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Unfortunately, though, the elephant powerup is even more emblematic of the entire game than anyone could've anticipated. It looks completely unique to Mario, and, I guess, technically, it is, as he's never had an upgrade that requires him to reload his projectiles before, but does it actually change the gameplay in any meaningful capacity? No. It's just another way to break blocks and attack enemies horizontally. The whole game is preoccupied with appearing new instead of actually being new, and, I mean, it succeeded in this regard, considering I actually bought it after skipping both New Super Mario Bros. U and Bowser's Fury. Wonder flowers feel less like a central gameplay hook and more like short bonus sections that are part of already minuscule levels. The only way they were ever gonna work from a mechanical perspective was if they all happened during high-pressure situations and forced you to adapt to unpredictable twists on the fly (although that would just be a rehash of Wario Land 4) and the only way they were ever gonna work from a spectacle perspective was if they actually went all in. For every wonder section that genuinely took me by surprise- switching the point-of-view to top-down or putting me in outer space or making Mario really, really tall- there'd be five that would just turn the level into an autoscroller, or just make the enemies bigger, or just move the geometry around more than usual. Too often, it's weird in the same way that Mario Land 2 is weird: visually, and that's it. Ultimately, it's far prettier than the New Super Mario Bros. games, but it's no less bland.
And outside of the wonder sections, there really just isn’t all that much to talk about. The badge system makes Mario’s moveset loose and flexible akin to something like Yoshi’s Island, but it’s missing the level variety and mechanical experimentation that made that game work. A few stages have bonus exits, but they lack any of Super Mario World’s pseudo-puzzle solving or sense of mystery. What’s left? The fact that it has a handful of decent stage-specific mechanics? (All of the other New games do, too.) Those one-screen puzzle levels? (Didn’t care for them in Mario Maker, still don’t here.) The weird, Dark Souls-ass asynchronous co-op? (I refuse to pay for Nintendo’s online service, so I can’t comment.) How every individual world feels like its own little adventure? (Alright, I admit it, I liked this one.) If you’re not going to be new, you could at least be cohesive- I’m a big fan of both 3D World and Odyssey, but I’d hesitate to call either of them particularly revolutionary, instead focusing on being a conduit for co-op shenanigans and a modernization of Mario 64’s mechanics, respectively. Besides being bright and colorful, is there a similar underlying summary that you could apply to Wonder? More and more, it feels like Mario is becoming Kirby: not striving for anything beyond a vaguely pleasant experience and producing no bad games, but no great ones either. Maybe my standards are just too high- after all, we don't expect Star Wars or The Simpsons or Halloween to be cutting-edge anymore, even though they were at one point, so why should we Mario? But, in 2024, this franchise is unrecognizable from the one that gave us 3's level map and World's secret exits and 64's moveset. And that just saddens me more than anything else.
This review contains spoilers
And yet... the game just works anyway. Contrary to how dour that first paragraph reads, I do enjoy learning (albeit less than discovery) especially when it's done this well. Every loop brings a new revelation, and not a single fact about the universe feels forced or out of place. I'd go as far as to say this is the most consistent set of internal logic that I've ever experienced in a video game, and it knows it, considering how much joy it takes in hiding things in plain sight. Of course that fog planet you kept seeing was the quantum moon all along. Of course Ash Twin runs out of sand eventually. Of course the Tower of Quantum Knowledge can get sucked into the black hole. Of course you can't land your ship on the sun station, why do you think it's marked with the same pattern as all of the other warp spots? The amount of mileage it gets out of being a game where you can't interact, only observe (wink, wink, nudge, nudge) is staggering, and what makes many of these world mechanics effective is that they're decidedly un-gamey. Most other games would've let you know in some way when you're being properly shielded by a jellyfish in order to combat I-tried-the-right-solution-but-it-didn't-work-syndrome, but the fact that you don't get any feedback and just unceremoniously pass through the electricity barrier makes it that much more satisfying. It seems like it would be great fun to watch someone else play this game, smirking internally as they walk right past something that you already know is cosmically important, and laughing hysterically as they destroy their ship by ramming headfirst into a planet at 400 m/s. Because it's hard to imagine this game going anywhere without committing to the unforgiving physics of outer space- aside from the ship's autopilot system, arguably, no corners are cut here, culminating in an environment that feels appropriately cutthroat. Get too close to the sun and you're screwed, drift too far from your ship and you're screwed, forget to stop and refuel your jetpack and you're screwed. It's a nice reminder that we as humans (or as Timber Hearthians) have no real way to conceptualize true three-dimensional movement, and, as a result, arriving anywhere safely can often feel like a small miracle, which leads to the game's best moments. Carefully following the gravity crystals to reach the Hanging City for the first time, struggling to land on the quantum moon while simultaneously viewing a picture of it, and, of course, that final trek- replaying the end of loop music during was nothing short of brilliant. I'm much more mixed on that overly artsy indie epilogue, but getting to the Eye at last was the perfect capstone for an experience that deserves its reputation as a universal recommendation... even if my personal solar system wasn't as shattered as many others' were.