Super Mario Bros. Wonder had me hooked from the moment I saw Mario transform into an elephant man. In this unusual new form, Mario can bash enemies with his trunk, soak up water to spray at friends and foes, and — from a crouching position — perform an incredibly impressive push-up to launch himself into the air. Playing as Mario, as an elephant, was delightful.
I immediately needed to see Princess Peach and Toad as elephant people. Witnessing those two as chunky pachyderms, their forms straining the seams of their bloomers and harem pants, and watching them squeeze through warp pipes… Well, it may be Nintendo’s funniest visual gag outside of the Paper Mario series.
The Elephant Fruit is just one of the brand-new power-ups available in Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s new destination, the Flower Kingdom, and they make the act of playing a 2D side-scrolling Super Mario game feel fresh again. This uncharted world full of new enemies and new abilities made me feel like I was playing a direct sequel to Super Mario World more so than, say, Yoshi’s Island or the New Super Mario Bros. games. It’s spilling over with new ideas, including the game-changing Wonder Flower, while sticking to the side-scrolling core of what makes Mario great.
The powerful Wonder Flower is at the heart of Super Mario Bros. Wonder’s setup — which is, thankfully, not about a damsel in distress, but an entire kingdom.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder starts in dramatic fashion, with longtime nemesis Bowser acquiring the power of a Wonder Flower and spectacularly merging his body (and Koopa Clown Car) with the Flower Kingdom’s castle. Yes, Bowser is part building in this game, and he uses his evil powers to imprison many of the kingdom’s residents: flower-crowned Toad-like creatures known as Poplins.
The whole Mario gang is here for the rescue mission of Prince Florian’s castle: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Toad, Toadette, various Yoshis, and Nabbit. Players set off to visit new lands and use new abilities as any of these characters, in teams of up to four.
Familiar powers imbued by Super Mushrooms, Fire Flowers, and Super Stars are present in the Flower Kingdom, but fun new abilities like the Elephant Fruit offer new ways to battle enemies. Other power-up items I used during a short hands-on session with Super Mario Bros. Wonder include the Drill Mushroom, which gives characters a drill bit for a hat, allowing them to crack apart rocks and gems or burrow into floors and ceilings; and the Bubble Flower, which lets Mario and friends spit out bubbles that seek out and absorb enemies. Those bubbles also become ad hoc platforms, giving players an extra bounce to cross large gaps.
Then there are the Wonder Flowers, one of which seems to spawn in most levels, that deliver the game’s most dramatic effects. It’s not quite a power-up, but an instrument for showing off Nintendo’s creativity. In the first trailer for Super Mario Bros. Wonder, we saw the new item in action: Mario touched the flower, and the level’s array of Green Pipes went wild, undulating, gushing water, one crawling across the screen like a huge metal inchworm. In other levels that I played at a recent hands-on event in New York, that Wonder Flower summoned a rampaging herd of Bulrushes — buffalolike creatures that wear wrestling singlets — or turned our characters into helpless Goombas. That Goomba transformation turned a traditional Mario level into a game of stealth; me and my mushroomy friends had to hide behind trees to avoid being chomped by Maw-Maws, a new kind of land-dwelling catfish-y creature.
The stage-specific gimmicks of Wonder Flowers are probably worth avoiding for now, though Nintendo showed plenty of them in a recent Nintendo Direct showcase. Spoiling them might ruin the thrill of discovering them for yourself when Super Mario Bros. Wonder launches this October.
Wonder’s new starring item will be appreciated by both Super Mario fans and younger players who may be new to the series. Touching one and seeing its dramatic effects is awe-inspiring. It changes the rhythm of a Super Mario Bros. level, asking players to switch up tactics on the fly. I can see players enjoying games of Super Mario Bros. Wonder with kids, parents, or partners, retrying levels just one more time to try to experience the magic of a Wonder Flower effect.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is built with multiplayer in mind. It can be played solo, of course, but up to four players can enjoy it cooperatively. Not all playable characters are created equal; while heroes like Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Toad can enjoy the full suite of Wonder’s power-ups, Yoshis and Nabbit can’t. But those latter two characters also don’t take damage. (They can still fall to their deaths, however.) Yoshi, who comes in four color options, can instead be a helpful escort; other players can ride on its back. Parents or partners with better Mario skills may want to pick Yoshi to help other players get through tough spots.
Beyond Yoshi, Wonder feels incredibly generous in catering to players who may not be Mario experts. When characters die, they become wispy-tailed specters that can then be revived. Past Super Mario games put downed characters into a bubble from which they could be rescued. Wonder streamlines that, turning them into ghosts that can move freely and be brought back to life when another player touches them. It immediately feels like a better system than, say, how New Super Mario Bros. Wii handled the chaos of cooperative Mario play.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is full of other helpful touches. Players can acquire and equip Badges that offer everyone boosts or special abilities. They’ll grant players more powerful jumps, for example, allowing them to float like Luigi in Super Mario Bros. 2, or let them use their hat as a parachute to slow their descent. Badges can also confer bonuses, like additional coins to help accelerate acquiring extra lives and a Safety Bounce that nullifies instant-kill stage hazards like lava or spikes.
Cooperative play can be enjoyed locally with a full team of players, or with live “player shadows” in online play. Nintendo calls online multiplayer a “subtle connection” with other Super Mario Bros. Wonder players in a style that feels almost Dark Souls-inspired. Players can also play some moments competitively, engaging in friendly races after gathering in online lobbies.
After spending an all-too-brief hands-on session with Super Mario Bros. Wonder, I walked away with a sense of awe. The game feels energetic and inspired, and considerate of Mario fans both new and old. It’s a showcase game, one that feels like a perfect send-off for the Nintendo Switch — even though its exploration of new Mario ideas could have easily been saved for the next generation of Nintendo hardware.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder comes to Nintendo Switch on Oct. 20. Two weeks prior, Nintendo will release a new colorway of the Switch OLED model itself, with a red color scheme and clever Super Mario decorative details.