Super Mario Bros. Wonder preview – game of the year contender

GameCentral goes hands-on with several levels from Super Mario Bros. Wonder and is impressed by what seems to be another classic platformer.

2023 has already proven to be a great year for gaming but the two frontrunners for Game of the Year are very obvious, with Zelda: Tears Of The Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3. There’re still some enticing new games yet to come, including Spider-Man 2 and Forza Motorsport, but the smart money would be on Zelda and Baldur’s Gate receiving the majority of the accolades… except, there is a third game that may well prove to be their equal.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder recently got its own Nintendo Direct but, even so, it’s still been an easy game to forget about up till now. We imagine the marketing blitz will begin shortly and as part of that we were recently given the chance to play a number of levels in both single-player and multiplayer. As a result, we’re already convinced this is going to be a fantastic game, that easily lives up to the legacy of the 2D Super Mario series.

That’s not necessarily a given, as all the most recent 2D Marios have been part of the New Super Mario Bros. sub-series, which while competent was strangely lacking in original ideas and suffered from atypically bland presentation, in terms of the graphics and music. The visuals in Wonder are still a touch too clinical for our liking but beyond that it seems like the perfect modern day platformer.

We’ve played over an hour of the game but at the moment we can only talk about a small number of the levels and have to wait until an embargo next month to discuss the others. You can imagine the basics but there’s actually a lot of extra features on top, like the worm living in Mario’s cap (he’s a prince or something) that allows you to pick a perk to use before you start a level. These have to be earned in short side levels/tutorials, but a bunch were unlocked for us before we started and range from a parachute cap to the ability to wall climb and a self-explanatory safety bounce.

The first stage we played was the one that’s been shown off the most so far, in terms of trailer footage, called Welcome to the Flower Kingdom. You can play as almost anyone from the Mushroom Kingdom, including Mario but also Luigi, Peach, Daisy, and several colours of Toad and Yoshi (although oddly not the main red Toad, who we didn’t see at all in the game).

Every level is designed like a traditional Super Mario stage, with a goal at the far right and a checkpoint flag in the middle, but getting to the end is not really beating a level at all, since what you’re really after are Wonder Seeds and Wonder Flowers. There’s a lot of clever moving between the foreground and background, and more overtly puzzle-like elements than usual, but in general everything is relatively normal for a Mario game… until you collect a Wonder Flower.

At this point Mario seems to undergo some sort of acid trip (hardly a stretch for a franchise that already has you eating magic mushrooms) and at that point literally anything can happen. In the first level the pipes start shooting up and down and then crawling off on their own – giving you access to previously unreachable heights – but that’s nothing compared to some of the other levels.

We can’t talk about our favourite yet, which may be one of the most bizarre and entertaining things we’ve seen happen in a video game all generation, but in the stage Scram, Skedaddlers! it starts raining invincibility stars that allow you to sweep through the horde of enemies like butter. In Bulrush Coming Through! the Wonder Flower spawns a huge stampede of buffalo-like creatures that chase you all the way to the goal but can be utilised to reach previously inaccessible areas.

That’s just for starters tough, in the later Maw-Maw Mouthful the level is infested with weird new monsters (Maw-Maws, we suppose) that eat anything they come across, including coins, goombas, and you. They’re easy enough to deal with normally but the Wonder Flower turns you into a goomba and since they can’t really jump you have to use stealth and alternate routes to keep out of their way, as you hide behind trees as they pass.

Meanwhile, Jewel-Block Cave introduces a cool new power-up that puts a drill on your head and allows you to destroy crystals and travel through bare rock. Activate the Wonder Flower, though, and you get chased by a giant enemy, in a homage to Mr. Driller, as you try to drill down into the earth, keeping just ahead of the bad guy until you reach safety.

The Wonder Flowers alone manage to keep to the ‘new idea every level’ promise you always hope for from a Mario game but while they’re the headline gimmick they’re by no means the only unique element to a level.

In Scram, Skedaddlers!, for example, you’re beset by chipmunk-like Skedaddlers who spit acorns at you. The acorns can kill you but if you trick the Skedaddler into spitting it in the right direction it will destroy the giant peanut style obstructions that litter the level.

Similarly, the Bulrushes can be used to uncover hidden secrets if you get them to chase after you and are often the only way to recover special purple coins that can be used in an in-game shop. This is rarely straightforward, with some subtle visual clues hinting that you should ground pound a tree that at first only seems to be a normal static platform, but which you can lower to allow a path for the Bulrush to unlock a secret area.

Bloomps of the Desert Skies is filled with weird balloon-like creatures that you can use to trampoline into the air on, but they quickly deflate when you jump on them, so you have to make sure you jump between them and don’t keep using the same one.

Jewel-Block Cave has Thomp-esque creatures that can smash crystals, that often include coins or power-ups. But they can often double as a useful platform for you – as long as you take note of their movement pattern and don’t end up getting splattered on the roof.

Then there’s the new elephant power-up, which is available on multiple levels and which naturally makes you stronger and heavier, but you can also suck up water and use that to spray at and stun enemies. We suspect it will have other uses too, such as getting to the end of a level as an elephant and being able to water a Poplin (the new ally creatures that seem to be standing in for ordinary Toads) so they flower.

The whole thing is just a joy and the amount of imagination, and the level of detail, that’s gone into even just the dozen or so stages we saw is incredible. It’s utterly charming too, and while we have minor reservations about the art style the facial animation on the monsters and other characters is wonderful, especially when anticipating their imminent doom.

The little talking flower that pops up constantly is also very cute, when he could easily have come across as obnoxious. This is the first game to not feature Charles Martinet as the voice of Mario but in our limited time we didn’t detect a difference, since Mario didn’t do anything but whoop and holler.

On top of all this, the game can be played locally by up to four people. This seems to work well and is a good way to involve less skilled players who might otherwise struggle with the game (if someone else is a Yoshi you can ride them, which is especially helpful – although Nabbit is also a playable character and we assume the equivalent of a built-in easy mode).

In our playthrough we had fellow journos to help us, so we all knew roughly what we were doing, which was especially great fun when the panic set in for a new Wonder Flower – although, again, we’re thinking of a specific example there, that we can’t talk about yet.

It’s going to be a cliché before we even get to the review stage but to state the obvious, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is wonderful. A return to form for the series, that seems to be easily the best 2D Nintendo platformer since Yoshi’s Island in 1995. Maybe it’ll even end up as better, but we’ll have to play the whole game to know that – a prospect which we couldn’t be more excited about.

Formats: Nintendo Switch
Price: £49.99
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo EPD
Release Date: 20th October 2023
Age Rating: 3

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