Even though he doesn’t speak, in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, Mario says more than he ever has in any game previous. Beyond his “wahoos” and “okey dokeys,” this Mario has a real personality, facilitated by a suite of power-ups and Nintendo’s meticulous attention to detail. Though we’ve seen a bit of this new personality in the movie, the Mario in Wonder is the most expressive I’ve ever seen him, reinventing a character that has largely remained a blank-ish slate for the last 30 years.
Wonder’s positive reviews will undoubtedly make it a staple on every game of the year ballot. As my colleague Andrew Webster wrote, “Wonder manages to pull from classics like Super Mario World and Super Mario Bros. 3, while firmly updating the formula with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wild new ideas.”
Some of those “wild new ideas” take the form of the various power-ups Mario uses to traverse the Flower Kingdom. While the super mushroom and the fire flower remain fixtures on Mario’s power-up roster, new abilities like the elephant fruit, bubble flower, and drill mushroom give Mario incredible amounts of flavor expressed with all the different animations he goes through when he uses them.
Before, when Mario used a power-up, he flashed for a few seconds, either getting bigger or changing color depending on what he picked up. In Wonder, though, in picking up a super mushroom, Mario doesn’t simply get bigger but you see him grow. Each inch he gets bigger is timed to the classic sound bite.
Each of the other power-ups, like the fire flower or the drill mushroom, has unique animations when you pick them up. With the elephant fruit, the “getting bigger” sound is changed to sound like an elephant’s tooting, and he also flexes his newfound elephantine muscles.
For the fire flower, Mario makes this dynamic pose that, for a second, makes him look like the protagonist in a shonen anime.
In Wonder, whenever Mario picks up a power, he doesn’t just change over the course of a few frames; he undergoes a full transformation, making him feel more like a magical girl than a constantly put-upon plumber.
And it’s not just when he picks a power-up. Nearly every event has some unique animation tied to it. When Mario enters a pipe wearing the drill mushroom, his drill hat hovers for a second outside the pipe before a hand reaches out to snatch it back.
If elephant Mario enters a door, he makes much ado of having to squeeze into the tight space, wiggling to work himself through.
Even as “vanilla” Mario with no power-ups attached, he sells the shit out of the simple act of going through a pipe.
Beyond how he movies, Mario’s also got a bit of sass to him, aided by Kevin Afghani’s voice acting. One of the new badges that gives Mario additional powers lets him bounce off hazards like lava or poison pits, staving off taking damage or death. With this badge equipped, when he hits lava, he says “okey dokey!” with this kind of “and what!” flair that feels like he’s smug about the fact he’s cheated death.
In Wonder, all of Mario’s myriad animations and voice lines make him feel like he’s actually having fun for a change. I found myself actually paying attention to his transformations because those were my favorite parts of Sailor Moon, eager to see what new detail I could pick up. Mario’s a character whose personality hasn’t changed significantly in 30 years — namely, his lack of one. But everything Mario does is suffused with so much flavor that it’s impossible to not be charmed. For the first time, I feel like I know who he is, and that’s wonderful.