Midway through a quick playthrough of a course in Super Mario Bros. Wonder‘s new Flower Kingdom, I find that I’ve suddenly turned into a Goomba. Shrunken down to angry mushroom size, I’m reduced to trying to hide behind bushes and scramble as I find a way to where I’m going next. Hey, at least this was less chaotic than the level where I inflated like a balloon and bounced up through the sky.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder, coming Oct. 20, is Nintendo’s biggest new Switch game, and it’s trying to bring back the whimsical magic Nintendo has always coded into Mario games. This time it’s even more overt: The 2D Mario game, Nintendo’s first truly new 2D Mario platformer since New Super Mario Bros. U, has little Wonder Flowers that turn levels into hallucinogenic multiverse versions of themselves.
In a year when the Mario Bros. movie made a ton of money, and Nintendo opened a Mario theme park in LA, it all looks like perfect timing. But it’s also a game that Wonder’s creators say is establishing a new platform for the next decade.
“As we were wrapping up development for New Super Mario Brothers U Deluxe, we were thinking about what we can do to create a system that we can use that can support Mario for 10 years in the future,” said Shiro Mouri, director of Super Mario Wonder, in an interview with CNET.
Part of that rethinking has to do with reupping a sense of surprise in the familiar formula. The other involves adding more integrated online play.
Rethinking online Switch games
The Switch is six years old now, and a new version could end up emerging next year based on the latest reports. Even so, the idea of the Switch is likely to stick around for a while longer. Games like Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom proved that the Switch is still excellent at being both a handheld and a TV game console. But I felt differently about my early and brief playtime with Wonder. It was extraordinarily fun, but I paid more attention to how the game treats multiplayer and online differently.
There are already tons of co-op multiplayer games on the Switch, many of them made by Nintendo. Wonder’s four-player co-op feels similar to others at first, but it definitely has a less competitive, chaotic vibe between players. Instead of worrying about someone sabotaging you, a lot of the game is supportive: sharing power-ups, rescuing players or an online feature where online players can drop little signposts that offer supportive power-ups for others who play the course later on.
“People have their own image of what online play might be. Maybe it’s a little difficult, or maybe it’s a little a little scary,” Takashi Tezuka, producer of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, says of Nintendo’s challenge to build an online mode that felt organic to all players.
“The concept behind the online play this time is really this idea of casual connection, being able to experience multiplayer game sessions as if you were playing a single-player game,” Mouri says, explaining how players can appear in the background to offer assistance without interrupting the flow, while still being helpful. “What I really wanted to do is create an online play experience that’s entirely positive.”
My brief experience with the game showed me how single-player runs work in an online state where other players can leave little assistive signs of themselves that sprout power-ups. Or they can show up as shadows in courses to race against, or you can simply follow them for helpful suggestions. It’s reminiscent of how the game Elden Ring shows wisps of other players’ progress as you play: separate, but together, maybe sharing discoveries along the way.
To be sure, there’s also competitive stuff. It seems like courses are a bit short at times, and challenges fast. Races to make it through courses first have a familiar feel.
However, it also means two-player, in-room co-ops can play online with two others online, mixing and matching so everyone doesn’t need to be online or in the same room. I wish the game had even more player flexibility there (what about three players in a room and one online?), but it’s a great start. There are also player lobbies where a group of 12 could split up, play courses and come back to regroup over and over.
The number of playable characters has also expanded: Mario, Luigi, Toads, ridable Yoshis, Peach, Daisy and even the weird Nabbit. They vary slightly in abilities, with some having more forgiving controls. Extra badges with added abilities can be toggled on and off per course, too, so customization plays a big role.
Super Mario Maker, New Super Mario Bros. U and Super Mario 3D World already have multiplayer support on the Switch, and so do many Kirby and Yoshi games. But Wonder’s tweaked formula could end up being one of the best balances of supportive, reliable and competitive gameplay.
All Mario games tweak the main concepts: Super Mario Maker is a game design app, and Mario Odyssey has hat-tossing identity swapping, for example, but according to Mario Wonder’s creators, the idea here was to capture some of the unexpected whimsy Mario games had in the first place, way before we knew the formula.
“The baseline fundamental concept we were going for was to create a game that’s filled with secrets and mysteries,” Mouri says. “The original Super Mario Bros. was exactly that, a game filled with secrets and mysteries. But we started to realize that this idea of secrets and mysteries started to become a standard of what the series is, and we saw that as a challenge.”
The Wonder Flower oddities that pop up everywhere are apparently all unique. “In order to fill every main course with a wonder, we polled the entire team for ideas,” says Mouri. “The number of ideas that came up was more than 2,000. And from that big pool, we whittled it down to those that have potential.”
How deep and weird is Wonder? That’s what I can’t tell you, because I only played for about 45 minutes. I did see courses get filled with shooting stars. I turned into a massive elephant (not a Wonder Flower moment, though). I inflated like a balloon. I turned into a Goomba. The pipes all became animated. A herd of buffalo creatures suddenly lifted me into the air and moved me like a train.
Mouri promises many, many secrets and mysteries, while Tezuka tells me to keep an eye out for little details, too. Knowing previous Mario games, and Nintendo games in general, I’m used to Mario games seeming finished, and then unfolding whole new parts (and even more parts after that). How deeply Wonder plays with those ideas remains to be seen, but Nintendo promises that every single course has a new Wonder Flower idea.
The emphasis on mystery reminds me of my own love of magic, and the famous Tannen’s Magic Mystery Box, an unknown package with surprise magic tricks inside, that film director J.J. Abrams adopted for his theory of magic in storytelling.
“I do think this is an idea that can be applied in many different ways in many different places,” Mouri says about the idea of the reality-bending Wonder Flowers, and the new Flower Kingdom in general. “But there’s nothing specific that I have in mind at the moment.”
It’s hard to tell yet whether Super Mario Bros. Wonder will top Super Mario Odyssey as my favorite Switch Mario game, but its multiplayer approach will likely make it the top one I pick to play with my family.