Super Mario Bros. Wonder is gloves-down the most delightful experience I’ve had playing a game in years. Even by Mario standards, it’s over-stuffed with surprises and moments that had me laughing out loud just from an unnecessarily over-the-top secret discovery.
There was one addition, though, that seemed out-of-place with the franchise, and I wasn’t sure it would work. Throughout the levels, there are flowers that talk to you as your character passes by, in plain, unaffected English1Or whatever language you’re playing in, I’m assuming.. They comment on what’s happening, give clues to things you might have missed, or just give you a bit of encouragement before you’re about to pull off a difficult stunt.
Todd Martens has a nice column in The Los Angeles Times about the game, where he says the flowers serve as a recurring source of encouragement and a reminder of the healing power of play. They serve as kind of a bridge between the game and the player, reminding us to appreciate the joyous details the game keeps throwing at us:
I’ve returned, for instance, throughout my playthrough to an early level featuring a bounty of Piranha Plants, those chomping, polka-dotted, Mario-biting flora that have long been a staple of the series. Only here, they walk, and at one point in the level can break into song. “They’re singing!” exclaims our flower pal, and indeed they are, with a high-pitched, childlike voice. […] It’s an easy, early level, but I revisit it because it never fails to make me smile, and it serves as a reminder that the so-called ordinary is often extraordinary if we’re willing to pay attention.
He’s absolutely right about the Piranha Plants On Parade level, which is a highlight of the entire 40-year series of Mario games, and which warrants a replay any time you’re feeling even a little bit down.
But the Mario games have always been about fun and surprisingly delightful moments. One of the things that sets Wonder apart is that it’s all about discovering those moments, even more than skill. There’s no timer in the standard levels, for one thing. As a result, there’s a sense that they’re more about exploration than just completion.
I could imagine the Piranha Plants On Parade level existing as some kind of weird bonus in a different Mario game2After all, Odyssey rewards you with an extended sequence where Pauline performs a musical number while Mario dances nearby, and the whole thing exists only to be delightful., but it’s unique to have a character mention it. The flowers act as something like a Greek chorus: they’re on stage, but can address the audience directly. They comment on what’s going on without being entirely part of it.
There’s very little sense that they’re there just for meta-commentary, though, or to add some self-awareness to a traditionally earnest series. That would be kind of awful, actually3They do use the self-awareness very sparingly and in my opinion appropriately, finally acknowledging how much of the Mario universe is just flat-out bizarre.. Instead, I think they’re a conversation between the designers and the player, encouraging us to remember to slow down and have fun. To really absorb all the weird and wonderful things that we’re seeing, instead of just racing for the end of the level.
There are even a few points where finishing a level is presented as a disappointing anti-climax. You leap on the final flagpole, but then everyone is left hanging. It doesn’t rob you of the victory, but it does make it clear that there’s much more to be discovered.
That’s not unique to Wonder; there’s at least one moment in the first Super Mario Bros where you can break through the top of a dungeon, jump up, and run along above the action to find a secret room with warp pipes. I remember the first time I saw someone do that, and it felt transgressive; Mario’s not supposed to be up there! That’s where the score is!
I never would’ve discovered that on my own, as someone who’s all about following the rules and not wanting to break the game. Super Mario Bros Wonder, on the other hand, is all about those moments. It turned them into a core mechanic, encouraging you to find the wonder flower that’ll “break” all the rules of the level and turn it into something else.
The key difference is that the game is always encouraging you to explore and experiment, telling you Go ahead and try this thing; we made it for you, and we want you to enjoy it!
You do lose some of that sense that you’re a pioneer, the very first person to see something that nobody else gets to see. Or that you found a glitch that not even the designers were aware of. Instead, you’re congratulated, and often rewarded with a fantastic new sequence. Jumping through a pipe will put you in the distant background of the level, letting you find a secret. Or take you to the foreground right against the screen, running along pipes to find a hidden “extra” ending. And the flowers will comment, “Oh, you can go back there!” or “You did it!” as a kind of reassurance from the designers that you found a special surprise they’d made for you.
I believe if I’d spent more time working in QA, I might have a different take on Super Mario Bros Wonder. Just imagining all the different ways you can go through the game, with seemingly any combination of badges, special abilities, characters, number of characters in multiplayer… it seems like a near-infinite number of different ways to play through an already substantial number of levels. But it also seems like a testament to the philosophy of the game, encouraging you to try everything and see what happens.
As a result, it feels more communal than any other Mario game I’ve played. Even in single-player mode, it never feels like you’re alone. It feels like you’re playing along with the designers, who are eager to guide you to the next cool thing they’ve built, and they want to see you succeed.
- 1Or whatever language you’re playing in, I’m assuming.
- 2After all, Odyssey rewards you with an extended sequence where Pauline performs a musical number while Mario dances nearby, and the whole thing exists only to be delightful.
- 3They do use the self-awareness very sparingly and in my opinion appropriately, finally acknowledging how much of the Mario universe is just flat-out bizarre.