We all know how it goes. You’re hopping and wahooing your way through a set of beautifully designed platforming stages in the latest Mario game, and then suddenly you see waves of blue approaching and your whole groove is thrown off. That’s right, kids, it’s time for a water level. But take heart, because incredibly, Super Mario Bros. Wonder does what no Mario game has managed to do: It makes water stages pretty good. Even kind of fun! At the very least, not terrible! This is the true wonder.
Water stages have long been the annoying slog of Mario games (not to mention many other platformers). Your movement is significantly reduced, you sink to the bottom and have to tap the Jump button to paddle, and the enemies all move in irregular swim-patterns that make them less predictable even as your own movement is severely restricted. Mario and his friends can’t suffocate like a certain other retro platforming series, but everything else about these levels is notorious for being the worst part in any Mario game. Frankly, it’s incredible that Super Mario Bros. 3 is as good as it is considering they put an entire water world in it (not to be confused with WaterWorld).
But Mario Wonder rejiggers the Mario formula in lots of ways. The Wonder effects provide constant surprises, playing while connected lets you see player shadows and standees, and badges provide an equipment system that can be tailored to suit your needs in each stage. And it was badges that made the developers of Mario Wonder look at the long-maligned water stage type and say: I can fix him.
That’s because the new Dolphin Kick badge makes Mario and his pals swim like mermaids or, well, dolphins. They kick their back legs to give them quick, smooth, multidirectional control. Think Ecco the Dolphin, but with a Mario platforming stage. Suddenly, underwater stages aren’t a slow slog through a series of enemies who are much more adept to swimming than you are. You get to feel like you’re totally in control, a nimble swimmer like the rest of them, and you can speed-run through a water stage just like a standard one.
Sure, Dolphin Kick is mostly useless outside of water stages, which gives it limited utility given that only a handful of underwater stages even exist. But that just makes it more impressive that Nintendo thought to include it. It helps emphasize the badge system as a versatile tool for meeting stage challenges. Water stages just provide an extremely narrow example of it.
You can still navigate the water stages in the classic traditional style if you’d like, but you also have constant access to a tool that makes Mario control more like a game that was specifically designed to take place underwater. When you’re done, just switch back to a land-lubber badge and move on with your fantastic Mario platforming. Plus, giving you better movement access means that the water stages can have more ambitious enemy patterns, obstacles, and Wonder effects than if you still swam like the mafia had outfitted you with concrete shoes beforehand.
Water stages are far from the best part of Mario Wonder. All in all they’re still relatively forgettable compared to the array of expertly designed platforming stages and Wonder effects. But they aren’t actively annoying anymore, allowing the fun to shine through, and that’s an accomplishment that no other Mario game has managed.
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