six levels of the demo kept me going with a smile, and most importantly, got me excited to find out what other bizarre secrets Mario’s latest adventure has in store.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder releases on the Nintendo Switch on October 20, 2023.

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