Super Mario Bros. Wonder is Great, But Doesn't Have Enough Options for Families
Nintendo has crafted a tremendous new platformer, but one where more options would go a long way towards making it fun for everyone who wants to play.
The early reviews of Super Mario Bros. Wonder were universally positive, but for me, the review that mattered wouldn’t happen until later, when the family sat down and tried to play together. Could my children reconcile not being able to play as Peach at the same time? How would the game handle my oldest daughter’s tendency to immediately run to the right at the fastest speed possible, ignoring all of the coins?
It was a busy holiday weekend, but on Sunday night, we found time to play Wonder.
The result was a mixed bag. Wonder is undeniably a delight, a beautiful and surprising evolution of ideas Nintendo has been playing with since New Super Mario Bros. in 2006. I can tell I’m going to have a great time playing solo and with my oldest, and I suspect that it’ll be one of my favorite games of the year. But while Nintendo has rolled out more attempts at accommodating younger and less skilled players in Wonder, these ideas are often greater in theory than execution, and can easily cause frustration.
My experience is not universal. On both Twitter and Bluesky, families responded to my requests for stories about playing Wonder and many were having a blast. Every child is different, every family dynamic is different. Games push and pull on both.
When dinner was over this weekend, I announced we’d all be sitting down to play Wonder before bedtime. Within seconds, both kids announced they wanted to be Peach. Bickering ensued, because in Wonder, two people cannot pick the same character. You can do this in Mario Kart 8, but not Wonder! But I got lucky, because my youngest became enchanted with Toadette, and we ultimately avoided the problem entirely! Phew. But when I asked families about hot it went for them, it was a problem:
Wonder includes characters like Nabbit (introduced in New Super Mario Bros. U) and Yoshi, who don’t take damage. But what if your kid doesn’t want to play as Nabbit, a rarely seen character exclusive to the “New” line of Mario games? Nabbit wasn’t in this year’s hugely popular movie, and Yoshi was only teased for the sequel. There’s no way to pass on Nabbit and Yoshi’s invincibility powers to other characters, and if that wasn’t enough, Nabbit and Yoshi have more restrictions on what they’re able to do.
One of the big new features in Wonder is the elephant power-up, which, for whatever reason, turns a character into a massive, goofy elephant. It’s awesome. My kids were cracking up whenever it happened. It’s wild to watch four of them stomp around. But if you play as Nabbit and Yoshi, they can’t turn into an elephant! They can’t throw fireballs! It’s not an oversight, either. Nintendo notes this on the select screen.
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“[My son] got tired of dying and decided to select Nabbit but he quickly realized that Nabbit can’t turn into an elephant or use power ups and my son really enjoyed the power ups,” said Raidy, who played with his five-year-old son. “After constantly getting frustrated he told me he hated the game and told me to ‘delete it.’ I've tried to get him back in but he wants nothing to do with it. RIP to playing Wonder together.”
The elephant caused a huge problem with my three-year-old. One she had a taste, she did not want to stop being the elephant. But she’s three, so she was falling behind and into traps, because this was the first time we’d asked her to try and figure out how to move and jump on a controller. That’d be a lot on its own, but then you throw in the chaos of playing with three other people, yelling, and Wonder’s psychedelic aesthetic…?
I sat next to my youngest, and whenever she’d lose the elephant power-up, I’d drop a spare one into the game, grab her controller, and make her into an elephant again.
I recorded our time playing the game, and you can hear this whole arc in action:
A combination of extremely cute and extremely upset. A normal day in our house.
When I wasn’t on elephant duty, I was running around the map trying to save her. In New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, players could enter into a safe “bubble” at will. This was great in situations where my oldest was spooked by some platforming, and I’d solve it for us. In Wonder, however, players drop into a safe bubble by dying or holding down L+R for a moment, but the game has an arbitrary five-second timer before death!
Here’s what this looks like in practice:
Another new wrinkle in Wonder is the crown system. In essence, one player is the “leader,” and the screen scrolls with them. The leader changes, too. I understand what Nintendo is trying to accomplish and reward, though it’s unclear to me how the game determines who gets the crown. But it’d be nice if you could prevent the game from the crown passing to a child, because it quickly throws the whole experience off. If my oldest got the crown, she would speedrun the level and make things harder for everyone. If my youngest got the crown, we’d stop making progress entirely.
“Things started off okay, but I took some convincing to get her to pick Yoshi over Princess Peach,” said Graeme, a father with a four-year-old daughter. “They really should include a pink Yoshi, would be an easier sell for her lol. From then on, we cleared the whole first world with the two of us in tandem. She never lost too many lives since she figured out how to steer her ghost self back to me pretty well. She did have a tendency to beat me to the goal flags on a couple of levels, so at times I didn’t get the golden flag on my first attempt through the levels.”
Interestingly, what ended up being the biggest drag for our family play session is also one of the most archaic systems still present in modern Mario: lives. Whereas old school Mario games used to kick players back to the start if they ran out of lives, these days it’s mostly a slap on the wrist. And that’s if you ever sniff the game over screen, which is rare. But in Wonder, the lives are shared between players, which means the worst performing player ends up dragging everyone else down. In this case, my three-year-old, playing as Toadette, kept dying over and over, depleting our stock of lives.
The punishment for not having any lives is frankly brutal: if you die a single time on the next level, you’re done for the entire course, and my youngest started crying, because she was being left out while the rest of us were continuing to play the game.
The answer to this is for me to spend an hour grinding lives before we play, I guess?
It was also not ideal to discover that Wonder does not have multiple save slots. Wonder handles saves on a per user basis. For most people, this won’t be a problem. You can just create a new user on your system, and that becomes another save slot. Weirdly inconvenient, perhaps, but not a big deal! But in our home, my daughter’s Switch is what’s considered the “primary” Switch. She has her own Nintendo Network account, but my account is also on her system, so she can access my games. She has to be designated as the “primary” because it means Nintendo won’t ask the Switch to talk to the internet every so often to double check that you’re supposed to have access to the games. I’m the “secondary” Switch because I usually play games at home and while connected to the internet, so I don’t mind if it has to phone home. But my kid? She plays games in the car, an airplane—the DRM restrictions would be a huge pain.
I downloaded Wonder on my system—again, the “secondary” Switch—and wanted to have another save file that my family would play on. No dice. On a “secondary” Switch, the second user has to own a copy. C’mon. I was denied a second save slot! We downloaded Wonder on my daughter’s system and moved on, but it was ridiculous.
If you’re looking for a throughline in all of this, it’s the three-year-old. She’s the weak link. Because, uh, she’s three. The systems currently in place are robust enough for me and my seven-year-old to keep pace and enjoy the game. I will probably end up spending hours inside Wonder with her…but it’ll mean we’re doing it in secret. It’ll probably mean playing it in her bedroom, instead of on the big TV. Because the moment her sister realizes what we’re up to, she’ll want to play, and she’ll get upset.
That’s not a great experience for me, or either my daughters. It’s too bad, because it’s a fixable problem, if Wonder let me modify its systems to let her find the game’s fun.
We’ll still find that fun. It will, sadly, just be without one of my kids by my side.
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I’m hoping my youngest loses interest in the game. The headaches introduced by playing with her will become less of an issue when she’s even six months older.
Golly, it’s a pretty game. There’s so much to look at on every screen. I love it.
Nintendo does not usually meaningfully update its games via patches, but maybe if we pray hard, some of these issues will get addressed in an update.
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