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Super Mario Bros. Wonder is Nintendo’s Mickey moment

Is the Switch’s new Mario game a reboot, a remake, or something else entirely?

An old Mario runs alongside the new Mario design from Super Mario Bros. Wonder Image composition: Chris Plante/Polygon | Source images: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

Since Nintendo announced Super Mario Bros. Wonder, I’ve wondered, Why now? Why change Mario?

Earlier in October, Nintendo quietly tweaked the box art for its upcoming Princess Peach game to give the Mushroom Kingdom monarch a new face closer to her Hollywood-friendly nip-tuck from The Super Mario Bros. Movie. The decision might tempt longtime Nintendo fans to compare the changes in Super Mario Bros. Wonder to the recent ultra-successful animated film. And that’s fair, to a point. As you hop about the Flower Kingdom, Wonder’s colors have so much contrast they practically glow, eerily similar to Illumination’s house style. The game may also recall Nintendo’s collaboration with Ubisoft on the Mario + Rabbids games. The pair of strategy games broke from decades of meticulous IP consistency, giving Mario a gun and partnering him with googly-eyed rabbits that communicate via bloodcurdling warbles.

I’m hesitant to give too much credit to either in influencing Wonder. Video games take years to create and the astonishing success of the Mario film is, comparably, a recent phenomenon. And Mario + Rabbids is Mario with guns and Wallace and Gromit humor. A traditional Mario game it is not.

To grok what Nintendo could accomplish with Wonder, you should consider its closest contemporary: Disney.

The player selects Mario in Super Mario Bros. Wonder Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

In the late 20th century and into the 21st, Disney expanded beyond Mickey, to the point the mouse and his compatriots became icons rather than the pieces of a story. You might see Minnie Mouse on a Swatch or in Mickey and the Roadster Racers, but the biggest Disney films were reserved for new princesses and Pixar cuties.

Then came The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse, a manic, grotesque, and surprising riff on the mouse that had more in common with Adult Swim than Saturday morning cartoons. The series began in 2013 as YouTube shorts and concluded this summer after two lengthy seasons on Disney Plus, a handful of specials, an Emmy win, and a ride at both Disney World and Disneyland.

All the while, Disney continued to release its usual flood of traditional Mickey Mouse materials. You could still buy classic Mickey merch, meet the classic Mickey mascot, and watch some truly mind-numbing Mickey children’s television. But you could also watch a Mickey of the moment. Disney had tweaked the iconic mouse with each generation, but as the character approached public domain, it needed to offer something recognizably different — not a new Mickey Mouse, but another Mickey Mouse.

The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse has offered an alternative for older fans looking for something audacious, and younger fans craving a cartoon more in line with the humor of the present, like Mickey’s decapitated head sewn onto Frankenstein’s monster or any moment in this supercut. Super Mario Bros. Wonder has that same mix of weird, playful, and totally unbothered with IP preciousness. I look forward to Mario fans wrecking TikTok with goofs on Elephant Toad and the piss planet — a golden world in which the rivers appear to be filled with the aftermath of a night of heavy drinking and a morning of dehydration.

Mario glides with his cap toward a flagpole in Super Mario Bros. Wonder. Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon

Super Mario Bros. Wonder isn’t a remake, nor is it a tweak to the formula like its film or its spinoffs. Wonder is a fork for the series. Like how Wonderful World created another Mickey to live alongside the original, Wonder — with its Flower Kingdom — creates an alternative world to live alongside the Mushroom Kingdom.

We will always have the crisp children’s book aesthetic of Normal Mario, the face of Nintendo. But if we’re lucky, henceforth we’ll also have Bizarro Mario, whose universe looks best under a black light and channels ’60s psychedelia, ’70s disco, the ’80s fixation on amassing wealth, and ’90s Lisa Frank!

Wonder envisions a second Mario, one for this moment: Mario as a maximalist.