Super Mario Bros. Wonder Cover Story – Powering Up

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    Introduction

    Upon its announcement as the grand finale of the June 2023 Nintendo Direct, Super Mario Bros. Wonder declared the series’ return to the 2D side-scrolling genre with a colorful bang. The game signals the return to Mario’s roots from a core gameplay perspective, but it’s more connected to Mario’s past than most people initially realized.

    While many remember the creative level design, expressive art style, and discovery of the game-changing Wonder Flowers, the most memorable moment came at the end of the announcement trailer, as everyone’s favorite plumber grabbed a never-before-seen item and transformed into an elephant. That moment told everyone that Super Mario Bros. Wonder, despite taking the series back to its 2D origins, is trying bold, new things unlike anything the franchise has seen before.

    We traveled to both coasts of the United States, first to New York then to Seattle, to get our hands on Super Mario Bros. Wonder and speak with the developers to learn more about how Nintendo plans on once again surprising us with its newest entry in one of gaming’s longest-running franchises.

    What’s Old is New Again

    What’s Old is New Again

    In 2006, the Super Mario series celebrated 10 years since its triumphant leap to 3D with Super Mario 64. That seminal entry proved Nintendo’s iconic plumber could transition to 3D and still be the juggernaut franchise it was in 2D. It also became the blueprint for nearly every 3D platformer for the next several years. Super Mario 64 looked amazing in motion, but more importantly, it played like a dream. To say it revolutionized gaming would be an understatement.

    In 2002, Nintendo released Super Mario Sunshine on GameCube to critical and fan acclaim. While many celebrated the continued success of this 3D evolution of one of gaming’s most important and beloved franchises, some wondered if Mario’s 2D past was just that: the past.

    Eleven years had passed since the last 2D Super Mario game was released in 1995 with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island on the Super Nintendo. The Game Boy Advance received only remakes of previous Mario side-scrollers. As Nintendo worked on the next 3D entry, the company looked towards its popular handheld system, the Nintendo DS, as a potential home for a return to 2D Mario.

    New Super Mario Bros.

    The result was New Super Mario Bros., a game that brought the series back to the classic 2D gameplay, but with modern visuals and gameplay conventions. “We’d been working on the New Super Mario Bros. series based on the idea of recreating the experience of the original Super Mario Bros., which released in 1985, in a new way,” series producer Takashi Tezuka, whose past credits also include directing Super Mario World, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, says. “You can think of it as carefully preserving the core gameplay while dressing it up with new elements that enhance it.”

    By recapturing the magic of the classic entries and bringing it forward into the then-modern era, New Super Mario Bros. was a critical darling and a massive success with players. The game went on to become the highest-selling game on Nintendo’s best-selling system of all time.

    “For the New Super Mario Bros. series, we did what we always do, which is go back and review what we had in the past and we looked at how we could make changes to make something appropriate for the current generation,” Tezuka says. “The New Super Mario Bros. series continued for a long period of time and one of the things I think we accomplished during that period was creating new Mario fans.”

    New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe

    The success of the DS entry led to three sequels across three different platforms. Each entry in the franchise sold extremely well, charting at least in the top five of their respective console’s all-time sales chart. However, following 2012’s New Super Mario Bros. U, the series went dark. Though the New Super Mario Bros. games always sold well, more critical voices emerged with each subsequent entry, claiming series stagnation. Each entry was well-made and well-designed, but the games began feeling similar.

    Though the absence had become elongated, matching the 11-year gap between Yoshi’s Island and New Super Mario Bros., Nintendo was far from resting on its laurels, as the developers continued to think about how to deliver in a way that both they and their fans would be happy. “There’s been quite a bit of time since the last installment in the New Super Mario Bros. franchise, but when we’re creating another iteration in the series, we understand that we have to go above and beyond the last title,” Tezuka says. “And so, for us, we were really filled with a lot of very strong feelings about wanting to create something with a lot of very rich content.”

    During this absence, fans of the 2D side of Mario could get their fix through Super Mario Run, an auto-runner for mobile devices, or make their own fun with the two entries in the Super Mario Maker franchise. But it wasn’t the same. However, Nintendo seems to have found a way to one-up the games of its past and now, the 2D side of the series is poised for yet another injection of life and another groundbreaking comeback.

    Secrets of Success

    Secrets of Success

    As Nintendo thought about how it wanted to bring Mario back to the 2D side-scrolling genre, it began looking towards the franchise’s past. For director Shiro Mouri, who has worked with Nintendo since the late 1990s on titles like Super Mario Sunshine, New Super Mario Bros. U, and The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, there was no better place to look than the game that established Mario as the genre leader.

    “I believe that the first Super Mario Bros. game was really a game filled with secrets and mysteries,” Mouri says. “For example, if you get a mushroom, your body becomes big. And there are also pipes that initially seem to be just obstacles when in turn, you can actually go into it and access an underground area. It’s really filled with secrets and mysteries.”

    Mouri took this as one of his primary inspirations when thinking about how to push the series forward, making “secrets and mysteries” one of the core concepts for Super Mario Bros. Wonder. The more Mouri looked at the way the series has progressed in the time since those original entries, he noticed the way of having secrets implemented had become “standardized.” In the early days of developing this new title, he made it a mission to try to break free from the established mold.

    “What we wanted to do was say – you know when you traveled down a pipe, you go to an underground secret area, and when you climb a vine, you go to a secret sky area – we wanted to create a new version of that,” Mouri says. “That idea was grabbing an item and warping you to a different area. When we made it and actually showed it to Mr. Tezuka, he said, ‘Well, if you’re just going to warp somewhere, it’s basically the same thing. Can you just change the area you’re in right now?’ When I heard that, I thought, ‘Well, instead of just trying to transform one small part of the course, why not just go for the entire course?’”

    After brainstorming ideas for this new concept, Mouri came up with ideas like having a pipe wiggle like an inchworm or tilting the entire screen in one direction, creating the concept we now know as Wonder Effects. The team wanted to come up with several strong ideas to implement in select stages to make for impactful play experiences, but Tezuka had higher ambitions for these game-changing warps. Tezuka loved the idea but thought instead of picking and choosing certain courses to include these events, they should put these transformations in every level.

    At first, Mouri was incredulous at the suggestion, in part because the Wonder Flower, the item that activates the Wonder Effects, is optional to collect. “I had to think to myself, ‘Are we really going to do this?’” he says. “And I thought that because what that means – having every main course have that – there’s going to also be work that needs to be [done] because the gameplay experience is different once you touch the Wonder Flower and then when you don’t touch the Wonder Flower. That means we have to do that for every single course, which is again, a lot of work. And hence, I had to really ask him, ‘Are we really going to do this?’ And he said yes.”

    When in doubt, Mouri referred to his initial idea of filling the game with secrets and mysteries. He tells me he realized early on Tezuka was right: If the team really wanted to fill the game with this sense of discovery, they couldn’t just deliver these Wonders in a few levels; it was necessary for every main level to feature them.

    “It was a challenge to get to the point where the Wonder Effect concept really sunk in with the team,” art director Masanobu Sato says. “I feel like they weren’t completely sold on the idea until we decided on the main course tricks and visuals.”

    With such a daunting task before him, Mouri pooled the full development staff, which resulted in thousands of ideas. They then cut down to the best ideas and created prototypes for testing, with only a very small percentage of ideas making it into the final game.

    During this early stage, when the team was coming up with ideas for Wonders, Tezuka wanted to give the developers free rein to be as creative as possible without any excuses, so he did not impose any deadlines. Though Tezuka does believe deadlines can help a team deliver the best product possible, he wanted to let his staff create a fully formed nucleus for the new title.

    While Tezuka is reluctant to say this is an entirely new approach for Nintendo as a whole, he notes that the process for setting deadlines was at least somewhat different. “In my experience, we usually start with prototyping followed by a project proposal, and then we create a rough schedule that we adjust based on progress,” he says. “The Wonder Effects in each course were the most important elements of the game, and not all of them were outlined in the initial project proposal. We intentionally withheld information about the completion timing from the team until we had more clarity and a firm grasp of the scale of gameplay that we were going to create. It is because we didn’t want deadlines to discourage the team from pursuing challenges during production.”

    It was here that Super Mario Bros. Wonder began to truly take form and effectively transition Mario and his friends away from the New Super Mario Bros. franchise and into something entirely fresh. And with tons of imaginative ideas in tow, Tezuka and Mouri looked for inspiration from new sources.

    Fresh Perspectives

    Fresh Perspectives

    As development progressed on this new game, Nintendo relied on the seasoned veterans on its staff like Tezuka and Mouri, but the newer and younger developers more than pulled their weight.

    “When looking at creating a new Mario title, we actually went ahead and brought in a lot of younger people into our staff,” Tezuka says. “They’re, of course, developers, but they’re also people who enjoy playing games, and so they wanted to create something that they themselves would enjoy as gamers. We got a lot of different ideas and different thoughts from as many people as we could within that group.”

    In soliciting increased feedback from the newer team members, Tezuka and Mouri started making bigger changes to the core Mario formula. Things like getting rid of the in-course timer and score system, letting you stomp on an enemy underwater, and starting back in the stage after losing a life were just some of the changes made at the suggestion of newer developers.

    “The thing about developers who are new is that they’re not too preoccupied with ‘It was this way, so we must do it this way,’” Mouri says. “I think that there’s a good side to that in that we can really hear their opinions and feedback and really re-evaluate and think what kinds of changes and what kinds of adjustments we want to make to each of those gameplay experiences.”

    Mouri credits many of the innovations to these newer developers, saying they could more easily recognize exactly where the franchise needed to change, while Tezuka appreciates how honest many of them are with their feedback. In playing through several stages of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, the fresh takes on the series are evident, with surprises and delights at every turn.

    Here We Go! (again)

    Here We Go! (again)

    Super Mario Bros. Wonder whisks Mario and his friends away to the Flower Kingdom. His group is there to meet with Prince Florian, a caterpillar-like ruler with a flower-shaped crown that’s not just to demonstrate his royal status in the Flower Kingdom (more on that later). Unfortunately, Florian’s meeting with the Mushroom Kingdom delegation is cut short as Bowser and Kamek steal Florian’s Wonder Flower.

    As soon as he touches the Wonder Flower, Bowser merges with Florian’s castle and begins wreaking havoc on the Flower Kingdom as a horrifying floating warship. Bowser soars over the Flower Kingdom, corrupting various parts of the once-peaceful world, including transforming the houses of Florian’s royal guards, the Poplins, into prisons.

    Now, Mario and his friends must venture through six distinct worlds, as well as a central area known as the Petal Isles, in order to rescue the Poplins, recover the powerful Wonder Seeds, and put a stop to Bowser’s new reign of terror.

    Mouri wanted to fill Super Mario Bros. Wonder with secrets and mysteries, but the other core concept he wanted to pursue from the earliest stages of development was freedom of choice. To help accomplish that, Super Mario Bros. Wonder features the largest roster of playable characters in the history of 2D Mario games. Players can choose between Mario, Luigi, Peach, Daisy, Yellow Toad, Blue Toad, Toadette, Yoshi, Red Yoshi, Yellow Yoshi, Light-Blue Yoshi, and Nabbit. All of the characters control exactly the same, with the exception of the Yoshis and Nabbit.

    In order to make the game as approachable as possible, Nintendo made it so Yoshi and Nabbit don’t take damage, but they can’t use power-ups. Yoshi also has the ability to eat enemies and items, let other characters ride him, and use his trademark flutter jump, while Nabbit can turn power-ups into Flower Coins, the in-game currency. These Purple Coins are scattered throughout the stages and can be traded at the store for 1-Up Mushrooms, Wonder Seeds, equippable Badges, and more.

    Badge of Honor

    Badge of Honor

    Badges are perhaps the biggest expression of Mouri’s desire for freedom of choice in Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Using Badges, players can customize their character with a special move or ability. “When you look at past Mario games, a lot of characters had a set of abilities; I’m talking about Peach being floaty or Luigi being able to jump high, and while that’s fun, I thought that some people might want to be a little bit floaty with Mario or maybe they want to jump high with Toad,” Mouri says. “Because we separated out the character from the ability, we were able to get a little bit wild with some of the abilities.”

    These Badges, which are equipped one at a time to Prince Florian’s crown, exist in three categories. Action Badges give you moves that you can pull off on command, such as a Parachute Cap that lets you glide, a Floating High Jump that boosts your standard jump, or a Wall-Climb Jump that modifies your standard wall-jump to help you scale walls. Meanwhile, Boost Badges grant passive abilities, like one that rewards extra coins, one that starts you off with a Super Mushroom, and one that offers one free bounce out of a pit. Finally, there are Expert Badges, which are useful, but difficult-to-master abilities. Some Badges are highly specialized, such as the Dolphin Kick Badge, which provides an underwater speed boost that lets you break blocks, while others, like the Crouching High Jump, are widely applicable.

    The Badge system can be used to help reach areas more easily or as a difficulty modifier. “There are Badges that are suited for supporting novice players and also Badges that kind of provide advanced players with a little bit of handicapping as they’re playing the game,” Mouri says. “I think this really provides a lot of options and a lot of variety for all different kinds of players.”

    While some Badges can be purchased in the store with Flower Coins, others must be earned. I experienced this firsthand by playing the Wall-Climb Jump challenge, which had me equip the badge and use it to reach the top of a vertical stage. It’s simple enough, but it lets me master the Badge’s ability, then grant it to me as an option each time I enter a course going forward.

    However, it sounds as though not every Badge is so easily unlocked. “No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t get the last one,” Tezuka says with a chuckle. “Up until now, I have completed pretty much every single Mario game that I’ve worked on, but for this one I did have to have help with two courses. All the rest, I did myself.”

    In response, Mouri proudly proclaims he was able to get all the Badges and complete the game 100 percent, but does warn that Super Mario Bros. Wonder will be quite challenging to accomplish everything. Though the stages I played through were not among the most difficult, I experienced a wide range of challenges during my hands-on session and came away excited to experience the levels that tripped Tezuka up.

    The Feel of the Flower Kingdom

    The Feel of the Flower Kingdom

    My hands-on session begins with the aptly named Welcome to the Flower Kingdom. This first level introduces many of the core components of Super Mario Bros. Wonder, including Talking Flowers. These witty plants commentate the action, give you hints about nearby secrets, and even crack jokes, injecting extra personality into the experience. They can be toggled to be text-only, voice-only, both, or turned off. They can also be switched to speak in various languages.

    As the stage starts picking up momentum, I encounter the moment I’ve been waiting for: The Elephant Fruit power-up emerges from a block and I watch as Mario transforms into the new form. Elephant Mario, as Mouri explains, was born out of the desire of wanting to make Mario’s body grow in size, allow him to hit blocks from the side and potentially reach new areas, and spray water to stun enemies and water plants. “To come up with a transformation that really fits with these three ideas,” Mouri explains, “after a lot of consideration, really the only answer was an elephant.”

    Elephant Mario was a shock when we first saw him in the reveal trailer in June, but despite being an elephant, he still retains many of the core features of his iconic look. “We start [designing the elephant versions] by understanding the characters and their iconic features,” art director Sato says. “For example, Mario’s key color is red, and he has a large nose and a distinguished mustache. The design process starts with applying the transformation motif to a character while maintaining a balance to make sure that a character’s iconic features are not lost.”

    The expressive nature of the characters is felt throughout the entire game, as the art style is a fresh take on the franchise, while still paying homage to the earliest titles in the series. “The artwork and pixel art from past Super Mario games has had an impact on this game,” Sato says. “For example, you can find tons of clues hidden in past artwork where the artist sadly and regrettably had to give up depicting certain details due to technical constraints of the hardware. Updating these so that they hold up as modern entertainment was a big challenge for the artists.”

    Even the sound has more personality, from the more distinct jumping sounds to the Wonder transformation audio. “I think the sound really livens up the characters and the overall feel of each course, making the game even more fun,” sound director Koji Kondo, who has also composed many of the most iconic Mario and Legend of Zelda tracks, says. “In this game, we use sound in a way that we have never used it before. Some examples of that are how sound adds excitement during Wonder Effects, Talking Flower dialogue, and courses where various things move in sync with the music.”

    This comes into play as I grab my first Wonder Flower, which in this first stage’s case, makes all the pipes move up and down, including one pipe that uses Mouri’s initial inchworm idea to help Mario and friends move through the stage and grab hard-to-reach Flower Coins. The sequence culminates with me grabbing a Wonder Seed, this game’s main collectible, which ceases the Wonder Effect. Each main course has at least two Wonder Seeds: one for completing the Wonder Effect and one for finishing the level. If a course has multiple exits, each exit will reward its own Wonder Seed.

    The first level of Super Mario Bros. Wonder is easy and straightforward, but that’s the role it’s meant to fill. The longer I play, the more I witness the creativity at play with this new game.

    Expanding Our Horizons

    Expanding Our Horizons

    The next course is Scram, Skedaddlers. This stage introduces a new enemy called Skedaddlers, who often carry items, but run away as soon as they see you. This could be an annoying gimmick for the course, but it ends up being a blast, as it turns multiple sections into thrilling chases. It culminates with the Wonder Effect, where as soon as you get the Wonder Flower, shooting stars rain down onto you as you chase a Skedaddler carrying the Wonder Seed. Because each star grants you a window of invincibility, this sequence makes you feel like a top-tier speedrunner as you blast through all obstacles en route to catching the fleeing Skedaddler.

    The next stage, Bulrush Coming Through, showcases a new enemy type: Bulrushes. These bull-inspired creatures charge at you, destroying blocks and other objects in their way. There’s no readily apparent way to defeat them, so the best way to handle them is to goad them into charging in the direction of an obstacle you want cleared, and then get out of their way. After using it to open a new area, I lure another into running off a ramp and smashing some blocks to reveal the Wonder Flower. After that, all I can do is hold on, as the Wonder Effect for this stage is a Bulrush stampede. I ride the Bulrush stampede all the way to the flagpole, but they run it right off the screen. After riding on top of them for a bit longer, I come to another flagpole, which counts as an alternate exit, meaning Bulrush Coming Through has three Wonder Seeds instead of the standard two.

    Before going on to Jewel-Block Cave, I play Trottin’ Piranha Plants, a short and easy stage that falls in the category of Break Time courses. These simple levels are meant to be a breather from any surrounding difficulty and a fun, easy way to obtain a Wonder Seed more than anything else. After defeating all of the Piranha Plants in the area above Mario, I collect my Seed and I’m on to the next main level.

    In Jewel-Block Cave, I find a new power-up: the Drill Mushroom. When using this new ability, Mario and his friends can dig beneath the surface of both the ground and ceiling and burrow. While this is effective at defeating enemies and breaking colorful jewel blocks in the course, it’s also extremely useful for finding secrets or reaching places you couldn’t otherwise. The Wonder Effect here spawns a giant Konk, which behaves similarly to the series’ mainstay Thwomp enemy. You must move downward as the Konk encroaches on your position from above; the Drill Mushroom is particularly useful in this case, as several colorful blocks impede your progress.

    Maw-Maw Mouthful is flooded with, as the name suggests, Maw-Maws. These big-mouthed beasts charge at anything that pops up in front of them, including playable characters, power-ups, and enemies. You can get the new Bubble Flower power-up from a block, but if you’re not careful, a Maw-Maw will eat it before you can grab it. Once I get the Bubble Flower, I immediately see the utility, as you can defeat enemies with the bubble projectiles and use them as makeshift platforms to reach new areas.

    The Bubble Flower was inspired by the Bubble Baby Yoshi, a holdable character that could trap enemies in bubbles in New Super Mario Bros. U. However, Mouri wanted to improve upon the mechanic. “Part of the mechanics of that character was that you had to keep the Y button held down to be able to use it, and we thought that was something that could use a little improvement,” he says. “As an extension of trying to improve that feature is how we came up with the idea of the Bubble Flower and then ultimately, Bubble Mario.”

    Maw-Maw Mouthful culminates with one of the most interesting Wonder Effects: The player characters transform into Goombas, who Maw-Maws seem to have an insatiable appetite for. Here, you must avoid being eaten by hiding in the trees and then working your way towards the Wonder Seed by riding various platforms that are accessible to you as a Goomba who can’t jump. The next Wonder Effect isn’t any less strange, as I play Bloomps of the Desert Skies, where Mario transforms into Balloon Mario and must navigate a gauntlet of enemies and obstacles on his way to the Wonder Seed.

    New Frontiers

    New Frontiers

    Condarts Away is the first of three stages exclusive to my play session. Condarts are menacing birds that lie in wait for you to walk nearby, then fly straight at you like a dart to a dartboard. Like many of the enemies in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, you can manipulate them to use their attacks to your advantage, as they can break through blocks. This stage also houses a special area with Zip Tracks, where Mario essentially grinds or ziplines his way across. However, my favorite part is the Wonder Effect, which shifts the perspective to a top-down view, and you must avoid enemies while you gather Flower Coins and seek out the Wonder Seed.

    The next exclusive course I experience is Where The Rrrumbas Rule. This cavern-based stage is full of sentient boulders that roll your way and destroy anything in their path. The course also includes Topple Rocks, tall wall-like pillars that Mario can push over to knock out enemies or clear paths. Knocking them over is extremely satisfying, especially when you wall-jump off them. The Wonder Effect in this level is perhaps my favorite of my demo, as Mario is transformed into Spike Ball Mario and rolls through the stage as a wrecking ball of destruction, complete with bowling-pin sound effects. The feeling of momentum is fantastic, and it’s a great power trip as you roll through legions of enemies, blocks, and other obstacles.

    Countdown to Drop Down serves as the grand send-off to my hands-on session. This course is perhaps the most difficult level of my demo, as it’s full of Dropdown Countdown Lifts, special platforms that give way after a set number of characters land on them; even if you’re playing single-player and jump too rapidly, the platform will drop you into the pit below. This is particularly challenging when playing local co-op since multiple characters are more likely to hit the platform too many times and trigger the drop-down effect. The difficulty ratchets up once Lakitu starts dropping Spinies down from above, triggering the countdown; I found the best tactic was to take him out and then use his cloud to soar ahead. This stage also features Melon Piranha Plants, special enemies that spit out melon seeds that can push you around or you can jump on them like enemies to get a small boost.

    The final Wonder Effect I experience is a free fall toward the Wonder Seed, with Super Stars falling alongside you. It’s a more straightforward Wonder Effect, but it’s still a fun change-up from the main conceits of the larger course. I make it through Countdown to Drop Down, Wonder Seeds in hand, and my gameplay demo ends.

    A New World of Wonder

    A New World of Wonder

    I unfortunately did not get to experience any boss battles, but if Bowser’s transformation into an actual castle is any indication, we might be in for some wild encounters. “Right off the bat, we felt that the boss battles themselves also needed some kind of new coat of paint,” Mouri says. “When I was considering what kind of boss battle experiences would fit this title, I came to the conclusion that they would have to be using the powers of Wonder. This is stepping into spoiler territory, so I’m not able to share much, but just expect a lot of Wonder-induced attacks.”

    With Super Mario Bros. Wonder arriving this month, Nintendo is eager to see what fans think. In talking with Tezuka and Mouri, their anticipation is palpable, particularly when I ask them what to expect when the final game arrives.

    “What you’ve played is just a really, very thin slice of what’s in store and there are a lot wilder, more inventive experiences in the full version,” Mouri says with a grin. “More than that would be a spoiler, so I just want to encourage you to give it a try and really experience it for yourself.”

    Based on my hands-on experience with Super Mario Bros. Wonder, I already had extremely high hopes for what feels like the most creative Super Mario Bros. game since Yoshi’s Island on SNES. However, after hearing how the game came to exist and what methods allowed Nintendo to create the best version of Super Mario Bros. Wonder possible, it truly feels like Nintendo has once again captured the magic that made so many gamers fall in love with Nintendo’s mascot over the last four decades.


    This article originally appeared in Issue 360 of Game Informer.

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