Critique - Sense of… Super Mario Wonder

Sense of… Super Mario Wonder

It’s me! Mario!
It’s hard not to read those few words with the right intonation, accent and high-pitched voice, isn’t it? It’s true that every article on the subject starts off more or less the same way: our favorite plumber’s punchline has gone viral, what can I say?

Super Mario Wonder video game featuring one of the first images of the game: King Florian (a kind of caterpillar) stands below a giant flower with Luigi, Mario, Toad, Toadette, Princess Peach and Princess Daisy around him.
Welcome to the kingdom of flowers!

Mario has quickly established himself as one of video games’ best-known mascots, and continues to transcend time. The Super Mario Bros Movie proved the point. But, of course, that’s not all. Our favorite plumber is omnipresent at Nintendo, whether through announced remakes (Mario Paper), European releases of titles that had never crossed the borders of Japan or the United States (Super Mario RPG) or complete new releases (Super Mario Wonder).

Midlife crisis?

And let’s not forget that our favorite plumber was born in 1983, precisely forty years ago! (If, of course, we’re talking about the Mario version, and not the Jumpman version, which we discovered in 1981 in the game Donkey Kong). A wonderful anniversary that’s being celebrated with a big-screen release, the arrival of new games and a presence that’s becoming more and more inescapable everywhere. But isn’t it said that the onset of middle age slightly unsettles the spirits? It’s often time to take stock, to look back and see what we’ve done, what mark we’ve left. We’re on a rainbow road, and its colors have never been brighter. Because despite a complicated start on the arcade terminal, despite the lack of public interest at the time – the game was definitely not made for arcades – Mario came back stronger almost two years later on the Famicom. The NES saw one of the first video game renaissances: Mario’s ascent to the top, not thanks to the ladders of the Donkey Kong he was born into, but to the sheer force of his own jumps.

Donkey Kong home screen with Mario and Donkey Kong on black background
Donkey Kong and a certain “Jumpman” who would later become Mario…

So, of course, with forty years of existence, an impressive number of games, variations in different genres and cameos in other games, Mario has come a long way. From the first Super Mario to Wonder, the latest addition to the family, there’s a world of difference. Several, to be precise. Entire universes that have shaped the character, but also his image, what we associate him with. From one generation to the next, one game follows another, and female players don’t see our timeless plumber in the same way. For some, he’s the jumping, 2D, black-and-yellow figure on the GameBoy screen. For others, he’s the 3D character in a rather strange castle, where each painting conceals a world. But he’s also the one who travels the galaxies alongside Harmony, with gameplay that’s much more observational and 3D-oriented. A dirt hunter in a game that combines dexterity with complex passages of pure platforming. For yet another generation, he’ll be the one with the strange flowers and hallucinating magic seeds.

Screenshot of the Super Mario Wonder game: piranha flowers sing and dance as they emerge from the pipes, while Toadette looks on from the top right of the screen.
Musical levels: the Piranha Flower Choir is there for you!

Many of you have tried out the many experiments, evolving with the character and following him on his adventures. Whether you like our moustachioed plumber or not, it’s clear that the character, his adventures and his allies have only grown in stature over the years. He has become an emblem that slips under any hat: platformer, RPG, party game, sports game, racing game, adventure in 2D, 2.5D, 3D… Mario is everywhere, but above all he manages to sow bits and pieces of his DNA all over the place. Because even when you’re playing Luigi in Luigi’s Mansion, scanning the surroundings for a red cap, reading the dialogues in which Luigi talks about his brother, you know he’s there, the shadow that you can’t see because it’s so big and looms over all Nintendo productions.

Whether or not we love Mario and related games, many of us have played at least one game of Mario Kart or Mario Party, for example. Some of us remember with nostalgia the Mario Kart parties that went on until all hours.

Model of Mario for the Super Mario Wonder game showing Mario from the running side and from the front with a pout on his face.
The development of the new Mario’s character design: more expressive!

It’s also true that this omnipresence in the videogame world has made Mario an almost caricatured figure. The family aspect of Nintendo games has probably contaminated him to some extent, his round, playful side often associating him with a childish theme, especially in France, where animation, comic strips and cartoons are all too often (and totally mistakenly) associated with childhood.

But forty years! Forty years of loyal service, of jumps, adventures and certain games whose purpose is far more mature than its appearance suggests. So yes, as is always the case with such longevity, our Mario has had a dry spell, a crossing of the Sec desert that was far from pleasant. But has Nintendo lost its ability to amaze us? Not for sure.

When the license runs out of steam…

To begin with, we need to identify two types of game. Two broad categories that allow us to tidy up our room a little. On the one hand, we have the games we’ll call “the mother series”, the Super Mario and co. These are the emblematic platform games, sometimes in 2D, sometimes in 3D, always with the more or less discreet but very present sequence of levels. On the other hand, we have the other games: they’re hybrids, mixing genres, styles and characters. These include Mario and Luigi, Mario at the Olympic Games, Mario Kart and Mario Party. While all these games contribute to shaping the image of Mario we have today, giving him the universality of being a doctor, footballer, tennis player, adventurer or explorer, they don’t all use the same formula.

Video game Mario Tennis Ace in which we see Mario with a tennis racket in his hand
Get ready for a wild game of tennis with Mario Tennis Ace

Super Mario Wonder is one of the first. We’ll look at its gameplay and level design below. But before we look at these aspects, let’s see where it comes from. Because this “mother series” has been running out of steam for a few years now… And this is reflected in its sales figures. Of course, sales figures have to be weighed against the number of consoles sold, but still.

Mario may be inseparable from Nintendo, but the fact remains that since 2006, and the release of New Super Mario Bros. on DS, our plumber has been running out of steam. Thirty million copies sold for the DS opus; thirty million also for the New Super Mario Bros Wii version in 2009. The sequel, New Super Mario Bros 2 on 3DS, sold a timid thirteen million copies in 2012. But now the players are getting bored. The recipe never changed, despite attempts on multiple platforms. New Super Mario Bros U only made 5.81 million on Wii U; Super Mario 3D World, 5.88, again on Wii U; Super Mario Maker fell to 4.02 million, again on Wii U; Super Mario Maker for Nintendo 3DS dropped to 3.68 despite an attempt to go to Nintendo’s handheld console. The epiphany that is Super Mario Odyssey in 2017 briefly pulls Mario’s head out of the water with 23.02 copies sold on the brand-new Switch.

super mario odyssey video game featuring Mario walking through the streets of a city with tall buildings in the background and characters in gray suits and yellow cabs on the road.
From cities to deserts in Super Mario Odyssey

Before we go any further and look at the developments (or not) on the Switch, let’s take a look back at the Wii U phenomenon. Of course, the console wasn’t a success, so logically, games on this platform can’t be. But is that the only thing? While this fact is inevitably a factor, there are others that can add to our reasoning. Super Mario Galaxy 2, in 2010 and on the Wii, only sold 7.41 million units. Super Mario All-Star 25th Anniversary, also on Wii in 2010, sold just 2.24 million. Even on Switch, after the formidable Super Mario Odyssey, sales fell like a soufflé. New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe: 12.72 million. Super Mario Maker 2: 7.15 million. Super Mario 3D All-Stars, despite being available for a limited number of months, only made 9.01 million. And the penultimate game, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury, made just 8.85 million.

While these figures are good, they pale in comparison with the 30 million of New Super Mario Bros in 2006. But here’s the thing: in just two weeks of operation, an estimated 4.3 million Super Mario Wonder games have already been sold. A record launch, and the Christmas season is not yet over.

But then what? Is the nostalgia of gamers to blame for this phenomenon? Or has Nintendo evolved, too, taking Mario to new horizons, new realms and offering something different, sublimating rather than slightly modifying the famous magic recipe?

What if the master became a pupil?

Until now, Nintendo has designed the platformer to become one of the great references in the field. Super Mario games are lists of genre-specific elements that cannot be ignored: moving platforms, tight timing or levels to be completed in less than so much time, the inertia of certain characters’ jumps, powers or enemies to be jumped on… There are many parameters. For decades, Mario has been spreading his components all over the place. But isn’t this also what cut him off from the rest of the videogame world? Isn’t that what’s made him weary? Because yes, we know the Mario recipe, but it hasn’t varied much until now. So gamers turned to the other Mario games, Mario Kart, Tennis, Strickers (although that one was a cold shower).

And then came Super Mario Wonder.

Super Mario Wonder video game featuring Toadette on the world map
Super Mario Wonder: the world can be explored both on and off the track

Super Mario Wonder possesses a power of reinvention not seen in a long time. By mixing genres and offering levels as inventive as they are original, Nintendo has succeeded in surpassing itself. But it didn’t do it alone. For Super Mario Wonder contains elements from elsewhere. Proof that Nintendo has been watching the rest of the videogame industry for years.

Among the most striking and visible examples, we have the famous singing level. With its floral musical comedy aspect, the chase on blocks of music, how can we not think of the same kind of level in a Rayman Legend? Some of the effects of the prodigious flowers, depending on the level, are reminiscent of games such as Céleste, where we have to catch stars while avoiding the lightning bolts that streak the sky to climb ever higher. Or when a seed prodigy asks you to jump onto the right platforms as they appear. Of course, without the difficulty that Maddy Thorson and Noel Berry’s game is known for. And the shadow-based levels are reminiscent of many titles that use shadows to advance their gameplay (Limbo, Shady part of me). Of course, Super Mario Wonder gives a much more cheerful image, with multiple gameplay possibilities and possibilities, and these invocations are more valuable links with other games, proving that the development team knew how to make a game in tune with the times.

Video game Super mario wonder, screenshot of the game where we see Toadette transformed into an elephant standing on a green pipe.
Even the elephant transformation is reminiscent of Super Mario Sunshine

After all, every transformation offered by the seed prodigy, in every level, takes us into a different part of the videogame world. One of them changes our perspective, making us progress from above, like The Legend of Zelda. Another transforms the level into a rhythm game where you have to jump or move at the right moment, reminiscent of Wario Ware and other rhythm games found on the Wii (Beat the Beat: Rythm Paradise). Influences also come from Mario’s own previous games. As the developers explain in interviews available on Nintendo’s website, they drew as much inspiration from the 2D Mario games as from the 3D ones, adding as many mimics and personalities to their animations, rethinking the world differently, adding elements specific to other types of gameplay.

Video game super mario wonder screenshot where we see Toadette from above collecting purple coins while trying to dodge purple snails.
In Super Mario Wonder, prodigious flowers can change gravity… Welcome to top view.

And playing with online multiplayer.

As we all know, and as many of us have tested on games such as Mario Kart and Mario Party (to name but a few), Nintendo’s online mode can prove problematic in terms of stability. And offering a game where players from all over the world are visible on the map or in the levels, also means calling on the console to exceed its capabilities. So the developers came up with another system, inspired as much by the “ghosts” present in other Mario games as by the “ghosts” present in other Mario games – which appear when you manage to get a good score in the time trial modes – as well as other things we’ll be looking at.

video game Super mario Wonder screenshot, Toadette transformed into an elephant wanders freely on a desert map with several visible levels
The world map features a succession of linear zones and pseudo-“open world” zones

In multiplayer mode, other players’ ghosts are visible on the screen. A limited number of them may or may not help you progress: either by placing panels, or by touching you directly. If you die, you can return to the level by simply touching a panel or ghost. It’s a clever mode that provides a stable console as well as interaction with other players from all over the world (all the more so as they give you points). But doesn’t this type of “multiplayer”, where everyone is in their own corner but linked only by the occasional help provided via ghosts or panels, remind you of something? In a distant way, it may recall the experiments on NieR Automata, when you found the bodies of other players from which you could retrieve resources to help you advance (or turn them into AI to help you progress). Or, in an equally distant but related way, FromSoftware’s multiplayer on Dark Souls, where you could summon either two or three other players to help you. But in a Super Mario Wonder level, you’ll only have a maximum of three or four players with you…

Of course, these are influences, whether conscious or not, but they place Super Mario Wonder in a certain videogame modernity, by making us think of this or that game, seeing the winks within Mario or Nintendo games themselves. This complicity adds another dimension, reinforcing Nintendo’s relationship with its gamers. All the more so when, in an interview, they evoke the conception of Super Mario Wonder as an almost personal challenge for Takashi Tezuka, one of the game’s producers: “At the time, journalists and gamers were saying that after Super Mario Maker, there was no need for another 2D Mario title. I kept saying that the next Mario game was going to be completely different from Super Mario Maker and that there was no need to worry. In retrospect, statements like that may have motivated me to think about this game.”

Video game Super Mario Wonder, screenshot of a level in Chinese shadow, showing the silhouette of Toadette and piranha flowers.
In the dark, your one-day allies might just be able to help…

However, there is one influence that doesn’t exist, even though it could: that of the Super Mario Bros Movie, released in the summer of 2023, just a few months before the game. Asked about this in a series of interviews available on Nintendo’s website, Art Director Masanobu Sato replies: “We often hear about the movie’s influence on the game, but we knew nothing about the movie during development. I think Mr. Tezuka and Mr. Kondo were the only people on the team who knew the details.” Takashi Tezuka adds: “Throughout development, we had no idea when the film would be released, but we knew that people would play the game because they’d seen the film. That’s why we wanted to make a title that wouldn’t disappoint them.

New horizons?

Disappointed or not, that’s not really the question. By reinventing its own concepts, whether by destructuring the sacrosanct worlds where you can now move around as you please and complete levels in any order you like, the developers have set themselves the challenge of showing that the 2D Mario platform game is not dead. And they succeeded. They offer a new, hybrid experience, playing on gameplays that are familiar but not necessarily associated with this type of game.

Super Mario Wonder doesn’t forget itself along the way: nods to other 2D and 3D Mario adventures and gameplay (how can we not think of Super Mario Sunshine once our Elephant Mario has cleared the level?) add to the complicity that players have had and continue to have since the early days of Mario. Characters like Yoshi, who can, in local multiplayer, carry another character on their back, are designed as much to add a level of ease to the game as to give a strong family dimension to the title (the developers can easily imagine parents picking up Yoshi and helping their children by carrying them through the levels if necessary).

Video game Super Mario Wonder, screenshot of a level full of green pipes and where Toadette is only present by a small logo at the top of the screen, showing that she is off-screen.
Once again we find the “out of bounds”, hidden places that are not displayed on screen.

In the end, Super Mario Wonder stands out for its colorful style, its almost psychedelic universe and its modern videogame roots. Of course, the basic recipe remains the same: you go through the levels, collect stars – in this case, prodigy seeds – and free the new kingdom from Bowser’s grip. But behind this showcase lies a multi-faceted title that manages to stand out from the crowd, breathing new life into 2D platformers while giving them a welcome facelift.

Of course, all the influences mentioned in this article are ones we’ve seen, as none of the developers have been forthcoming on the subject.


All the images in this article are screenshots taken by myself during my games.
Les développeurs ont la parole Vol. 11 – Super Mario Wonder :

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