Coke vs. Pepsi. The Beatles vs. the Beach Boys. “Gangnam Style” vs. “What Does the Fox Say?” Popular culture has been torn in two by battles like these, fights that pit two phenomena against each other and lets the fans duke it out in fits of capitalistic tribalism. But no battle has been as impactful (at least to nerds like us) as Mario vs. Sonic.
In 1991, Mario was the king of video games. After three entries on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the latest entry in the Mario franchise, “Super Mario World,” had just been released for the Super Nintendo in North America, and would go on to sell 20 million copies. But a new player was about to enter the field.
Released just months before “Super Mario World,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” introduced the world to the titular blue hedgehog, which would bring Sega’s Genesis console up to speed with the Super Nintendo. Ad campaigns further inflamed this rivalry, including the infamous “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” commercial featuring Michael Jackson. In the years since, both franchises have continued to produce games, toys and even movies. However, one fact has remained constant: Mario is the top dog, and Sonic is (ironically) leagues behind, both in terms of sales and cultural appreciation. The announcements of “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” and “Sonic Superstars” seemed like opportunities for both franchises to return to an era when competition between the two was still fiery. “Wonder” revived the long-stagnant 2-D Mario games and “Superstars” offered a “reimagining” of the 2-D Sonic games of old. Two Digital Culture writers have purchased each game (both priced at $60) to bring them back into the ring for you today. May the best game win.
Hunter: With the release of “The Super Mario Bros. Movie,” it seemed like Nintendo had solidified the new era of Mario. The movie, while creative in its casting choices and soundtrack, played its story safe, holding itself very closely to the limited lore that the mainline games present. After more than a decade of repetitive mainline games (the “New Super” series), seeing the movie adaptation refuse to push any boundaries felt like a solidification of the fears many Mario fans had: That the suspender-clad plumber we all knew and loved had stagnated, choosing to live a life of IP surety, content with starring in games that retread the same tired themes and mechanics.
And then came June, bringing with it a new Nintendo Direct. After a string of other Mario-related titles (including the remake of “Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon” and a new game with Peach as the protagonist), Nintendo unveiled the newest game in the Mario series: “Super Mario Bros. Wonder.” The trailer, filled with talking flowers, wacky visuals and Mario transforming into an elephant, made it clear that Nintendo was gunning for a game that was anything but safe.
Saarthak: On the other CG-animated gloved hand, do you remember the terror inflicted upon the internet with the first reveal of Paramount Pictures’ live-action Sonic? Some unholy, uncanny valley matrimony of a hedgehog-human hybrid was being promoted as the best idea that their billion-dollar production company could come up with — and fans were rightly furious with seemingly one more nail in the coffin of the franchise. However, when its design was overhauled by former fan artist Tyson Hesse, 2020’s “Sonic the Hedgehog,” alongside its sequel, were bona fide box office hits.
In addition to former fan game creator Christian Whitehead’s “Sonic Mania” in 2017 and the wealth of fandom inspiration in 2022’s “Sonic Frontiers,” it seemed clear that as long as Sonic was being handled by truly loving hands, he would be alright. The second modern 2-D entry “Sonic Superstars” was developed by a team led by the original designer of Sonic, Naoto Ohshima (“Balan Wonderworld”), so Sonic seemed safe. Unfortunately, “Superstars” takes the forward momentum for the franchise, tosses it into a pitfall you had no way of predicting and leaves you glaring at its CG-spin on the classic Sonic sprites with the same unease of staring into the inhuman eyes of the live-action Sonic.
Hunter: Our introduction to “Wonder” is thankfully more pleasant. From the opening cutscene, it’s clear that this is a new Mario, but not a “New Super” one. Mario and friends (including Daisy!) visit the Flower Kingdom, a new location over which presides an anthropomorphic caterpillar named Prince Florian. The kingdom is inhabited by the poplins, which are like Toads with flowers growing out of their heads instead of mushrooms. There are also talking flowers, magic flowers, fire flowers and even flowers that make you shoot bubbles. The floral saturation brings to mind Nintendo’s apparent obsession with cats in Mario’s last level-based platformer, “Mario 3-D Land.”
After this brief introduction, we are given an even briefer introduction to Bowser, who has come to crash the party with Bowser Jr. and Kamek. But in another twist on the Mario games of the last decade, Bowser doesn’t steal the princess or even the castle. Bowser is becoming the castle. It’s up to you to travel to different lands in the Flower Kingdom and gather the six Royal Seeds to get a chance to return things to normal.
Saarthak: Before a similar CG introduction to the game, “Superstars” kicks off with some genuinely charming (if choppy) hand-drawn animation of Sonic and friends, dangling the hope that the series isn’t going through another setback. The crew heads to a megafauna-inhabited island to stop the evil scientist Dr. Eggman — who usually executes his plans by putting animals into robots — from putting giant animals into giant robots. It’s the standard, recycled sidescroller Sonic story with a couple extra characters thrown in to appear like something new. (There’s a fedora-clad jerboa named Fang the Hunter and a native named Trip enlisted by Eggman.)
Hunter: In “Wonder,” there are countless new enemies, from the Blewbirds that create platforms with their beaks to the spiky Hoppycats that copy your jumps, along with new power ups like the Elephant Fruit and Bubble Flower that feel like natural additions to the series. “Wonder” also introduces a badge system, which allows you to equip a unique ability at the start of a level. Some of these are adapted from individual characters’ abilities in previous games. The Parachute Cap badge lets you float through the air like Peach, and the Floating High Jump is a new take on Luigi’s signature move. Other badges, like the Grappling Vine or the Spring Feet, add completely new twists to the gameplay, giving players opportunities to traverse through each level in fun and creative ways.
“Wonder” could have stood on its own with all of these new ideas, but it pushed its creative license even further with its central mechanic: the Wonder sequences. Levels exist in two parts — the traditional platforming we have come to expect from a 2D Mario game, and the Wonder sequences, which introduce wacky new mechanics and completely transform the latter half of most levels. After finding and grabbing a Wonder Flower (most of which appear near the midpoint of a level), Mario and pals are pulled into a version of the level that has been warped in some way. You might be playing in slow motion or running Indiana-Jones style from a giant spiky ball. No two sequences are the same, showing off just how many ideas the development team had for “Wonder.”
Yet, even with this massive injection of creativity, “Wonder” feels like it lost something in its transformation. Structuring each level around a different wonder event makes each stage feel like two halves of a different whole. There’s the initial part, which is the Mario level design we are accustomed to but with a few new features, and then there’s the wonder segment, where things go off the rails. Most of the time, the transition between these two feels seamless — it somehow makes sense that you would ride a stampede of bulls after dodging them for an entire level. But there are more than a few occasions where the ideas feel too drastic to blend together well, leaving you to finish the level unsure of what just happened as you slide down the flagpole.
Saarthak: While “Wonder” excels in its overstimulation, the underwhelming gimmick for “Superstars” is power-ups granted by the series MacGuffin: Chaos Emeralds. You know, beyond the usual power-ups like barriers and ring magnets, each of the seven Chaos Emeralds grant the powers of shadow clones, green thumbs, becoming formless, guns, the Lens of Truth, bullet time, wild card — oh sorry, I meant Avatar, Ivy, Water, Bullet, Vision, Slow and Extra. I would go into detail about what these abilities did if the game made them matter, but none of them are necessary to advance through the game and seemingly only exist as afterthoughts to the traditional momentum-based gameplay “Superstars” employs.
While speeding through levels is serviceable enough in its plenitudes of platforming challenges, obstacles to avoid and accelerators to aim for, it’s still a step down from the carefully calibrated chaos of the last 2-D entry “Mania” — not to mention other glitches like drowning aboveground and clipping through platforms. “Superstars” attempts to overcompensate for its absence of polish with a greater variety of level themes. While it is genuinely fun to traipse through big tents and towers of terror in an amusement park zone, areas where Sonic is stylized like a Roblox avatar in the Cyber Station zone and then further transformed into different animals and playstyles for a single level are entertaining but eschew the character’s identity. It’s his identity that the presentation of “Superstars” illustrates as increasingly artificial when taken in context of the interactive experience.
Hunter: Where “Superstars” ends up covering its flaws with visual polish, “Wonder” embellishes its evolution with a super coat of paint. Mario and friends’ movements are more animated than ever before; each wall jump and ground pound feels full of life. This is helped by flourishes like detailed animations when getting a powerup or the look of concentration that comes across each character’s face when sprinting. After seeing Mario animated on the big screen, it’s great to see that “Wonder” puts so much time into making each Goomba stomp and Koopa kick both look and feel downright fun.
Saarthak: Just as “Wonder” clearly takes inspiration from past franchise artwork, there’s careful attention to rendering the CG-animated characters with the same visual flair and animations that made the Sonic series so slick when it started. And I mean that the exact same animations carried over into the new art style. Unlike the upscaled, pixelated graphics of “Mania,” “Superstars” is a truly faithful, modern facsimile of the franchise’s classics — which alongside Jun Senoue’s (“Sonic Generations”) supreme chiptune synth soundscape, evokes prime Sonic nostalgia. However, when the experience itself isn’t adapted accurately, opting instead for an utterly unpolished adventure, it diffuses an almost perfect audiovisual presentation into the background feed of gritted teeth and a controller that is slowly getting crushed; “Superstars” transcends into simulacra.
Hunter: If there’s one thing that “Wonder” isn’t, it’s simulacra. That’s the game’s point — to be an authentic, balls-to-the-wall experience, a never-ending cascade of new ideas and wacky visuals. Yet as I bashed on Bowser during the final battle, I couldn’t help from feeling like I had missed something in my experience. There’s so much that is new in “Wonder,” but so little time to unpack it all. It feels like this could be the start of the next decade of 2-D Mario games, with each new idea able to be fully explored for years to come. If that ends up being the case, I think I will appreciate “Wonder” for laying the groundwork, but as time passes, I find myself more focused on what the game could be rather than taking it for what it is. I can’t believe after complaining about dry and uninspired games for years, I’m whining about a 2-D Mario game having too many ideas, but here I am.
Saarthak: I write this last paragraph to you as Senoue’s soundtrack blasts through my earbuds. I feel like I have been tough on this game, but it’s only because I have no doubt in my mind that Ohshima’s team set out to recapture the experience of playing Sonic for the first time for an entirely new generation. Unfortunately, it seems like the only rush that this game is able to achieve is the one that was most likely inflicted on its development. “Super Mario Bros. Wonder” versus “Sonic Superstars” was never a fair fight.