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Removing the timer from Mario Wonder is a revelation for 2D Mario

And long overdue

Mario leaps joyfully toward a Goomba sleeping on a pipe, in front of a fat tree, in Super Mario Bros. Wonder Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a kaleidoscopic festival of innovation that chucks new ideas at the player incessantly, almost faster than they can be processed. Nintendo’s designers delight in constantly turning the game’s world upside down, sometimes literally. But there’s an extent to which this is just par for the course for the series. Super Mario games have always been about breaking their own rules, as far back as the moment in 1985’s Super Mario Bros. when Mario jumped off the top of the screen and invisibly ran along it.

Nonetheless, Wonder does break a few rules of 2D Mario games that have never been broken before. One of these changes in particular is discreet to the point of being invisible — a simple omission that the game never draws attention to — but it has a profound impact. I’m talking about the removal of the timer.

From the 1985 original until 2019’s New Super Mario Bros. U Deluxe, all 2D Super Mario stages have had a time limit that ticks down in the corner of the screen. Often, this would be pretty generous, and you would be just as likely, if not more, to fail a level by running out of lives (or patience) than by running out of time. But the timer made its presence felt regardless. You sensed it ticking down every second of play. Time is running out, the timer said. You can’t do it all. Don’t rush, but do hurry. With a minute to go, that familiar urgent fanfare would go off and the music would speed up, along with your heartbeat. Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic… panic!!!

For almost 40 years, Nintendo has clung to the timer as a core design principle of 2D Mario games, even as it started to look increasingly archaic — a vestige of arcade-game philosophy, from a time when mainstream game design framed games as skill challenges first and experiences second, rather than the other way around.

Mario rides a herd of blue Bulrushes through the Goal Pole, with a timer showing 38 seconds left on the screen
Nintendo does still sometimes pull a timer out in Mario Wonder, but only for certain appropriate Wonder Effect sequences
Image: Nintendo EPD/Nintendo

Super Mario Bros. Wonder finally ditches the timer, and it’s a revelation. It can be seen as an accessibility move first and foremost — one of many adjustments the game makes to be more welcoming and flexible, if not necessarily easier, than past Super Mario Bros. titles. And the game is certainly less stressful to play now. But its removal goes far deeper than that, changing the way players play the game — and the way Nintendo’s developers designed it.

Crucially, it allows Wonder to encourage experimentation and exploration, impulses which have always been central to the Mario experience but have previously had to fight against those vanishing seconds. Now, players are free to tinker and roam, and the designers have prepared for this by packing every level with even more interactive detail and carefully hidden surprise. The hunt for secrets, always central to the philosophy of Mario, can now be hard-coded into the design, too. The search for each stage’s Wonder Flower, Wonder Seeds, and Flower Coins is a core goal in Wonder — the kind of treasure hunt the 3D games have always done but 2D Mario has treated more peripherally, partly due to that time limit.

Conversely, the absence of a timer means that when the designers actively want that heedless, headlong rush 2D Mario can be so good at, they’re driven to engineer it themselves, which they do with typical ingenuity, wit, and surreal spectacle, reaching deep into Mario’s infinite bag of tricks: slippery surfaces, zip lines, vanishing platforms, gauntlets of hair-trigger traps, thundering stampedes of fat, candy-colored bison. 2D Mario’s wild momentum is still present in Wonder, it’s just one of a suite of even more intentionally crafted moods.

Removing the time limit makes 2D Mario much better; it’s a simple tweak that frees and empowers both players and designers. Nintendo should have done it a long time ago, but it chose the perfect game to finally do it with.