Super Mario Odyssey greatly refreshes the property not by moving forward, but by looking fifteen years into the past, rescuing a gameplay style many thought to be dead, and making it bigger and better than ever
Fifteen years. To those who either have lived long lives or have the tendency to look at the world through large time scales, it may seem like a brief period. To the Mario franchise, though, fifteen years, as of 2017, amount to almost half of its lengthy and often glorious history – a journey that has frequently merged with and impacted the timeline of gaming itself. And yet, that was exactly how much time it took Nintendo to take the plumber back to the root of his tridimensional adventures: one that focuses on free-roaming exploration rather than on the clearing of obstacle courses in which advancing means following the only available and predetermined path. And if the last example of open gameplay – Super Mario Sunshine, of the now distant year of 2002 – as well as the subsequent lengthy leave of absence the plumber took from wide and open spaces made many question whether the genre could still succeed in a widely different surrounding context, Super Mario Odyssey makes all doubts and skepticism quickly implode as they are hit by a mighty, and suspiciously mustachioed, Banzai Bill.
After unearthing a trio of undeniable gems (the two Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3D World) in the realm of linear 3-D platforming, Nintendo wisely decided that such a field had been sufficiently exploited in recent years and that the best way to keep the Mario franchise rolling as relentlessly as it had always been would be by revisiting its past from a bigger, more ambitious, and more creative perspective. As it is often the case, the company succeeds in its goal, and that is why Super Mario Odyssey comes off as such a remarkable game. It feels celebratory for in its quest to be as large as possible it ends up embracing and referencing elements from a history that has lasted for over three decades; it feels nostalgic yet refreshing for, after a long time, it puts Mario back inside environments that are just begging to have every inch of their surfaces explored; and it feels awe-inspiring for it implements excellent features that had never been even marginally tackled.
In a way, much due to these evident qualities, Super Mario Odyssey seems like a grand culmination. It is not a perfect game, as although it does not forget to turn any stones, it does leave open a few blatant opportunities for future improvements. However, running through the full extent of its quest there is a feeling the bits squeezed into the Super Mario Bros. cartridges, the strands of hair pulled out as developers found ways to approach the ambitions of Super Mario World, the frustrations of figuring out how to make a Mario game work in a 3-D environment during the development of Super Mario 64, and all the delightfully insane ideas crafted for the Super Mario Galaxy games have all been leading to it. And Super Mario Odyssey is good enough to make one say the certainly demanding and grinding adventure was worth it.
Super Mario Odyssey’s position as some sort of climax is even present in its plot. Right as the game begins, Mario is seen battling a gallantly dressed Bowser aboard an airship. Princess Peach has been, as settled by tradition, kidnapped. This time around, though, Bowser’s plan is more final and straightforward than keeping her inside a room of his castle while he uses an evil contraption to conquer the known universe: he simply wants to marry her. Not only that, but on his way to the rather special location he has picked for the celebration he will stop in various kingdoms of the world looking to steal legendary items (such as a ring, a wedding dress, a cake, and a bouquet) that will make for a historically sumptuous reception.
As the battle rages on, Mario falls from the airship and has his cap torn to pieces by one of the vessel’s propellers. He lands on a dark and mysterious kingdom inhabited by half-hat-half-ghost creatures; as it turns out, the place has just been ravaged by Bowser and his minions, who dropped by to take away a shiny and living tiara. By forging an alliance with her brother, who quickly takes up the empty space on Mario’s head by turning into the hero’s signature red cap, he quickly procures a ship – the titular Odyssey – aboard which he can follow Bowser and stop the wedding.
And such is the general progression of Super Mario Odyssey: the character gets to a kingdom in which Bowser is wreaking havoc, deals with the trouble, watches as the wedding entourage makes a tight escape, and moves on to the next stop right on their tail. The twist is that the Odyssey requires fuel in order to give chase to Bowser and his troupe of wedding planners, and that is where the power moons – Odyssey’s equivalent to the stars of Super Mario 64 and to the shines of Super Mario Sunshine – come into play. They are the ship’s fuel; therefore, traveling to the next kingdom and trying to stop a sacred stew or a cherished bottle of sparkly water from being stolen can only be done after a specific amount of power moons has been collected.
Therein lies part of the beauty of Super Mario Odyssey: the freedom it bestows upon gamers. By simply following the main mandatory goals of each kingdom, which are required to deal with the mad rabbits that are in cahoots with Bowser, players will only acquire a handful of moons. The remaining fuel units that are necessary to take the Odyssey off the ground require that players put their explorer hats on and dive into some of the side missions of every kingdom; and given how ridiculously abundant those partially optional power moons are, with pretty much all kingdoms holding between thirty and eighty of them, the adventure is highly open to customization.
As such, less experienced players can choose to collect just about what is necessary before moving on; meanwhile, those who have been following Mario around for quite some time can opt to sweep the kingdoms looking for as many secrets as possible before proceeding. It is a wise design choice that makes Super Mario Odyssey very welcoming to all audiences. At the same time, the fact such a structure is already sufficient to allow casual gamers to hop aboard the train without much trouble makes it a little bit disappointing most of the kingdoms leading up to the final battle and a huge percentage of the power moons they contain lean a bit too much towards the easy side, with a level of difficulty that falls below the one present in Mario’s most recent 3-D outings.
That problem, however, is alleviated by the sheer and unbridled joy contained in almost every passing moment of Super Mario Odyssey. That bliss stems from many places. Although Super Mario Odyssey feels absolutely big, when it comes to the construction of the kingdoms Nintendo traded pure size for detailed design, and the approach paid off. With one exception, none of the game’s levels are considerably larger than those of Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine; the main and most important difference between the kingdoms of Odyssey and the worlds of those two titles is that not a single inch of virtual space goes to waste in Super Mario Odyssey. Be it in the vast expanse of the desert of the Sand Kingdom or in the urban skyscraper-filled streets of the Metro Kingdom, it is incredibly mesmerizing how absolutely every corner that is explored in Super Mario Odyssey comes with a reward, whether it is a moon, a batch of regional coins (which are kingdom-specific currency that can be used in the local shop to buy costumes for Mario and other items), or other secrets.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild gave life to its adventure and gargantuan world by finding a way to punctuate the entire landscape with alluring sights, side-missions, and places; Super Mario Odyssey does the same, but on a much smaller scale – one that is far more suiting for a platformer – and with a far greater density. Exploring the kingdoms of Super Mario Odyssey is the constant sighting of new places to go, as players will regularly be making mental notes to, once they are done with their current goal, go back and check a door, a ledge, or a path they have spotted while on the way to the moon they are chasing at the moment. And these small adventures will invariably yield results, creating an endless stream of satisfying moments.
Super Mario Odyssey does not shine solely in relation to its unprecedentedly meticulous world design. Much like Super Mario Sunshine, only more frequently, it pairs up open-ended exploration with moments when tighter, linear, and more traditional platforming challenges come into play. Many of the side paths and ledges of its kingdoms – as well as their standard main routes – include pipes and doors that lead the way to either enclosed spaces or amusing and seamlessly integrated 8-bit sequences that test players’ abilities to perform timely jumps and navigate through small platforms. As a consequence, Super Mario Odyssey ends up tackling, with excellence, both spectra of 3-D Mario platformers: the exploratory line, in which it easily topples both Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine, setting a new standard for the genre; and the linear vein, in which it fails to overcome the mind-blowing exuberance of the Super Mario Galaxy pair, but where it still succeeds in amazing gamers via cleverness, variety, and punctual insanity.
Alongside the unbelievable quantity of secrets and detours packed into each kingdom, Super Mario Odyssey’s defining trait, and certainly its best feature, is Mario’s ability to use his animated cap companion – appropriately named Cappy – to capture enemies and even a few lifeless objects. In total, there are slightly over fifty transformations available, each coming with unique quirks and useful abilities and giving the captured subjects a hilarious red cap and thick mustache. Capturing a Goomba, for example, will allow Mario to walk on ice without slipping and create enormous stacks of the creatures to reach higher places; becoming a Cheep Cheep, meanwhile, lets the plumber swim at high speeds and without having to worry about air (therefore making him able to reach very deep regions of the ocean); and Moe-Eyes, a new statue-like enemy, reveal invisible pathways when they put their stylish sunglasses on.
The only downside that exists in the transformations is that certain skills of the captured entities can only be activated by shaking the Switch’s controller, a quirk that will undoubtedly frustrate those who do not appreciate motion controls. Moreover, when playing the game in the system’s portable mode, shaking the controllers means shaking the screen itself, which can be a bit confusing in regards to keeping track of what is going on in the game. Motion is also required for some of Mario’s movements; fortunately, in that case, such actions are generally minor (such as special kinds of cap throws or climbing poles more quickly) and will not come remotely close to breaking gameplay to those averse to any sort of motion-related moves.
It goes without saying that various of the moons and goals found in the kingdoms of Super Mario Odyssey make smart use of Mario’s many transformations – such as using a Lakitu to fish or a Hammer Bros. to break through walls. Consequently, given that sort of gameplay cannot be found anywhere else in the Super Mario saga, the transformations and their related moons are responsible for numerous of the game’s finest and most remarkable moments. Sadly, it feels a few of them are underused: for instance, the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex only shows up twice to break a few rocky blocks; at the same time, Piranha Plants (of the fire and poison varieties) have no practical use whatsoever; and Chargin’ Chucks, which may as well be the most fun transformation to control, just appear towards the end of the game in very small sections.
Through a more positive perspective, though, that weakness can actually be seen as a major strength. In most games out there, powerful features like some of the transformations found in Super Mario Odyssey would have been used until they succumbed to repetition: Chargin’ Chuck and T. Rex segments would appear constantly until they stopped being fun. Here, though, Nintendo has so many absurd and smart ideas that they are constantly hopping between them, abandoning the transformations (with a few exceptions) before they overstay their welcome; therefore leaving players craving for more instead of making them wish the game would move on to different grounds.
One aspect of Super Mario Odyssey that could have been unquestionably given a little more attention to, though, is found in the costumes. All kingdoms have thematically corresponding clothes that can be bought in the local shop with regional coins; as such, Mario can purchase an aviator costume in the Lost Kingdom and acquire caveman gear in the Cascade Kingdom. Wearing some of these costumes lets Mario walk into locked rooms where moons lie in wait. Sadly, all that it takes to get those moons is precisely that: entering the room. Like the transformations, these kingdom-related costumes could have given Mario a distinct ability to be used in specific challenges. Instead, like the dozens of extra clothes that can be bought with regular coins, they end up being mere – yet amusing – aesthetic changes.
The ease with which those costume-related moons can be acquired actually reflects a small issue that plagues some of Super Mario Odyssey’s main item. It is somewhat mind-boggling to think levels that are slightly bigger than those of Super Mario 64, which housed seven stars each, have up to ten times as many treasures. And while that abundance is linked to the stunning and unprecedented amount of secrets the kingdoms hold and the fact that every corner hides something to be discovered, it also causes some of the moons not to feel like achievements. Some of them are just lying around in plain sight waiting to be found, being just one ground pound or one jump away from being unearthed, or are related to recurring goals that are fun, but too simple (like playing Toad the song he wants to listen to based on a vague description, capturing rabbits that are running around the place, and a few others).
However, given Super Mario Odyssey carries an unbelievable amount of 836 moons scattered around seventeen kingdoms, complaining about how a tiny percentage of them are not demanding enough qualifies as major and empty nitpicking. Trying to collect as many of them as possible – or all of them – is a goal that will lure most players, because Super Mario Odyssey is a game that deserves to be explored to its total extent due to the pleasant surprises it contains and the constant feeling (which materializes) that there are smart gameplay ideas in every corner. Smartly, Nintendo gives gamers the tools to find all of them without the aid of a guide, via a Toad and a parrot that are present in all kingdoms: the former will mark the location of moons on the map for a small fee, while the latter will utter the name of a moon that has yet to be found (a tip that is occasionally quite helpful due to the descriptive nature of the names). As a consequence, even less experienced players or those who do not feel like combing through levels repeatedly will have access to helping hands that will guide them in their journeys towards full completion.
Following in the footsteps of most 3-D Mario games, Super Mario Odyssey offers quite a bit to do after Princess Peach is rescued, and those who want to attain the coveted 100% will have quite a bunch of engaging tasks and a whole lot of challenge to contend with. The engaging tasks come from how, following the final battle, all kingdoms go through minor changes – including the appearance of dozens of new moons – making revisits a delightful must that will yield even more surprises. Meanwhile, the challenge stems from three particularly tough kingdoms that are unlocked after Bowser is defeated. Although the level of difficulty found on the main quest is not particularly high, these kingdoms and the unlocked moons up the stakes considerably, and are bound to stump even the most experienced Super Mario players.
It is not just in size, ideas, and content that Super Mario Odyssey pushes the boundaries of Nintendo’s most popular franchise and of platformers as a whole. Visually, both in its cutscenes and in-game visuals, the game excels: its colors are vivid, its animations are fluid, and its artistic prowess is blatant. Save for a generally visually mundane Snow Kingdom, the game tackles scenarios that have been a part of the Mario franchise since its early days (such as deserts, lakes, beaches, islands, volcanoes, forests, and castles) with new artistic twists that make them feel like entirely new settings; additionally, a couple of unusually realistic portions – like the huge human-filled city of the Metro Kingdom – are daring thematic leaps that besides adding new flavors to the franchise also work wonders by bringing fresh ideas to the table.
The same can be said about the game’s sound department. Super Mario Odyssey never quite reaches the full sweeping orchestral grandeur of the Super Mario Galaxy titles, as such an approach to the soundtrack would not fit the game; and it is also arguable that most of its original songs are not as great as those composed for that duology. However, its songs serve their purpose quite well, and the game dares to bring a few tracks with vocals into the fray to expand the franchise’s musical palette. While in most cartoonish games the singing comes off as cheesy or cringe-worthy, Nintendo makes it work quite well for Super Mario Odyssey, which is extremely commendable.
Given both games have shared the same release year and are major entries in two of gaming’s biggest franchises, it is tempting to compare Super Mario Odyssey to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Both are similar in the sense they easily rank among the best games ever produced and, as of their release, they are the biggest and most complete installments in their respective sagas. The main difference lies in how while Breath of the Wild took The Legend of Zelda to unforeseen new grounds setting new standards of quality along the way for the franchise and open-world games as a whole, Odyssey greatly refreshes Super Mario not by moving forward, but by looking fifteen years into the past, rescuing a gameplay style many thought to be dead, revitalizing it, and taking it to a new level.
Thanks to the impressive quantity of items to acquire in each kingdom (the dozens of moons and regional coins), Super Mario Odyssey often feels like a collectathon, but one that merges the exploration aspect that reigned over Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine with the linear goodness found in the most recent 3-D outings of the plumber. The meticulous design of its kingdoms, the cleverness of the capture mechanic and the doors of gameplay possibility that are blasted open due to it, and the fact secrets and new objectives are uncovered with every passing minute make Super Mario Odyssey an utter joy to play through, whether it is to those who will just clear its fifteen-hour adventure or to the daring gamers that will sink more than fifty hours into the experience to seek full completion. Super Mario Odyssey’s ridiculous abundance of ideas more than justify the spectacular size of the quest Nintendo has put together. Mario’s fifteen-year absence from open-ended platforming has clearly done wonders for Nintendo’s creative juices in that particular subgenre; Super Mario Odyssey feels like the simultaneous coming to life of all smart ideas that accumulated during that period.