I had fun playing Super Mario Bros. Wonder, but by the end of the game I felt very unsatisfied, despite enjoying the first couple of worlds immensely. Having thought long about why this is while also playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, I think I can articulate why this is the case:
The skill ceiling is much lower in Super Mario Bros. Wonder
Wonder does have some difficult stages, but the overall level of challenge, from clearing stages to finding large purple coins, remains quite constant throughout. Older 2D Mario games slowly increase in overall difficulty while always ensuring star coins provide a challenge from the beginning.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder gives the player less agency
I was shocked by how rare the starman powerup is, and how few opportunities players have to chain-stomp off enemies to earn extra lives. Players are discouraged from using/bringing items into different stages, the developers routinely spell out the optimal jumping arc with coins, and many secrets aren’t secrets at all, but rather strategically placed so the majority of players will find them. This didn’t make the game feel like much of an adventure, despite the thematic variety between stages.
The scope in Super Mario Bros. Wonder feels undeveloped
Two worlds lack boss fights. There’s only one boss in the entire game, sans-final battle. Two of the special world entrances are accessed by talking to an NPC. The special world is significantly less challenging than NSMB Wii.
The novel Wonder Seed segments are rather one-note
Returning to Wonder this weekend and I found myself actively avoiding the Wonder Seed segments in stages where I was grabbing missed giant purple coins. While novel, they aren’t much fun to replay, because they railroad the player into following a specific path to the goal. Because they often take up half a stage, levels often lack the breathing room to develop its ideas.
Giant purple coins lack the tension of the star coins
Compared with NSMB Wii, the giant purple coins in Mario Bros Wonder are significantly easier to find and earn, making them feel more like redundant collectibles rather than challenges for skilled players to overcome. They also lack tension. Older games would require players to collect coins AND complete the stage. In Wonder, you can collect a coin, die, and it’ll count as having collected it, removing the legitimacy behind the more challenging ones.
Super Mario Bros Wonder suffers from cruise control
From the simplified physics to the reduced player agency, Super Mario Bros. Wonder reminded me a lot of Rayman Legends, another platformer that, while fun and novel, was ultimately rather shallow to play through. The movement physics feel great but lack momentum. Elements that might have frustrated players in previous games, from the puzzling ghost houses to timed block challenges to the difficult precision-demanding fortresses, have been removed almost entirely in favour of more exploratory gameplay. The world map is a glorified level selection screen rather than a game within a game now.
I’m glad Nintendo decided to take 2D Mario in a new direction given the previous games will continue to exist, but I’m not sure this is the direction it needs. For me 2D Mario is about making the most of those malleable platforming physics, offering a plethora of secrets for skilled players to uncover, while also providing a miriad of ways to play and replay through the game, be it through secret exits, ways to earn loads of 1UPs, and so on.
I was shocked by how difficult and demanding New Super Mario Bros Wii was when I played it this weekend. It’s almost as if Nintendo had more confidence in its players while offering the super guide and hint videos as a fallback if a level could not be completed.
I’m also surprised there’s a bit of historical revisionism going on in the developer interviews. Considering NSMB Wii’s 30+ million sales, the general consensus last generation was that 2D Mario was more approachable, and Nintendo began to include 2D Mario elements in the 3D titles. With Mario Bros Wonder, the developers seem to have concluded the opposite, which strikes me as odd. But even considering that, I feel the game comes off poorly compared to something like Super Mario 3D World, which had a monster post-game, so difficult that I never completed it.
So while I had fun with Mario Bros Wonder I feel it’s one of the weakest 2D Mario titles despite the fantastic presentation and thematic creativity. I hope the points above help articulate why I was left so unsatisfied with it despite initially having a blast. I’m also curious to see what the long-term reception of this game will be after the honeymoon period is over.