Arriving on Switch on October 20th, Super Mario Bros Wonder is the first 2D Mario game since 2012's Wii U launch title New Super Mario Bros U, and the first to drop the 'New' moniker since gaming's foremost man of plumbing returned to his 2D roots on DS in 2006.
As soon as you get the Nintendo Switch controller in your hands, everything is familiar. Mario jumps the way he's always jumped, you can wall jump and butt stomp, and the goal is to get from the left end of the level to the right, jump on the flag, course clear, rinse, lather, repeat.
While it doesn't feel as fresh or different as New Super Mario Bros did in 2006, it does feel like something more than yet another sequel in that sub-series. It's perhaps better viewed as a further refinement of the formula, akin to how Super Mario Odyssey perfected the Super Mario 64 structure.
For example, you can now play through courses in any order, which removes the frustration of having to replay the same levels until you're able to continue or being locked to branching paths on the world map. Courses have difficulty ratings so you know what you're about to face, allowing you to seek easier alternatives if you prefer (not that any of the early-game levels in our demo were particularly difficult).
Completing each course earns you Wonder Seeds, which are used to unlock more parts of the world. There was also a rock blocking a path in the overworld in our demo, which could suggest other puzzles and events that open new levels – although it could also have been to limit Nintendo Live attendees to the first area.
You also earn Wonder Seeds with the new Wonder sections of each level. Touch a Wonder flower and the course transforms; pipes come alive, a stampede of bull-like creatures trundles through, and so on. Some of these sections are just about reaching the Wonder Seed at the end, and others challenge you to escape a giant crushing block or chase a weasel-like Skedaddle to claim the seed it swiped. The craziness level amps up, as does the fun, and there's usually a lot of momentum so it can be hard to take in everything that's happening on the screen – but it's hard to be overwhelmed when you're so intent on grabbing every purple coin and finding the seed.
It's entirely possible (although unlikely) to miss these Wonder sections in each level, but the fact you need seeds to unlock other worlds shows Nintendo is still keen for players to uncover every last secret of each course. Even after playing the 15-minute demo three times, there were still areas we wanted to go back and check to see what was missed.
A whole new world
If you want a break from the standard courses, there are other types of levels to try. Badge Challenges teach you a skill, then reward you with a badge dedicated to it, such as a wall jump that allows you to spring up to the next ledge rather than away. Badges give you handy extra abilities, like attracting coins from further away or holding R to float across gaps with your hat, but you can only use one at a time, which encourages experimentation as you seek out each level's secrets. More badges can be purchased from the overworld shops with the purple coins you collect.
There are also mini-game levels that are over in less than a minute and bag you another Wonder Seed. The one we tried involved bashing musical blocks to knock out piranha plants, all to the tune of classic Mario music, so we suspect there are more nostalgia-centric mini-games to amuse long-time fans.
While it can still feel like typical Mario fare, there are enough unique qualities that distinguish Wonder as something new – and a large part of this is the delightful new art style. This is the first overhaul in character design that Mario has had since 2006, and while initially it's a little jarring, it's subtle enough that it still feels familiar. It's a little more cartoony, the characters are more expressive, and the vibrant color palate makes it clear this is a game that wants to have fun.
This is emphasized further by the little details in the animation. Goombas run in wide-eyed terror as Elephant Mario approaches, Mario and his friends peek cautiously out of pipes before exiting (emphasizing how reckless they have been for the past 38 years), and elephant versions get wedged when entering and exiting said pipes. It's the sort of animation where you'll be noticing new quirks for weeks, if not months, each one raising a smile.
Enough Power-Ups to go around
Then there are the latest power-ups. Elephant Mario is clearly the star, enabling you to smash through bricks and spray water on flowers, usually to make more coins appear. It's safe to assume the elephant form will turn up in a significant chunk of the levels, hopefully with more interesting uses for the spray.
Even more fun to play was Drill Mario, which allows you to drill down through blocks - when butt stomping fails - but also burrow into the ground so you can pass under certain walls into new areas. You can even drill into the ceiling, so expect plenty of secrets that can only be uncovered this way. As with recent Mario games, you can keep power-ups in reserve - up to four if you have four players.
There are 12 playable characters to choose from: Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, two Toads, Toadette, four Yoshis, and Nabbit. A few have their own unique abilities; Yoshi, for example, can do the usual flutter jump and eat enemies. The Yoshis and Nabbit also have the advantage that they don't take damage (although you can still die if you fall down a pit), but the compromise is that they can't use power-ups either. We tried both out and while they're perfect for young kids or assisting parents, you can't help but feel you're not getting the full experience.
With so many characters available, multiplayer is back. As always, the game becomes utterly chaotic with four players, especially during the Wonder sections, and it's difficult to keep up with what's happening – particularly if a more experienced or impatient player is just barrelling ahead. At this stage, it's doubtful 2D Mario will ever work well as a four-player game, but that doesn't mean it can't still be fun to leap and stomp through levels together.
We didn't get a chance to try out the new online modes, where you're surrounded by the ghosts of other players and can leave standees of your character as a revive point for those who fall. But the fact that Super Mario Bros Wonder includes online functionality on top of the usual single-player and local game shows that Nintendo is not exactly phoning this one in.
Super Mario Bros Wonder is an excellent 2D Mario game. It may not feel quite like a tentpole release in the same way as Odyssey, but it was unlikely to be this close to the end of the Switch's lifecycle, and it does feel like Nintendo is finally taking a step forward from the New series it's been iterating on for nearly 20 years. For those who have been yearning for more classic Mario platforming since 2012 (if you haven't already tired of building your own in Mario Maker) - or, frankly, anyone who enjoys a spot of classic Mario – this is shaping up to be an essential purchase.
Get daily insight, inspiration and deals in your inbox
Get the hottest deals available in your inbox plus news, reviews, opinion, analysis and more from the TechRadar team.